By Mike Johnston
[Originally published in the American Camera & Darkroom magazine, in 1992.]
Recently I’ve been fielding objections from Camera & Darkroom subscribers who feel that the whole enterprise of criticism is despicable and disreputable and—what’s worse, in my view—not helpful. Indeed, it seems that the value-judgment portion and function of criticism gets magnified sometimes at the expense of criticism's other features, so that the critic assumes either the position of advocating in favor of the work or of dealing with it negatively. The former can be like foisting off an unwanted opinion on others, and the latter, like other forms of insult, falls somewhere on a spectrum between the entertaining and the offensive.
So, apart from first reporting the widely held view that Helen Levitt is among the greatest of this nation’s living photographers, it might be useful to try to approach her work in value-neutral terms. This seems appropriate for several reasons. First, Levitt herself, as Sandra S. Phillips says in her essay from the exhibition catalogue, "has never considered written criticism as central to the understanding of her work." Second, Levitt’s reputation does not stand to gain or suffer from anything I might say about her work. (I had thought this wouldn't need to be said, but, as many readers evidently felt it necessary to defend Paul Strand's reputation from me, I guess I should say it). Third—and this is much more pertinent—critics are, in large part, people who love the arts they write about, and the simple incitement of enthusiasm (or of strong passions either way) stands high among their priorities. This is certainly true in my case. I love looking at photographs, thinking about them, and letting them provoke feelings. The experience of seeing certain photographs is, above all, a welcome treat—akin to a Saturday morning, a good meal, or hearing great music, or the gratification of any other appetite, aesthetic or otherwise. Even in a life that has lately been rich with the experience of photographs, I found the Levitt show an especial pleasure. Finally, Levitt's work is enigmatic: modest in subject yet artistically ambitious, evanescent and rare at the same time it is quotidian, and graceful as well as offhand.
I say all this only to incite you to go see the pictures for yourself if you can; the experience is well worth the effort. The show from which this small portfolio was extracted is currently traveling. By the time you read this, it will already have been to San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Detroit; and in the near future it will be at the Art Institute of Chicago (February 4–May 2, 1993); the Presentation House Gallery, Vancouver, B.C. (May 31–July 29, 1993); the Seattle Art Museum (August 20–October 13, 1993); the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City (October 31–December 12, 1993); and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (January 6–March 27, 1994).
If you’re unable to see the show, the book is recommendable as a retrospective of Levitt’s work, although the color reproductions, as I’ll discuss later on, don’t do justice to the originals.
• • •
Helen Levitt, who is now elderly and lives in Greenwich Village, has been making pictures on the streets of New York City for most of the middle part of this century, beginning in the late '30s and continuing until now. Despite this, her output has been as economical as her shooting style, which is sparing and evidently has a Zen-like concentration; so the exhibition, despite being remarkably solid, also gives a sense of being complete.
Most of her best-known pictures are black-and-white, and concern the gesture of activity, and have children in them. About Levitt's style, three points come to mind. One, it is not stylish; like a calligraphic brushstroke, it appears to have merely happened, and to be merely "there." Second, it manages to totally efface the photographer—she is simply not there. Her presence in the scene is seldom felt. (Phillips reports that she used a "right angle viewfinder," which is two blocks down and one block over from the correct term, but serves.) Third, it is respectful. There is little irony in these pictures and no sarcasm or nihilism. She is no stranger to the neighborhoods she photographs, and I don’t think it's going overboard to guess that she has real affection for the places and the people in her pictures. Her stance is humane, her pictures humanistic.
Almost every one of her pictures has to do with action or gesture. "Dancelike" is an adjective that is often used to describe them. In a few, for instance her balletic basketball players, this is obvious; in most, she indicates a sense of this dancelike interplay by presenting us with what appears to be a choreographed moment. This moment, of course, is snatched in full flight, and it is in the extreme and consistent incisiveness of these instants that her genius truly lies; some of her pictures might be thought of as the apotheosis of the grab shot. Yet in no way are Levitt's pictures records. They are more like poetry—some cross between the Haiku that a Taoist hermit might have scrawled on a rock and the raucous brevity of street graffiti (which, incidentally, fascinated her early on in her career). (Just as a point of interest, some of the graffiti pictures were made, literally, with Walker Evans's camera.)
• • •
What adds a whole new dimension to Levitt’s artistry are her color pictures. If Levitt were like most photographers, she might just as well have been content to rest on the laurels of her early body of work, adding on to it as opportunity and circumstance permitted. But not only did she venture into color, she had to do so twice: virtually her entire first decade’s output of color pictures, in the form of irreplaceable slides, were stolen from her and have never been recovered. Two pictures left over from this earlier decade are present in the show, but for the most part that work is lost. Shortly before his death, the pianist Dinu Lipatti recorded the Waldstein sonata. The tape was later erased by a record company employee. The value of any lost work can only be surmised; but the loss of Levitt's early color work, like Lipatti's Waldstein, is almost certainly a tragedy. How much of a tragedy, we will, sadly, never know.
The color work that does exist is certainly some compensation. It is busier and closer-in than her earlier work—but then the city, too, has gotten busier and more hectic. Despite the fact that her pictures are not "about color"—any one of them would work in black and white, and I mean that as a compliment—the color adds a vibrancy and an immediacy to the scenes that suits the subjects.
Unfortunately, the reproduction in the book doesn't really do justice to the originals. Some processes just seem to fit certain pictures perfectly. Just as Paul Outerbridge’s bizarre obsessions were perfectly suited to the bright but somehow sickening colors of the early carbro process (those awful skin tones are just so perfectly excessive), so Helen Levitt's color work seems ideally suited to the dye transfer process. The colors are bright without being garish, with just a whisper of unreality. In the picture of the man watching TV in the alley, for instance, the elbow of the railing is luminous with sunlight and jarring in the original; in the reproduction it just looks fuzzy and washed out. If you can, and if you appreciate dye transfers, see the originals.
The biggest mistake one might make with any of this work, however, would be to judge it with a set of knee-jerk technical standards in mind. None of these pictures are about the aggrandizing of technique; at the same time, the technique is all it needs to be.
This is work that you need to be open to. I began by making a few points about the act of criticism, and one more point along those lines needs to be stated: namely, that some art can be talked about more than it deserves to be, and some art doesn’t need to be talked about much at all. To talk too much about the art of Helen Levitt is like pulling a plant up by its roots to see how it manages to live; this is work to enjoy. Certain commentators have said that one function of photography has been to supplant memory. Levitt's color pictures seem to gainsay this proposition: to me, each of them seems like the sort of glimpse you might find yourself startled by, arrested by, and that you might try to hold on to in memory. Only two or three seem like any picture I've ever seen before. Most are not generic. Each one has character, each one is individual like a person. In each there is warmth, and mystery, and a little distance, and no small measure of charm.
I’ve been racking my brain for the right way to illustrate the feelings that Helen Levitt's color pictures give me—I'll try this. Sometimes, walking the streets of a city, you might hear the strains of distant music; you might recognize the song. If your mood was cloudy with fretfulness or anxiety or the hurry to get your errands done, the snippet of song, if you recognize it, can transform your mood—transport you, one might say, or take you out of yourself.
Not long ago, I was wandering the streets photographing, and got lost. I hadn't had much luck and was feeling cross. Walking down a back street lined with apartment buildings, I suddenly heard, from deep within the building I was passing, an opera singer practicing. The notes were just scales, but they had a wistful quality. The singing immediately reminded me of a former friend who was an opera singer, a young woman named Sarah Hoover with whom I'd lost touch. Then, as I stood and listened, I gradually became aware that it was Sarah; although I had had no inkling where I was—I had just been wandering—I realized gradually that I was on the street where she lived. As I looked around I began to recognize everything around me; suddenly everything became familiar. I was right around the corner from a street I knew well. I was struck by the most inexpressible mixture of happy memory and homesickness and wistfulness, and a sudden burgeoning awareness of the joy and sorrow of everyday life. I stood and listened to Sarah practice for a while, then I walked on. And as I walked away the singing faded. But the mood stuck.
I think that's very much like the feeling I get from Helen Levitt’s color pictures. Beyond that, perhaps I needn’t say.
• • •
Copyright 1992, 2009 by Michael C. Johnston, all rights reserved
Dear Mike Johnston—
My brother, in Utah, happened to see your review in C&D and sent me a copy.
Now that I finally got the address of the magazine, I’m writing to tell you that your piece is among the three best that have ever been written about my work (#1 being Agee’s).
I treasure it as it made me feel happy.
Amanda at Fraenkel Gallery is sending me copies.
Also—I think you are a very good writer. Thank you.
[signed] Helen Levitt
[postcard from Helen Levitt, 8/15/93]