NARRATOR: Helen Levitt was a street photographer who lived and worked in New York. Her subjects were often children, frequently residents of East Harlem. Levitt used an attachment on her camera that allowed her to look one way and take the picture the other, so the people in Levitt’s photographs often appear to be unaware of her presence. As a result her images have an incredibly spontaneous feeling—they capture life as it happens, without interpretation.
The generation of documentary photographers that preceded Levitt—those that worked through the Great Depression—often intended their photographs to have a social function. They would glorify farm workers, monumentalize factories. Levitt saw the world with more of a Surrealist’s eye. She was first drawn to photography by graffiti and children’s chalk drawings—transitory, untutored images. But she soon began focusing on children—a favorite Surrealist subject, since children were presumably freer than adults, more natural and less corrupted by civilization. James Agee once described the particular kind of innocence that appears in her photograph:
“The overall preoccupation in the photographs is, it seems to me, with innocence not as the word has come to be misunderstood and debased, but in its full, original wildness, fierceness, and instinct for grace and form.”