ceremonies of innocence: zesty improvised lives

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 The book remained unpublished and Agee died in 1955 and was awarded the Pulitzer prize for “A Death in the Family” published posthumously.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….

Dennis Dunleavy: James Agee, who wrote the introduction to Levitt's 1965 book, "Ways of Seeing", eloquently observes Levitt's greatest gift -- tapping into the everyday cultural life of the people on the streets of New York. Levitt produced her most well-recognized work in the 1940s. She was a street photographer. Someone who had an impeccable sense of the pulse of life. read more: http://ddunleavy.typepad.com/the_big_picture/2009/04/helen-levitt-a-giant-of-20th-century-of-american-photography.html

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

"Photographs cannot be fully enjoyed, or adequately discussed, on a purely naturalistic or rational basis. Many of them prove, rather, that the actual world constantly brings to the surface its own signals, and mysteries." read more: http://ddunleavy.typepad.com/the_big_picture/2009/04/helen-levitt-a-giant-of-20th-century-of-american-photography.html

“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 )

Agee: 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. Through his eye and through his instrument the artist has, thus, a leverage upon the materials of existence which is unique, opening to him a universe which has never before been so directly or so purely available to artists, and requiring of his creative intelligence and of his skill, perceptions and disciplines no less deep than those required in any other act of aesthetic creation, though very differently deprived, and enriched.... read more: http://web.ncf.ca/ek867/2009_03_16-31_archives.html

“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

---I suppose the idea of rapture has romantic overtones and I’m aware that to speak about aesthetics in terms of rapture seems to focus on a notion of pleasure which is a very old, eighteenth century notion. For me, by contrast, what was important was to really think what it means when you describe aesthetics as a science of sensitive knowing. That gives us a definition of aesthetics, and I liked what that definition suggested for philosophy. It’s too easy to equate thinking with consciousness and mentality, but if you pursue a Freudian line of enquiry, then very quickly you have to relinquish that prejudice and recognise that thought is already ‘of’ the body. If philosophy could abide with that notion, then ethics, epistemology and metaphysics would look quite different. - Jill Marsden (author of After Nietzsche: Notes Towards a Philosophy of Ecstasy)---read more: http://web.ncf.ca/ek867/2009_03_16-31_archives.html

” 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://jhalaldrut.blogspot.com/2010/10/helen-levitt.html


"In 1936, after accompanying her mentor and hero Cartier-Bresson along the Brooklyn waterfront, she purchased a secondhand Leica. Levitt took her Leica to the city’s poorer neighborhoods, like Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side, where people treated their streets as their living rooms and street life was richly sociable and visually interesting. In order to capture moments unnoticed, she sometimes attached a device that fit on the Leica camera called a winkelsucher, which allowed her to look one way and shoot the photo the other. Fortune magazine was the first to publish Levitt’s work, in its July 1939 issue on New York City. The following year, one of her photos was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department and in 1943 they gave Levitt her first solo show. From the 1930s through the 1990s, Levitt published only a few books,..." read more: http://woodenkimonos.com/therealmurphy/2009/07/friday-inspiration-helen-levitt/


---Spanish Harlem was a vibrant place in the 40’s – full of new post-war immigrants, Spanish, Puerto Ricans, and Italians. Living in tiny tenements – social and family life pored over onto the street. Filling the streets with life. The lyrical and timeless black and white photos of Levitt captured with natural ease, the essence of these new inhabitants. The people in her photographs embody with great beauty and fullness, “a natural history of the soul’ according to one of her biggest fans, James Agee. She captures the essence of a free, unselfconscious, untamed people fantastically misplanted in the urgent metropolis of New York. Again in the words of James Agee, her photos are; “The record of an ancient, primitive, transient, and immortal civilization, incomparably superior to our own, as it flourishes, at the proud and eternal crest of its wave, among those satanic incongruities of a twentieth century metropolis which are, for us, definitive expressions and productions of the loss of innocence.” Her black and white photos of this period are full of grace, drama, pathos, humour and surprise. For Levitt the street was a stage, and its people were all actors and actresses, mimes, orators and dancers.--- read more: http://spaceframed.blogspot.com/

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

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