The American photographer Helen Levitt has turned children’s portraiture into her playground. An exceptional exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles 2019 spotlights this key facet of the artist’s production.
With deference bordering on religiosity a group of children are staring at soap bubbles rising into the air. Their mouths agape at the fragility of the world, at the ephemeral brought to life in these bubbles, which will burst at any moment, leaving no trace. This is the image that opens the exhibition dedicated to Helen Levitt at the Espace Van Gogh in Arles. We are immediately confronted with the power of these photographs: views of children at play, captive to a hostile, or at best harsh, world, their faces beaming with delight, smiling from ear to ear. For nothing could spoil the thrill of children roaring with joy in New York City streets, their faces covered with war paint as they play cowboys and Indians or crusading knights, armed with toy revolvers or wooden swords. Helen Levitt has an uncanny knack for capturing the facial expressions that are specific to childhood and that mark it as a land of dreams, make-believe, and enchantment.
Sometimes adults find their way into the images: the cross faces of mothers who observe the sidewalk from a distance; the hunched body of a little old man who tries to break through the horde of kids; the parched, stern faces of men exhausted with their day’s labor. Helen Levitt has grownups mix with the kids, as if to better underscore the absurdity of the world and of human nature. Adults appear to have been robbed of childhood, as if their youth were worn away by time and disillusion. They seem to have squandered it and now stare down at the ground as if hoping to find it in the gutter. The people photographed by the artist look defeated and bitter, discouraged and crushed.
A wave of bleakness
There are children whose faces show that same discouragement: for instance the little girl with sorrowful eyes. Is she in mourning? Has there been an illness in her family? Her solemnity sets her apart from other children. This is also true of the two youngsters smoking cigarettes outside a building as they absently stare into the distance. They seem to have grown up too quickly and are already marked by grownup worries. The children Helen Levitt photographed in Mexico during her trip in 1941 betray the same stigma of adulthood. The photographer recorded social deprivation that washed over the city like a bleak wave: people wearing tatters; little girls running around in frayed dresses; the poor moving about like starved ghosts. No sign of play; only the burden of an alarming social reality.
The little girl
When she returned to New York, Helen Levitt’s photographs were populated with people who had never grown up. One man is tipping his hat, his legs wide apart, impishly saluting the photographer. Another is fooling around for the camera as he perches on the hood of his truck. The inner child Helen Levitt managed to capture in these grownups is superposed on the little girl she had remained and for whom photography was a way of playing mischief. In 1938 she photographed passengers on the New York subway. Using an ingenious device, she was able to catch them unawares. The result are whimsical portraits in which the average commuter dozes off in his seat, never suspecting his face is being captured by the photographer.
Helen Levitt’s forte, however, is her portraits of children. She continued returning to the subject, for instance in the color photographs made in the 1970s. One shows two little tots next to a gumball dispenser, which they seem to be guarding as if it were a treasure. For the cover of one of her books Levitt used a photograph of a band of kids proudly posing for the camera. And in her film In the Street she documented the lives of New York urchins—kids with their imaginary worlds and their secrets. This aspect of her work is perhaps most evident in the photographs of chalk drawings traced by little hands: a sacred tableau filled with a thousand secrets.
By Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Helen Levitt, An Observer of New York Street Life
July 1 to September 22, 2019
Espace Van Gogh, Place Félix Rey, 13200 Arles