Helen Levitt, Who Froze New York Street Life on Film, Is Dead at 95

Copyright The New York Times
By MARGARETT LOKE
Published: March 30, 2009
Helen Levitt, a major photographer of the 20th century who caught fleeting moments of surpassing lyricism, mystery and quiet drama on the streets of her native New York, died in her sleep at her home in Manhattan on Sunday. She was 95.
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© Estate of Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt in 1963.
© Estate of Helen Levitt
Bubbles capture the attention of four girls in a photograph by Helen Levitt, who had an eye for the vignettes of New York streets.
Her death was confirmed by her brother, Bill Levitt, of Alta, Utah.
Ms. Levitt captured instances of a cinematic and delightfully guileless form of street choreography that held at its heart, as William Butler Yeats put it, “the ceremony of innocence.” A man handles garbage-can lids like an exuberant child imitating a master juggler. Even an inanimate object — a broken record — appears to skip and dance on an empty street as a child might, observed by a group of women’s dresses in a shop window.
As marvelous as these images are, the masterpieces in Ms. Levitt’s oeuvre are her photographs of children living their zesty, improvised lives. A white girl and a black boy twirl in a dance of their own imagining. Four girls on a sidewalk turning to stare at five floating bubbles become contrapuntal musical notes in a lovely minor key.
In Ms. Levitt’s best-known picture, three properly dressed children prepare to go trick-or-treating on Halloween 1939. Standing on the stoop outside their house, they are in almost metaphorical stages of readiness. The girl on the top step is putting on her mask; a boy near her, his mask in place, takes a graceful step down, while another boy, also masked, lounges on a lower step, coolly surveying the world.
“At the peak of Helen’s form,” John Szarkowski, former director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, once said, “there was no one better.”
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