Celebrating street life

Steve Price reviews the Helen Levitt exhibition, In the Street, The Photographers’ Gallery, Ramillies Street, London W1.

Helen Levitt has been described as ‘the most famous photographer you’ve probably never heard of’. This exhibition, featuring 130 of her images and running until February 2022, begins to show why that is.

Apart from a year in Mexico, all shot in the poorest parts of New York. The black & white are all 1940-45, the colour shots from mid-1950s into the 70s.

She didn’t claim that her work was ‘political’ or even ‘social commentary’. But of course it was!

But not just in the usual often patronising way of saying “isn’t this terrible how these poor people live”. No, she is playful, there is a lot of humour, and a celebration of community and street life.

She was influenced by the surrealists and notions of the absurd. She captured ‘the poetry of everyday life’.

Her pictures show another world! There are always dogs off their leads and kids running around before stranger danger paranoia. But she was very radical and revolutionary.

A woman! Going around New York with her Leica 35mm snapping away, multi-racial, the great melting pot that is New York, all life is here.

Radical in her 1953 movie In the Streets which influenced the cinema verite movement in France and elsewhere. She was radical in moving to colour photography, breaking the high art assumptions about the purity of black and white.

Go to this exhibition and just …. enjoy!

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