NY Streets: Helen Levitt

category: > Features, > Photography, < NYC Streets

written by: Jaap Proost

NEW YORK street photography is almost a genre of itself. The mix of rich and poor, black and white and locals and visitors that walk the streets of NYC gave some of the biggest names in photography inspiration to roam the city. Like Helen Levitt.


Helen Levitt (1913-2009) loved the life in the street. She especially kept an eye open for people that were hanging around, not traveling from A to B. That is why she worked in poor, working class neighborhoods, where people saw the steps before their houses as an extension of their living rooms. Levitt found those places ‘more active’ than the big avenues.

Levitt is considered a photographer’s photographer, little known by the public, but appreciated by fellow photographers. In the late thirties and early forties Levitt visited neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem with her camera. That makes her one of the pioneers of street photography. Her most famous work of this period are the photographs of children playing outside. The black and white pictures got her a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation that allowed her to make street pictures in 1959 and 1960. This time she captured the street life in color. In that she was a pioneer too. Unfortunately, in 1970 a cat burglar stole most of these color negatives.


So she hit the streets again. Times change and so did the street life. Levitt noticed that with the arrival of television sets and air conditioners people stayed more indoors. But, as you can see on the images below, there was still a lot to be photographed. The pictures are made between 1971 and the early nineties and are published in this book.


Levitt liked to document the street, but did not want to place the pictures in a bigger perspective. In a broadcast from the National Public Radio, an interviewer asked her about a particular photo. ‘Q: What’s going on there, do you think? What did you capture in that picture?’ A: ‘Just what you see.’ See more of her early work here.



Click on the double squares in the lower right corner to see popout pictures

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