On the first floor of the Cartier-Bresson Foundation, a Helen Levitt photograph from 1945 is placed alone. Set apart from the main exhibition space, it’s similar in design to Cartier-Bresson’s own picture of a young wine-carrier, who would dance through the frame like the cat with the cream in rue Mouffetard nearly a decade later. Levitt’s teenage girl laden with milk is equally joyful, despite her errand, yet in scraps of shoes she hurries through a somewhat tenser world. Behind her and heavily pregnant, a slightly older girl stands watchful. The encounter occurs in the sharp sun that snaps New York streets in half – cold and warm, bleach and ink, neighbourly and remote… a light that cuts across the lives that Levitt has been drawn to photograph for nearly 70 years.
Levitt’s photography has always returned to consistent themes: mothers, watchful and wary of what passes their cluttered tenement steps; children, negotiating the worn edges of upper Manhattan; pictures of emotions, among people whose lives turn publicly upon the platform of the street. The work gathered for this showing omitted some of the more familiar pictures and instead usefully emphasised two distinct phases in the photographer’s career. Pictures from the 1940s dominated the first room while a second room dwelt on later and less celebrated colour work that serves to position Levitt among the most progressive colour street photography of the 1960s and ’70s.
Strong photography can sometimes reveal its depth slowly. Some of these photographs seem to speak of the future while they wrap themselves in a busy moment. In 1942, a boy mischievously holds up a girl’s skirt as she, in turn, pushes another girl against a smog-darkened New York wall. Her legs are supple and too slight for the rag knickers that, rudely revealed, hang from her under-nourished body. For all her agility and assertion, the exposed child against the City is disquieting.
In the second room, Levitt’s later work is built with colour and often moves away from the sanctuary of childhood. The work is gentle and appreciative, suggesting something of the patience and immersion this kind of photography will always need and reward.
My favourite Levitt didn’t make the cut. It shows the flicker of a return to youth as an old man steadies and smiles after being swirled into a street dance by children ring-a-rosy-ing across a sidewalk. In compensation, there was a screening of In the Street, the piano-driven short film collaboration between Levitt, James Agee and Janice Loeb and, on leaving, the screams and joyful playing in the adjacent schoolyard made this showing of an important and rightly celebrated photographer complete.