Helen Levitt was born in 1913 in Bensonhurst, in the New York district of Brooklyn. Her father, Sam Levitt, was a Jewish immigrant from Russia. She left school before finishing her last year of high school and, at eighteen years old, she began to work in a commercial studio in the Bronx, where she gained her first rudimentary knowledge of photographic techniques. In 1935 she had the opportunity to meet and accompany Henri Cartier-Bresson during his year in New York; this meeting proved fundamental to her training during her first few years in terms of delving deeper into composition and moving beyond the merely documentary side of photography. She then purchased a 35 mm Leica, the same camera that the French photographer would often use.
In 1935 she submitted a portfolio to Walker Evans, who would become her mentor and friend and she would go on to help him print the historic American Photographs volume. Levitt’s work at this time focused on depicting images of children in the poorer neighborhoods of the New York of the Great Depression; with this work she contributed to the creation of a movement known as street photography, which caused a seismic shift in the photography of the 1930s in the United States. The historic inaugural exhibition of the MoMA’s photography section in 1939 included her work.
She began to work on film projects during the 1940s, firstly with Luis Buñuel who was in exile in the United States and involved in producing documentaries for propaganda purposes in support of the Spanish Republican cause. She traveled to Mexico in 1941 where she took photographs that would be published decades later, in 1997, with the title Helen Levitt: Mexico City: Shortly afterwards, in 1943, the MoMA in New York unveiled her first solo exhibition.
Together with the writer James Agee, whom she had been introduced to by Walker Evans, she collaborated on the photography and layout of the documentaries The Quiet One (1948), a drama about an African American child and In the Street (1948), which looked at life on the streets of Hispanic Harlem. Both films were influential in the subsequent development of documentary film by artists such as Jonas Mekas and Andy Warhol. In 1946 she finished the volume entitled A Way of Seeing, with a foreword by Agee, although the book was not published until 1965. In 1959, with the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship she began to take color photographs and this work was put on display in a 1974 exhibition by the MoMA.
From the 1990s onward she replaced her traditional Leica, due to its excessive weight, with a Contax. The recognitions poured in, with major exhibitions in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1992). In 1999 Walker Evans’ biographer James R. Mellow asserted that the only photographers that Evans believed “had something new to say were Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and himself”.
In 2001 Crosstown was published, a volume which included images she had produced from the 1930s to the 1990s and which evidenced the transformation of life on the streets of New York. In 2003 she presented an important collection of unpublished photographs in the volume Here and There and, two years later, a new collection of color photographs was published with the title Slide Show, and with a foreword by John Szarkowski, who had defended her work during her early years. In 2008 the Sprengel Museum in Hanover staged a full retrospective of her work. The following year Helen Levitt died at 95 years old.