The more things change, the more they stay the same? Before Helen Levitt and James Agee worked together on the documentary “The Quiet One” , they had planned to collaborate on a book of photographs and text. Levitt took the pictures, mostly in Spanish Harlem in New York in the 1940’s and Agee wrote a poetic essay to unify and accompany them. The book remained unpublished and Agee died in 1955 and was awarded the Pulitzer prize for “A Death in the Family” published posthumously. “A Way of Seeing”, with Levitt, was also finally published about ten years after his death….
James Agee: It is clear enough by now to most people, that “the camera never lies” is a foolish saying. Yet it is doubtful whether most people realize how extraordinarily slippery a liar the camera is. The camera Is just a machine, which records with impressive and as a rule very cruel faithfulness, precisely what is in the eye, mind, spirit, and skill of its operator to make it record. Since relatively few of its operators… “It is in fact hard to get the camera to tell the truth; yet it can be made to, in many ways and on many levels. Read More: http://www.masters-of-photography.com/L/levitt/levitt_articles2.html a
“In every other art which draws directly on the actual world, the actual is transformed by the artist’s creative intelligence, into a new and different kind of reality: aesthetic reality. In the kind of photography we are talking about here, the actual is not at all transformed; it is reflected and recorded, within the limits of the camera, with all possible accuracy. The artist’s task is not to alter the world as the eye sees it into a world of aesthetic reality, but to perceive the aesthetic reality within the actual world, and to make an undisturbed and faithful record of the instant in which this movement of creativeness achieves its most expressive crystallization…. ( Agee )
“In their general quality and coherence, moreover, the photographs as a whole body, as a book, seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifesto of a way of seeing, and in a gentle and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work. Most of these photographs are about as near the pure spontaneity of true folk art as the artist, aware of himself as such, can come; and an absolute minimum of intellection, of technical finesse, or of any kind of direction or interference on the part of the artist as artist stands between the substance and the emotion and their communication.” Read More: http://www.masters-of-photography.com/L/levitt/levitt_articles2.html a
” This is the record of an ancient, primitive, transient and immortal civilization…The cardinal occupations are few, primordial, and royal, being those of hunting, war, art, theater, and dancing”… ” from very early the germ of the death of childhood is at work”…a quality of mystery- a strong undertone even, of terror.”…
Read More: http://www.lensculture.com/levitt.html
New York Times:In 1935 she met Cartier-Bresson when he spent a year in New York. On one occasion she accompanied him when he photographed along the Brooklyn waterfront. She also trained her eye, she said, by going to museums and art galleries. “I looked at paintings for composition,” she said. In 1936, she bought a secondhand Leica, the camera Cartier-Bresson favored.
Two years later, she contacted Evans to show him the photographs she had taken of children playing in the streets and their buoyantly unrestrained chalk graffiti. “I went to see him,” she recalled, “the way kids do, and got to be friends with him.” She helped Evans make prints for his exhibition and book “American Photographs.”
Both the quintessentially French Cartier-Bresson and the essentially American Evans influenced Ms. Levitt. Cartier-Bresson had a gift for catching everyday life in graceful, seemingly transparent flux; Evans had a way of being sparingly, frontally direct with his commonplace subjects. Ms. Levitt credited Shahn, whom she had met through Evans, with being a greater influence than Evans. Photographs Shahn took of life on New York sidewalks in the ’30s have an unmediated, gritty spontaneity.
James Agee, a good friend, was also a major influence. She had met him through Evans, who noted, “Levitt’s work was one of James Agee’s great loves, and, in turn, Agee’s own magnificent eye was part of her early training.”
The kind of pictures Ms. Levitt took demanded a photojournalist’s hair-trigger reflexes. But photojournalism didn’t interest her. She was too shy, she said, and lacked the technical proficiency that is a must for any practicing photojournalist. “I was a lousy technician,” she said. “That part bored me.”
Fortune magazine was the first to publish Ms. Levitt’s work, in its July 1939 issue on New York City. The next year her Halloween picture was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department. In 1943 she had her first solo show at the Modern.
To support herself, Ms. Levitt worked as a film editor. Her friend Janice Loeb, a painter, introduced her to Luis Buñuel, who hired her in the early ’40s to edit his pro-American propaganda films. By 1949, and for the next decade, Ms. Levitt was a full-time film editor and director.
With her friends Agee, who was also a film critic, and Ms. Loeb, she started filming “In the Street” in the mid-’40s. Ms. Loeb was financially well off and was for a time married to Bill Levitt. Mr. Levitt survives his sister, as do several nieces and nephews.
“In the Street,” released in 1952, is the way one imagines Ms. Levitt’s photographs would look if they were to spring to life. The 14-minute documentary of Spanish Harlem, with a piano playing on the soundtrack, is antic, droll, artless and dear. Read More: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/arts/design/30levitt.html?pagewanted=all