Helen Levitt’s photographs from the 1930s and 1940s of the communities of New York City’s Harlem are startling achievements of street photography. They catch the evanescent configurations of gesture, movement, pose and expression that make visible the street as surreal theatre, and everyday life as art and mystery. The unguarded life of children at play became, understandably, Levitt’s particular preoccupation.
Levitt resisted political readings of her work, and distanced herself from the progressive impulses of social documentary photography. But class, race and gender are everywhere at work in Levitt’s images. The diffidence and deceptive artless of the images also hide her devotion to both popular and avant-garde cinema, attention to the work of other photographers, frequenting of New York’s museums and galleries. Shamoon Zamir examines the different registers and contexts of Levitt’s work through a reading of “New York, 1939”, one of Levitt’s iconic images.