Capturing The Energy of the Lower East Side

Imagine a time and a place where children were encouraged to play together in the streets. This is a time of no air conditioning, no internet, and no cell phones. The pulse, energy and social lives of city dwellers was radically different than it is today. The photograph “Children with a Broken Mirror, N.Y.C.” is a candid look, taken in 1942 of this kind of world. The spirit, energy and ‘matter-of-factness’ of children exploring their streets and creatively playing in a typical lower East side neighborhood was captured by the memorable photographer Helen Levitt.

Street Photography as an Art Form 

Helen Levitt was born in Brooklyn in 1913 and emerged with a small group of photographers that pioneered street photography. Her pictures were about small moments, unknown people, unremarkable street and unspectacular occurrences. Sandra Phillips, when she was the senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art summarized Levitt’s contribution to photography:

“Helen was one of the first American photographers to identify street photography as potentially an art form. She wasn’t a photojournalist, she was more like a poet.”

She never worked with a social or documentary agenda but developed an extraordinary sensitivity to capture the humanity of a moment.

A Keen Eye

She started her photographic career while in high school by working in a darkroom of a portrait photograph. Her idols, and mentors were Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She was friendly with Bresson when he lived in the U.S. in the 1930’s and he would impromptu coach her in picture taking. For a brief period of time she would share a darkroom with Walker Evans and they travelled through the streets and subways of the city together. She developed a keen eye and learned to wait for special moments – that would be telling, and not sentimental. She had a way of disarming people and was comfortable spending her days as a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ in the streets of some of New York’s most modest neighborhoods. She bought a second hand Leica camera (and gave up her medium format camera) – so that she could work more freely and less obtrusively. She had a sincere and unpretentious attitude which was aptly captured in her pictures.

Her talents were noticed early on. In 1939 her work was shown at MOMA in New York. There were many more museum exhibitions that followed, monographs published, and gallery exhibitions until her death in 2009 at 95. She also was one of only 2 women who received 2 Guggenheim Foundation rewards (the first in 1959 and second in 1960).

Helen Levittt, Children with Broken Mirror, New York
Helen Levittt, Children with Broken Mirror, New York, c. 1940, Silver Gelatin Photograph

The Broken Mirror

Levitt was guarded about her personal life and gave few interviews. She never thought of herself as a super star and worked in film as well. She respected the privacy of the individuals she photographed. Looking at her pictures from the 40s and the 50s one is struck by how fresh and unforced they remain. They are a dose of reality where the actions seemed divorced from their consequences and struggles in life.

In “The Broken Mirror” the children are so engrossed in their own activities and the bystanders so preoccupied with their own interactions that they hardly notice Helen Levitt. She wanted her pictures to have their own voices and said little about them. Her delight was to capture unstructured play.

On a formal level, her photographs are often composed with a dynamic that breaks through the flat 2-dimensional composition and have asymmetrical geometries (i.e., in this picture, the line of the sidewalk, and multiple picture planes the doorways, windows, and the empty mirror that frames the boy on the bicycle are an example of layering a picture). These qualities are consistent with many of Levitt’s pictures from the late 30s through the 50s. There are often multiple dramas and activities happening within the frame – and there is an elliptical compression that often shows only parts of the subjects. This gives many of her pictures a kind of latent energy – in which it is evident that someone is moving in or out of the space of the camera field. What is here for a split second is often fleeting. The spontaneous is often more telling and better source material than the carefully staged or curated events.

Photographing Life Itself

“The New York School” and the term, “street photography” refers loosely to a group of photographers who in their pictures tried to find an equivalent of life itself as it was being lived and preserved in time. Handheld cameras, the ability to work rapidly, the absence of flash, the shunning of asking anyone to perform for the camera, and the endorsements of urban streets as a fertile environment for picture taking are characteristics of the best of these proponents. The quiet, but remarkable, pictures of Helen Levitt are emblematic in their adherence to the above conditions. She spoke eloquently and without prejudice about a formative time in American history. Levitt understood the social fabric that blended nationalities, cultures, ages, and income diversities into one complex society and her photography allows us to relive this and perhaps think about how life is so different now.