To subscribe to Afterall journal, starting with this issue, please click here.
Alternatively, if you wish to purchase this article individually, you may do so via the University of Chicago’s website.
Helen Levitt's photographs describe the visual world. The mystery takes place in the photograph, not in the caption. Levitt's photographs depict a small world as narrow as a sidewalk. They sell nothing more than the pleasure in a glance. As simple and direct as cartoons, profound in their adherence to reality and to the imagination, they give us a world continually astonished by the beauty of the illogical.
As a photographer, Levitt has slowly and carefully perfected being invisible. She has spent her artistic life learning how to do what you don't know she is doing.
Photo #1: Gypsy, N.Y., circa 1945
This girl is of a social class and economic level that would provide a fine meal for an ideologically committed, socially conscious photographer. Levitt, who began working at a time when art, especially photography, was seen as a vehicle for social change, never had the do-gooder's vested interest in the misery of others.
Photographs are simple. A sad face in a photograph means it is a sad photograph. The only problem is the girl doesn't look worried or unhappy. Maybe she is just too wall-eyed to give the big, sorrowful, bovine look loved by social reformers, but I don't think she has it in her. She doesn't approach the level of fretting seen in the WPA photographs of anxious people holding their worried brows, looking wistfully to the photographer's left. Our subject is not pathetic. She doesn't ask for cheap sympathy. She reminds me of the Renoir movie, Boudu Sauvé des Eaux, where the derelict of the title is a person who does not identity himself as a bum. His momentary economic situation not withstanding,