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Monday, 12 May 2008


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great pics you got here! keep it up!

A great recommendation Geoff,

While I don't own it I have a copy of her book Slide Show. I'm not usually impressed by big books and in fact kinda hate them but this layout gives so much breathing room to enjoy these photos it is brilliant.

I was first introduced to Helen Levitt around 1978 or 9 by my high school art teacher. My teacher made a point of describing the photos as "participating in but invisible to" the scene. It's really hard to do and she does it amazingly well.

Helen is the real deal when it comes to Street Photography.

The only thing that has kept "Crosstown" out of my reach is my partner's insistence that I can't sell a kidney. I can manage this one without losing an organ.

You'€™re so right about trying to find good photography books in mainstream stores; it's as bad in the UK. I can'€™t think of the last time that I bought a book from Boarders or Waterston's.

Thanks for the review.


I saw a retrospective of her work at the Henri Cartier Bresson Foundation in Paris last October and it was incredible -- surreal and strange and disturbing with odd moments of beauty.

Geoff, in this piece I think you said, almost in passing, just about the most important thing that's yet been said on TOP (and I find a lot of important and interesting things here). I mean your thought: "about photographs, rather than photography." Some of us (me too I'm afraid) tend to spend (I think) entirely too much time and energy thinking about photography, time and energy that we could be spending on something more productive, like cleaning out the garage or making photographs.

I'd like to take your thought a step further, though, and say "about the subject, rather than the photograph." That is, making photographs in which all one's knowledge of "photography," all one's skill as a photographer, and all one's artistry as an artist, are put so much in the service of the subject that the viewer only very gradually, if ever, comes to appreciate how much of all three -- knowledge, skill, artistry -- are involved in making all three invisible.

I wish I could achieve this kind of plain style in my own work (I'm still trying, though). I think Helen Levitt and a few others have brought it off an astonishing number of times, and, yes, I do envy as well as admire them . . . .

Lately I've found myself spending some time everyday looking at photographs on Flickr, and I do mean the babies, the birthdays, the cats, and so on -- the real snapshots by people who know nothing about photography (or so I imagine), have no apparent skills as photographers, and aren't in any way trying to be "artistic." As photographs they're mostly terrible, but I find in them a simple honesty and integrity, an unpretentious subordination to the subject, that I think I can learn from, and that I find missing in a lot of photography that in one way or another is "about photography."

Of course, a photographer's lack of knowledge, skill, and artistry can equally intrude on the viewer's experience of a photograph and get in the way of appreciating the subject itself. I guess with snapshots we've learned to ignore, almost not to see, those deficiencies, while with "serious" photographs we've learned to let them intrude as much as possible. As if, actually, what we mean by taking a photograph "seriously" is (in part) that we don't ignore, and possibly even look for, the photographer's inadequacies.

So here we are (or I am, anyway), caught between the rock and the hard place of an art that has as one of its potentials (of course there are others) the ability to be made invisible by the artist, if only she or he has the knowledge, the skill, the artistry -- and the will, oy! -- to do it.

For me anyway, being able to do that is as good as it gets. Helen Levitt (at least what she publishes -- who knows how much she discards, as if that matters, which it doesn't) seems to get there all the time.

Thanks for the heads up about the book.

Richard Howe

I was lucky enough many years ago to purchase one of her prints -- the pregant girl with the milk jugs.
Ms. Levitt, at age 90+, still lives in a 4th floor walkup!
In an interview she recently said that today it was no longer possible to make this kind of pictures. I believe that Eudora Welty has said the same thing.


The mainstream are indeed pretty hopeless. There are some good specialists: the best I've found are: in London, Claire de Rouen in Charing Cross Rd and the Photographers' Gallery bookshop in Great Newport St; in Edinburgh Beyond Words in Cockburn St.

I do not have the book, but I have been looking at her work on the web. Given the numerous recent reports of hyper sensitive responses to street photographers by law enforcement personnel and parents, I wonder if she could compile such a portfolio now.

I have the 'Slide Show' book published by Powerhouse & the colour reproductions are disappointing. This is compared to the same photos in a German Helen Levitt book, can't remember the publisher. The problem I have with many of the Slide Show colour photos is that the shadow areas are muddy & noisy. Having seen how they can be printed well I can only assume that this is a fault on the part of the publisher or pre-press house.

Helen Levitt's work is great & I'm interested in this new book but I'd have to be certain the reproductions were up to par. If it was from Steidl I would buy it no questions asked.

Alexander Vesey wrote: "I do not have the book, but I have been looking at her work on the web. Given the numerous recent reports of hyper sensitive responses to street photographers by law enforcement personnel and parents, I wonder if she could compile such a portfolio now."

That's an interesting question to ponder. If anybody could do it Helen could.

But, convulsive over-sensitivities aside, many such scenes no longer appear in city streets. Ms. Levitt, in her NPR interview, keenly noted that television and other indoor pastimes have since eliminated much of the street life that became her stock in trade. I would add that the wider availability of air conditioning also contributed to the disappearance of street life.

When I was a boy the streets in my neighborhood were still very alive with activity, especially in the warmer months. Today, however, all you tend to see is comings-and- goings-and-smokers, with a smattering of panhandlers on busy downtown streets. This perhaps helps to explain the relatively uninteresting nature of today's "street photography".

I am the proud owner of 'Here and There' and 'Slide Show'. Many nights, Ms. Levitt's photos have been the last things i see before i close my eyes. As a street shooter, i find her viewpoint engagingly feminine and inspiring to my own work. Her photos are puzzles, games, fun, wry, poignant and wholly rewarding viewing experiences. I showed her books to my mom who grew up in NYC and Jersey City, NJ and i thought she was going to cry. I could tell that this is really what it was like back then. I knew Helen had really accomplished her heart's desire, to communicate the reality of these neighborhoods.

To Ken Tenaka "I find most street photography vapid."..most photography is vapid. It takes a unique eye and a very sensitive brain and heart to lift it to a higher level then just being a skillfully rendered lookalike. How many landscapes look like travel brochures (and no, that is not a compliment)? How many portraits say nothing about the subject, how many macros look like seed catalogs? Just like Mitch Alland's man on the bench cliche, it's not the subject, it's the person pointing it out to us through their camera that lifts the everyday to the level of art.

You need an active street life if you are going to photograph it. Most cities in the US don't have it, but NYC does. In fact if you walk 2 blocks , you might be in a completely different world. For instance life at the corner of 57th street and 5th avenue looks like nowhere else. The only problem sometimes is not tripping over other photographers. One time on a day when the light was really good Bruce Gilden, Bill Cunningham, and I all showed up within 10 minutes of each other anticipating the convergence of really good light and rich foreign tourists.

Out in the neighborhoods people still hang out in the evening on the sidewalk, even in neighborhoods where the average home is over a million dollars.

I think that New Yorkers are generally a lot less paranoid than people in the rest of the country, and are more at ease in public.

On the other hand if you want to photograph county fairs, deer hunters, or truckstop life, you are kind of out of luck.

for the german readers: there was also a nice article about her in the last lfi 03/2008 (Leica Fotografie International) magazine.
i've also had a deep look to the photographs and was surprised that she never give names and titles to the photographs, what i like. So your phantasy is moving without a direction. That's natural.


I was actually in Beyond Words a couple of years ago. I remember how envious I was of the owner. A Beautiful book shop in a beautiful location.

For every person that buys Levitt's book and is touched by it. There will be countless others that use focus, sharpness and "pop" for the basis of a photographs worth. The only "pop" that I'm interested in is in seeing that bubble burst. Those values may have been learnt from a "How to" book, or on flicker and pbase. Many are missing out on a rich history and many miss the point as a result. Most of us will recall how members of flicker critiqued one of Bresson's photographs (Mike, did that compel you to to write your satire on net critiques?).

I don't buy books hoping that they will one day rise in value; The reason why I buy books of photographs by people like Levitt's is because they show me what can be done; what one person and one camera can do. Even though I may not be capable of it, its been shown to me what's possible. It gives cause for hope and courage.



I linked to Amazon the day this thread appeared on TOP, and when I left the house this morning the box was on my front porch. It probably came yesterday (UPS comes around suppertime in my development), but it could have been there a couple of days since I usually go out through the garage. I certainly can't complain about free 3-4 days service.
Anyhoo, looking forward to enjoying it.
Thanks for the heads-up, Mike.

helen levitt is in the pantheon of street photography along with atget, bresson, kertez, frank, etc.
i can't get enough of her work, i crave seeing her pictures.
long live helen levett!

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