Helen Levitt, Pairs and Apples @Laurence Miller

JTF (just the facts): A total of 35 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. The following works are included in the show, organized by photographic process, with dates and dimensions as background (Levitt did not generally edition her work):

  • 7 gelatin silver prints (“first prints”), roughly 3×4 or reverse, c1940, c1942
  • 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints, each roughly 2×3, c1940/later
  • 18 gelatin silver prints, roughly 5×4, 6×7, 6×9, 9×6, 9×7, 7×10, 10×7, 7×11, 8×11, 11×8, 8×12, 9×12, 12×9, 17×11, 18×12, c1939, c1939/pre 1960, c1939/later, c1940/later, c1942/later, c1945/later, c1974/later, c1983/later, 1985/later, 1980s/later
  • 5 dye transfer prints, roughly 9×14, 11×16, 1959/later, 1971/later, 1972/later
  • 2 chromogenic prints, roughly 11×16, 13×9, c1972/later
  • 2 gelatin silver prints, roughly 46×31, 42×32, c1939/printed in 2000, in editions of 7

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: With a wrecking ball scheduled to demolish the Midtown building that has long housed the Laurence Miller Gallery later this fall, a certain urgency has been infused into the quiet summer months for this longstanding photography dealer. And while the countless preparations needed to move across town and outfit a new home in Chelsea beckon enticingly, the gallery hasn’t stepped back from its ongoing exhibitions program. This easy going sampler show of the work of Helen Levitt is a fitting finale to the gallery’s run on 57th Street and well worth a visit before the movers arrive.

While countless photographers across multiple decades have made their artistic careers shooting photographs on the streets of New York city, few have found its human warmth with as much consistency as Levitt. Her pictures capture the exuberant essence of urban play, with children of all shapes and sizes turning the sidewalk, the front stoop, or the gutter into stages for improvised games. Real life dirt and grit never get in the way of the fun, and laughter, running, curiosity, and even wide-eyed wonder continually enliven her subjects. What sets Levitt apart from so many other street photographers is that even though her images are filled with quiet everyday humor, they are entirely devoid of irony, caricature, or implied criticism. Her pictures authentically celebrate the simplicities of city life, without ever using them as a platform to show off her own cleverness, and it is this broad generosity of spirit that makes her photographs so widely appreciated and durably beloved.

This survey show skims across the tops of the waves of Levitt’s long career, offering a parade of familiar favorites from across the decades interspersed with a handful of lesser known rarities. In many ways, it’s an abridged version of the broader retrospective put on by the gallery after the artist’s death in 2009, covering much of the same ground, albeit with a smaller number of pictures.

One of Levitt’s process quirks was that she apparently didn’t like contact sheets, instead preferring to make small individual prints of promising (and unpromising) negatives, which she then stored away in boxes until she made enlargements (which were expensive in those early years). These “first prints” as she called them offer an unusual opportunity to see Levitt’s photographic eye at work, particularly in the split second variants of images that would later become famous. Here we see the expressive boy and girl dancing in the street and the two boys up a tree, among other scenes of nuns on a pier and a toddler clad in white wandering away from its mother. There is an immediacy to these prints that changes when the images are made bigger, Levitt’s physical presence seemingly more tangible in these prints she made for herself.

With the historical background safely set, the show then moves on to the greatest hits in black and white, and indeed there are many, seen mostly in later prints. From the broken mirror and masked kids on the stairs to the floating bubbles and the smiling head in the baby carriage, Levitt again and again drew complex compositions out of the chaos of the streets. The boys in the box is yet another mysterious charmer, the disembodied feet all we can see inside the impromptu sidewalk fort. And a few of Levitt’s images of found graffiti were printed extra large in 2000, giving these overlooked chalked discoveries a jolt of additional scale.

The show also includes several of Levitt’s color images from the 1970s, reminding us of her impressive mastery of the transition to color photography. Even the few pictures on view here cement the incisiveness of her eye for color. In the image of three girls peering down on the street, she uses the blue window frame to interrupt the composition, with the green dress and red shoes providing supporting pops of interest. And in the nearby picture of the man holding up a box to a boy in a window, the painted green wall gives way the red brick up higher, a dotted striation providing a decoration in Morse code. Similar color explications are just as easy with the smoking boy blowing a bubble or the kids lingering near the gumball machine – each uses color with remarkably sophisticated balance.

While this quick survey doesn’t open up any new avenues into understanding the enduring legacy of Levitt, it’s hard not to be seduced by its overt friendliness and its consistent quality. Who else but Levitt would have a show that begins with a dog, a cat, some kissing pigs, and three roosters? As any city dweller knows, life on the streets of New York is surprisingly filled with animals (and their lovingly eccentric owners), but only an observant artist like Levitt could find their tenderness and joy hiding in plain sight.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, by type:

  • early gelatin silver prints (“first prints”): $2500 to $7500
  • set of 4 gelatin silver prints: $7500
  • gelatin silver prints (vintage/later): $4000 to $24500, some NFS
  • dye transfer prints: $10000 to $18000
  • chromogenic prints: $10000
  • large gelatin silver prints: $10000

At auction, Levitt’s are routinely available and prices run in a wide range, with vintage and later gelatin silver prints diverging significantly, and the dye transfers somewhere in between. Recent prices have ranged between $1000 and nearly $100000 (in the 2012 Buhl collection sale at Sotheby’s).

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