Helen Levitt, A Memorial Tribute @Laurence Miller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 80 photographs (both black and white and color) and 1 video, hung in the entry, and two gallery spaces. Amidst a handful of vintage prints, there are three enlarged images of graffiti (48×38), from 1939 and printed in 2000, and a poster from an earlier exhibit in the entry area. The 1944 silent black and white video In the Street, made by Levitt, James Loeb, and James Agee, runs in a continuous loop in this area as well.

Most of the vintage black and white prints are from the period of 1939 to 1942, though there are a few prints from the mid 1980s as well. These prints are generally 11×14 or 8×10 (or reverse), and are variously framed and matted, primarily shown in the main gallery space, with a few hung in the entry. The 5 color dye transfers are 18×22, and were made between 1971 and 1980, and are intermingled with the black and white work.

The 30 black and white contact prints in the “First Proofs” area are of varying sizes, and were made circa 1940; they are framed in brown wood and matted, and displayed against bright yellow walls in a separate room. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: When New York street photographer Helen Levitt passed away at the age of 95 earlier this March, I was surprised by the number of tributes and obituaries written by working photographers that were posted into the blogosphere. Given both the sheer number and the sincerity of these eulogies, Levitt’s work has clearly made an impression on the generation of photographers active today, especially those based in New York.

This “memorial” exhibit does a fine job of covering the high points of Levitt’s long career, as well as digging deeper into her process as an artist. Of course, the show is anchored by a variety of vintage prints of Levitt’s signature subjects: children and old folks, playing in the streets and watching from stoops and staircases. In some ways, these images have become a reminder of authentic New York life, of running and laughing and blowing bubbles, of bringing a chair right out onto the sidewalk and sitting down to watch the show and visit with neighbors. The joy she found in the streets was genuine, without a trace of mocking, even when the scenes have their own warmth and irony.

When you visit the show, be sure to take a few minutes to sit down and watch the silent movie In the Streets. It is full of faces, grubby kids eating, dogs and cats, and Levitt’s own poetry of everyday life, in full motion. There are two scenes worth looking out for: one where kids push a barrel over an open fire hydrant, creating a geyser of water spewing high into the sky, and another where a woman is seen from behind, walking along carrying a mop and swinging her hips in time. Both are classic Levitt.

The smaller prints entitled “First Proofs” are also worth a longer look, since they provide a glimpse into Levitt’s process of refining her compositions and editing her images. The typical Levitt subject matter can be found in these works (people, store windows, etc.), but they are seen in variations and alternate views, as she experimented to capture just the right interaction of the figures.

What I like about this show is that it strikes a good balance between greatest hits and lesser known images, providing a sampler of a wide variety of her work, while at the same time offering new angles for understanding her artistic approach. It’s a show worth catching before it closes.

Collector’s POV: Many of the images in this show are courtesy of the estate, and as such, are not for sale. In general, the vintage works that are available are priced between $7500 and $15000, with a few of the more famous outliers at $25000, $60000, and $98000 respectively. The color dye transfers from the 1970s are priced at $15000, and the larger modern prints are $7500 each. The “First Proof” contact prints are priced between $2500 and $15000.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

Transit Hub:
  • Short reviews of this show: NY Times (here), Wall Street Journal (here)
  • Slide Show, review by DLK COLLECTION (here)
Through June 26th

20 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
UPDATE: There is also a small tribute now on vew at the Met in the second floor hallway (which you walk past on the way to the Photography galleries). Though not exactly a full exhibit, it does contain 13 well selected vintage images by Levitt.

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