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August 31: New York’s “Visual Poet Laureate”

August 31, 2013

Helen LevittHelenLevitt1_thumb2Helen Levitt, whom the International Center for Photography has called “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time,” was born in Brooklyn on this date in 1913. In the late 1930s, Levitt began photographing children’s chalk drawings on the streets of New York, and her work was featured in the new photography wing of the Museum of Modern Art in 1939. This was followed by a major show at MOMA in 1943 and another, of her color work, in 1974. (Much of her color photos from the previous decade, however, had been lost in a burglary of her East Village apartment in 1970.) In the late 1940s, Levitt made two documentary films with Janice Loeb and James Agee: In the Street, which provided a broad display of her still photography, and The Quiet One. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1959 and ’60, she returned to still photography, building a portfolio of photographs of New York Streets that reflect her sense of humor, honesty, and humanism. Levitt, who was very publicity shy, died at 95 on March 31, 2009, but not before enjoying major retrospectives of her work in New York, San Francisco, Paris, and other cities. To see a short film about her photography, look below.

“All I can say about the work I do is that the aesthetic is in reality itself.”—Helen Levitt