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Photo of the Week #50

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt NYC 1980

Helen Levitt, NYC, 1980


August 20, 2019
Arguably best known for the black and white photographs she made of the quiet, human dramas that unfolded in the streets and on the stoops of 1930's and 40's Spanish Harlem of her native New York, especially among its many children, Levitt turned to color in the very late 1950's and early 1960's. The photograph colloquially known as "Spider Girl," a later iteration of that color work finds Levitt still there, in the street, seeing. In her earlier work, her interest in social surrealism tethered a visual lyricism that she rooted in the individual human body. Though I will leave that subject to the experts, it's still here in this photograph, but attenuated by time, political change, and even the street-clearing effects of air conditioning.
The photograph speaks for itself, as James Agee purported of Levitt's photographs in their book A WAY OF SEEING, more eloquently and honestly than any comment on it can, so I will simply tell you what I see in the hope that we share this, or at best, I might deepen what you see in turn. I see a child's absorption in whatever has captured her own gaze, in a moment we know is all too fleeting for a child, especially a girl. I see that child's gaze rhyming with the photographer's, whose gaze is implicit, complete and uninterrupted. This quiet absorption is what draws my eye. The young girl's contorted, spider-like body, arms and legs all angles as she folds to look beneath the car or at something on the street beneath her legs, her face masked by her falling hair, is further distorted by her reflection in the spirit orb-like hubcap of the apple green 1970s car. Though the image of the child could be timeless, that green and the baby blue of the VW Beetle across the street place us squarely in that decade (1980 to be exact). In the photo, I see Levitt's eye, her empathy, her humor, her way of seeing, but I see something more that elevates this photograph to elegy.
Look closely. Across the expanse of street, beyond that baby blue Beetle, and above the litter at its far curb, almost cropped out of the picture is a vacant flight of steps presumably leading to a vacant stoop, and a barely visible remnant of a second set, so much like the steps of her original photographs but emptied out now, not a person in sight. Instead of absence; however, I see homage. I see time itself. I see the ghosts of the children who played there 40 years earlier, and in all, I see Helen Levitt herself.

-Donna Mintz, Atlanta, August 20th, 2019


Donna Mintz is a writer and visual artist living in Atlanta, Georgia. She is  completing a book about her journeys through the life and work of the writer James Agee, close friend and collaborator of Helen Levitt.  We are delighted to have Donna be our first "Guest Voice."