Helen Levitt, Five Decades @Laurence Miller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 64 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the two main gallery spaces and the entry area. 56 of the works are gelatin silver prints, generally made between 1937 and 1945 (the prints are variously vintage, early, and later). Physical sizes range from roughly 3×2 to 43×28 inches (or reverse) and no edition information was provided on the checklist. The other 8 works are dye transfer prints made between 1959 and 1972 (and printed later). Physical sizes of these works range from roughly 9×13 to 11×16 inches, and again no edition information was made available. The show also includes 1 film from 1944 (by Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee), 14 minutes, shown on a video monitor. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: A persistent challenge for dealers that represent vintage photographers is how to organize shows that aren’t simply a recombination of the same images we have seen and appreciated many times before. In building, or continuing to support and burnish, the reputation of an artist, the straightforward selling of the greatest hits has to be balanced with dedicated education about lesser known projects and bodies of work, the combination both reinforcing the artist’s continued relevance and broadening the narrative of how it all fits together. Sometimes a solution presents itself via a deep dive into the storage boxes, where forgotten images are unearthed and generate an idea for a show. In this case, a sampler-style review of imagery from across Helen Levitt’s long photographic career was jump started by the rediscovery of a small selection of the artist’s prints owned by the family of James Agee.

Levitt and Agee were introduced in 1938 by Walker Evans and became enduring friends. Agee was best known as an essayist and critic (and later as a screenwriter for the 1950s films The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter, and as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist for his posthumously published A Death in the Family), his 1941 collaboration with Evans Let Us Now Praise Famous Men giving voice to the plight of sharecroppers of Alabama. Agee went on to write the introduction to Levitt’s 1946 photobook A Way of Seeing, and many of the portraits Levitt made of Agee found in this show were made in this early 1940s time period. Aside from one outdoor portrait of Agee with poet Delmore Schwartz, Levitt largely posed Agee in his apartment, capturing him in reserved and relaxed moods – in doorways, on the fire escape, sitting on the bed, or with his (third) wife Mia. The best of these photographs are intimate but direct, the intensity of his gaze softened by the quietness of Levitt’s approach.

Levitt also traveled to Mexico City in 1941 with Agee’s (second) wife Alma, and the images Levitt made there provide an intriguing contrast to her better known images of life on New York city streets. At the simplest level, the subject matter is the same – boys and girls playing improvised games in the street, people sitting in doorways and lounging on sidewalks, and the everyday rhythms of urban movement. But in Mexico, Levitt’s compositions are sparser and more distant, making the images feel emptier and more melancholy. Muddy roadways play host to furtive hide and seek, the white shirts and black pants of the boys providing contrasts to match the painted walls nearby, while a young girl and a dog (not necessarily a pair) wander through a water-eroded plaza, the dirt carved into a swirl of rocky terrain. A sidewalk siesta image combines several groups of figures (including one body sleeping in the gutter), each independent but gathered by Levitt into a single frame. As a small group, the pictures are evidence that her sensitive eye translated quite effectively to foreign surroundings.

The Agee collection also includes a few vintage prints of classic Levitt street scenes from New York, and the gallery has brought together some other vintage/early rarities to fill out a larger review of some of her best-known work. Starting with the boy on the bicycle and broken mirror, the sequence moves through groups of girls and boys, and then on to boys fighting over a doorway, and next to boys climbing urban trees. It then progresses to kids on stoops and in windows, babies, pairs of kids (with dolls and without), and communion outfits. The rest of the show is filled out with Levitt’s enlarged images of graffiti, and a selection of her color work from the early 1970s.

For those that want to go into the weeds of subtle differences in prints, the show offers a chance to see three separate versions of Levitt’s famous NYC (three kids with masks) from 1939 – one vintage print from the Agee collection, a second vintage print (somewhat larger), and one later print (from 2005, and larger still). The first two are much warmer and more sepia toned than the later print (which is more crisply silver), and the print from the Agee collection is noticeably darker and murkier. Seen together (although they are not hung near each other in the show), the evolution in size and tonality is obvious, Levitt’s approach to interpreting the negative changing over time.

In the end, the Levitt works from the Agee family tell a layered story of the connection between the two artists. They show us the shared personal experiences of the portraiture exchanges and the trip to Mexico City, and then go further, the other Levitt images held by the family seeming to have particularly appealed to Agee’s sense of the lyricism and tenderness Levitt found in the streets. Agee’s words about Levitt’s photographs are reverently insightful (a few image-specific snippets are smartly reproduced on the checklist), and the mutual understanding found in their partnership gives these prints from the Agee family an added layer of familiarity and closeness.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $1500 to $75000. Levitt’s prints are routinely available in the secondary markets (both vintage and later prints, in both black and white and in color). Recent prices have ranged between roughly $1000 and $100000.

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