I wrote some time ago about one of my lecturers stating that pictures that had a sense of humour were cheesy. I remember because, well firstly obviously I wrote it, but secondly that I didn’t agree at all. Well, in my endless pursuit of spending money I bought the following book, which is shrewdly observed, manages to be both complex and simple at the same time and has some beautifully captured humorous moments.
Well, it’s this book on the work of HELEN LEVITT:
HELEN LEVITT / Powerhouse Books Brooklyn NY / 2008(?) / Amazon UK Link
The book may seems expensive, especially if you view it online, but it’s huge probably 35cm x 35cm. It’s also stuffed with work, in it Helen Levitt Captures New York streetlife for, well as the amazon description states “combining seven decades of New York City street life with Levitt’s seminal work in Mexico City”. So that’s what we have, but its not a case of quantity over quality, you can see why each photo has been included.
Street photography is something that I find really interesting for three reasons, firstly that its anthropological; it studies the way we live – that this is driven by the photographers curiosity (Levitt was a school teacher who began photography to study chalk drawings and the children associated with them), secondly Its interesting how it dates; how its culturally different and how it seems so obvious its not our time. Finally, to return to that lecturers statement, that street photography is permitted to have a sense of humour (not that it always does – its just permitted to).
Please don’t misunderstand me, I heard recently from photojournalist Seb Meyer in a talk ‘its important to convey a range of emotions’. I think there is a tendency to focus on the misery in images. The thought being is that this gives them weight. But relentlessly pushing a set of difficult images with no relief just becomes dull after a while. So, just like using contrasting colours in a painting, showing a full spectrum of emotions in a collection makes the experience more humanising and accessible, it makes an rounded story.
Levitt has her own range. In addition to humour she shows a tenderness, playfulness, fun, beauty, contrast but most of all I think she is a great humaniser, she captures character; Children, the elderly, women with their curlers in, men in vests, the down and out, dispossessed and the badly dressed. She shows character of people but also the personality of the streets and neighbourhoods she works in.
Its also Interesting to she her shifting between black and white and colour, and back again. Levitt was in the exhibition Henri cartier Bresson – A Question Of Colour at Somerfield house which I reviewed earlier this year. Starting so early its no surprise she began with black and white. Her composition is excellent but when it comes to colour film she picks up on how colour works instinctively, often making it the theme of a picture, where some would have struggled with using it at all.
Looking at her book as a social document I wonder how the character of people has changed. Perhaps it’s due to living in London but it’s hard to imagine having the opportunity to photograph people being themselves with their guard down. People with their curlers in – well, that might have still happened in the late 1980’s, do children even play in the street anymore? God, I must get out of London and find out. Or have we changed our relationship with the world because of cameras, because of media. Is this because of the scrutiny the lens puts us under, the one that leads to us self-scrutinising – in a way no one feels entirely comfortable with?
It’s also interesting because Levitt’s eye is kind, playful. She’s not making the type of statement that someone like Diane Arbus makes with her portraits. She’s observing life in her time, but in a timeless way, and I find that fascinating.