For those who knew Helen Levitt only from her black-and-white photographs from the 1940s, published in A Way of Seeing (1965, 1981), the first showing of her color slides at the Museum of Modern Art in 1974 was both a revelation and a puzzlement. The photographer who had once seemed to be offering social realism in Harlem now made dazzling color pictures more complex and sophisticated than any of the most inventive color constructions by the younger, formalist photographer. Levitt was somehow different than she had been yet she was again doing candid, uncrossed, 35mm. street photography in the same sort of run-down neighborhoods she’s visited 30 years before. In a new medium even the same faces magically reappear as if brought back from the past, only this time in color. The not-quite-of-this-time look the old pictures had, which was once simply credited to their vintage, was there again in the new color work. Throughout the following decade as the prior black-and-whites were exhibited with more, newly made, color prints, we settled into thinking of Levitt as a color photographer, arguably the best who has ever lived. Now she’s given us a new surprise, Levitt has returned to black-and-white. The current exhibition is the first anywhere in which her contemporary color work is being shown along with these most recent black-and-whites, and it gives us another opportunity to confront the puzzlement.
Seeing the color pictures a decade ago had yielded a clue to her style. Then the use of color and light alone made irresistible a comparison with, of all things, those recherché painters, the French Intimists. In a Levitt, layers of shiny, encrusted paint and a dozen other vibrant colors are mixed together–a boldly flowered dress, a red gum-ball machine, and a wall as blue as a robin’s egg. It’s not merely because the Intimists were painting from life within cramped interiors that the tops of peach-colored doors are cut off by the edge of the frame, crimson chair backs and turquoise windows poke into the edge of the frame, and lavender table tops loom in the foreground. At close quarter, the capable color of the objects and the Intimist’s flickering brush strokes are meant to overwhelm the senses. In order to fill the frame to overflowing with the Intimist’s colors, Levitt moves in so close she’s often forced to truncate people at the waist. Once you’ve caught on to what she’s doing in color, it’s easy to see how the seductive beauty of the color has its equivalents in the black-and-whites, both old and new, where her hair trigger timing yields the most dizzying array of lyrical expression, postures, shapes, and spaces. Just look at the two men playing basketball or three running boys, for example.
It’s true her pictures are taken in the street, not in the home, but they’re undeniably domestic–a man rinsing his hands, some children with a laundry cart, a boy lounging (albeit on the top of the car) like those inconsequential daily scenes apotheosized by Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Even in situations where there might be some purposeful activity, Levitt favors Intimist languor, catching people at the moment when they aren’t doing anything particular. The man whose job it is to pull clothing racks in the garment district is caught when he’s not pulling anything. Fortunately, this hasn’t precluded three purposeful chickens who appear to be shopping for a new dinette set.
Levitt’s persistence in returning to the same neighborhoods over the years has led to the presumption that her familiarity with these poor streets is the result of social conscience. But the essential thing is not that these streets are especially familiar to Levitt (or even that they are uniquely sympathetic to the small camera) what they must be is familiar and sympathetic to their inhabitants. That a man has set up his TV set on the sidewalk to watch the World Series seems perfectly natural in the East Village. These strangers are so at ease with themselves and so available, Levitt can make pictures of them with the same directness as Vuillard could with his own family. People inside Park Avenue apartments no doubt relax with a mid-morning cup of coffee or sit with a dog as they did in the cozy bourgeoise interiors of Bonnard, but Levitt prefers to find neighborhoods where people do it in the streets.
Levitt bought her first Leica in the late 1930’s after seeing the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans at the Julien Levy Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; she then managed to meet them both. While she’s never globe trotted like her two friends, in fact, she hasn’t gone up to Harlem in years but has taken to the subway, visited New York’s garment district, and for a plump little boy on a bicycle with training wheels gone as far as Brooklyn even.
It’s easy enough to see how those early pictures of Cartier-Bresson still define for Levitt what a photograph should be. Evans affected her more in matters of taste; she learned his rigorous editing standards and developed an affinity in black-and-white for open clean-cut prints. What hasn’t been so clear is that the three virtually invented a photographic style which to this day hasn’t been adequately defined. They are all scrupulously “documentary” but this term is misleading because at the same time the work is colored by a self-conscious poetic style. For years this ambiguity presented no problem simply because people didn’t think too hard about it; but more recent attempts to settle things in one way or another are hopelessly off the point: the pictures of Evans, Cartier-Bresson and Levitt are ambiguous, intentionally. You’re not supposed to be able to tell what the photographer did and what the real world did. The closest Walker Evans came to describing what he was after was the somewhat devious phrase, “the poetic apprehension of pure fact,” and Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” might be better called the “indecisive moment” because it blurs the distinction between actual stillness and the camera’s ability to stop motion. Since no term has yet really pinpointed this issue of ambiguity, we’d like to propose calling it “the white style”–after the color that isn’t a color.
Technically, white style photography blurs all sorts of pictorial distinctions in order to mimic the camera’s natural indiscriminateness. Evan’s habit, for example, of photographing flat facades directly from the front makes it impossible to know whether the space in his pictures is flattened or highly illusionistic. (Cartier-Bresson does in time what Evans does in space.) In a color picture in the current Levitt show, of a boy blowing a bubble, the white-highlighted plastic bubble is equated with a grease-paint streaked little boy’s face, and it’s impossible to tell whether this equating of a person and an object comes out of the real world– that’s what you would have seen had you been there – or from the photographer’s imagination. The picture is so perfectly poised that even after you notice some of the other linkups– the highlights on the boy’s green shirt or the white paint blotch of “smoke” which turns the bubble-blowing straw into a cigarette, or the confluence of greens– you still can’t tell. Of course, reason dictates that the photographer had a great deal to do with what we see but the pleasure and poetry of the picture lie in these ambiguities, which is another way of saying that what most people subconsciously respond to in white style photography is the insistent, unsettling erosion of traditional art distinctions, between such things as form and content, self-expression and representation, the conceptual and he perceptual between art and life. The white style is not just some sort of fancy photojournalism; it’s photography’s major, and maybe its only, contribution to modernism.
Even the most casual look at the work of Evans and Cartier-Bresson reveals a similarity of temperament. Evans is cool, unemotional, detached; Cartier-Bresson has an air of Olympian aloofness. It’s as if in order to reduce the possibility of friction between the subject and artist, the artist, the artist willfully chose to absent himself. And it’s been Evans’s and Cartier Bresson’s outsiderness that has characterized much of contemporary street photography. Levitt looks so different because she solves the white style challenge not to upset the balance between her art and their life by being so intimate with her subjects as to be emotionally indistinguishable from them. That’s why to the amazement of her colleagues, in this era of camera awareness and even hostility from people on the street, she can still make her pictures. The danger Levitt faces is not that she’ll be spotted and lose a candid shot a la Cartier-Bresson; she can make a picture of someone looking right into the lens. The real danger is that despite all caution she’ll interrupt some little pleasure or close encounter or reverie, and everyone will disappear behind their everyday masks. Then, given the demands of the white style, her very subject will have vanished.
Roberta Hellman and Marvin Hoshino
circa November 1985, New York City