Helen Levitt was born in 1913, in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Finding high school unstimulating, she dropped out in her senior year and began to work for a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx in 1931. She earned six dollars a week helping develop and print in the darkroom. After learning of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans and Ben Shahn through publications and exhibitions, she purchased her first camera, a used Voigtländer. In 1936, after accompanying her mentor and hero Cartier-Bresson along the Brooklyn waterfront, she purchased a secondhand Leica.
Levitt took her Leica to the city’s poorer neighborhoods, like Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, where people treated their streets as their living rooms and street life was richly sociable and visually interesting. In order to capture moments unnoticed, she sometimes attached a device that fit on the Leica camera called a winkelsucher, which allowed her to look one way and shoot the photo the other.
Fortune magazine was the first to publish Levitt’s work, in its July 1939 issue on New York City. The following year, one of her photos was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department and in 1943 they gave Levitt her first solo show.
From the 1930s through the 1990s, Levitt published only a few books, among them A Way of Seeing (1965), In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-48 (1987); and Mexico City (1997), revisiting her one trip abroad. Recently, though, several volumes of her work have been published: Crosstown (2001); Here and There (2004), black-and-white work not previously published; Slide Show (2005), showcasing her color work; and Helen Levitt (2008).
Later, in addition to health problems, changes in neighborhood life also affected her work. “I go where there’s a lot of activity,” she said. “Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors looking at television or something.” Helen Levitt died in her sleep at her home in Manhattan at 95 years old.