The Passing of a Legend

Industry Perspective

The Passing of a Legend

by Ron Leach

America lost a national treasure with the recent passing of celebrated New York street photographer Helen Levitt. Born on August 31, 1913 of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levitt died peacefully in her sleep on March 29 at the age of 95.

After dropping out of high school during her senior year, Levitt taught herself photography while working as an assistant to a commercial photographer in the Bronx. Inspired by the documentary work of Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn, Levitt began by photographing her mother’s friends. She then bought her first Leica and used it to photograph chalk drawings on the streets of New York and the children who made them.

Edward Steichen curated her first solo exhibition in 1943 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Entitled “Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children,” the show was well received and provided impetus to her career as a documentary photographer. Levitt also received two Guggenheim Foundation grants to make photograph the streets of New York in color.

Levitt also made documentary films and received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Quiet One in 1948. Helen Levitt worked on films for a quarter of a century and remained active as a still photographer for almost 70 years while living in New York.