Why I love Helen Levitt

Ok, well not that way, but I really do like her a lot.

These two pictures have been rattling around in my mind for a while, and I finally put them together in a conscious comparison. While Cartier-Bresson produced many stunning photographs, there is something very attractive in Levitt’s work that seems rare even among the most highly regarded photo-artists.

What I see in one image is a boy, and I get a sense of the pride he is obviously feeling, apparently for bringing home the magnums of wine to his family. The look he is getting from the girl behind him supports the impression of this being a decisive moment—due to the necessary coincidence for both to happen at the same time.

There is some movement, the untidiness of a random elbow in frame and the corner of the building askew. This all works, but there also seems to be a statement by the man behind the camera. No, I  can’t pinpoint it, and possibly it is a trace of all the more stringently composed photos that I have seen by the same photographer. Maybe it is only that the boy is central and the rest are not in focus. I feel like the artist is drawing my attention to the obvious. I have to search a bit for the less obvious deeper in the field of view.

When I look at the other picture, I see a reasonably obvious focus of attention, but my eyes wander. I see the bottles, I see her face, but can’t quite place the emotion on it. Then the girl behind her and the possibly bitter stare draws me in further. Now I see some theatre going on in the street. A little jealousy in the other, maybe also a little smugness or sarcasm in the first. It is not totally obvious whether one is favored over the other.

Coming in from just out of frame there is movement that is at an abrupt halt, and my attention goes between the milk carrier’s step forward and the braking foot just beyond the pregnant girl’s foot. It doesn’t end there, and I notice what may be a moving truck in the background, a street that seems to have too few cars, a long row of low rent buildings, and  finally, in the foreground, another unknown person with just an elbow in frame.

When I juxtapose these pictures, they have so many similar elements that I start to wonder if Levitt’s could somehow have planned to recreate the earlier photographer’s well-known shot. I can’t believe it because there is too much going on and it is too natural. So, I am left with the feeling that she caught a moment that was clearly superior to the other. She is behind the camera, but she has a light touch, leaving the image to its own devices. Composed, or at least chosen by an artist with great technique, to some extent as it must have been, but unconstrained and natural, as if I am viewing it from the street myself.

Her picture raises questions in my mind about the scene and the people and maybe even the time and society, which all in all seems more meaningful than his picture and its presentation of a seemingly simpler subject with an answer that begs for a question.

This all leads me to the conclusion that a meaningful picture should ask questions and leave the answers to its viewers.


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