Through the photographs in Helen Levitt’s book A Way of Seeing (now in its third printing by Duke University Press) have long been regarded as classics of 20th century photography, a significant aspect of Levitt’s work from this period is relatively little known. It is also not commonly known that Levitt has continued to produce important work throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. This exhibition attempts to excavate a number of Levitt’s important but lesser known images.
Levitt’s subjects have, nominally, never changed. She has always worked in poor neighborhoods because of the richly sociable and visually interesting street life. Levitt’s pictures report no unusual happenings: most of them show the games of children, the errands and conversations of the middle-aged, and the observant waiting of the old. What is remarkable is that these routine acts are revealed as being full of grace, drama, humor, pathos, and surprise, and also that they are filled with the qualities of art, as though the street were a stage, and its people were all actors and actresses. They also reveal an eye singularly attuned to the aesthetic possibilities inherent in the honest vision of the streets.
The overall preoccupation in the photographs is, it seems to me, with innocence- not as the word has come to be mis-understood and debased, but in its full, original wildness, fierceness, and instinct for grace and form…the photographs as a whole body seem to me to combine into a unified view of the world, an uninsistent but irrefutable manifest of a way of seeing, and in a gentle and wholly unpretentious way, a major poetic work. —James Agee, A Way of Seeing, (Introduction) 1965
This exhibition opens in anticipation of the forthcoming Helen Levitt retrospective being co-curated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, scheduled to open in 1991.