American photographer Helen Levitt was once considered to be “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time.” This honor bestowed upon her by the poet David Levi Strauss, likely holds true today. Chances are you have seen her photographs, but would not be able to name the photographer. This is potentially due to Levitt’s introverted status. She would rarely give interviews (according to interviewers, the one’s she did agree to were difficult) and preferred a quiet life in relative solitude. Nevertheless, her talent for taking compelling photographs of life among the bustling streets of New York City, provide enormous benefits and insight into everyday moments that might otherwise have been forgotten.
Levitt’s photographs depict ephemeral experiences and the impermanent relics of these aforementioned experiences. A major theme that runs throughout her experiential imagery is children’s play. The spontaneity through which she composed her pictures has been likened to a theatrical performance. Her stage is New York City’s streets, which are often rough and gritty by nature, but Levitt juxtaposes the course environment with whimsy, fantasy and beauty that is derived from children’s unfettered play. Providing some insight into the intent behind photographing these situations, Levitt acknowledged that “all I can say about the work I do is that the aesthetic is in reality itself.”
Play is one of the most foundational elements of childhood development. It is also central to learning and art making. The benefits of play, as described by psychologist Peter Gray (2011) are: “(1) develop intrinsic interests and competencies; (2) learn how to make decisions, solve problems, exert self-control and follow rules; (3) learn to regulate emotions; (4) make friends and learn to get along with others as equals; and (5) experience joy. Through all of these effects, play promotes mental health.”
In Levitt’s black and white street photographs from the late 1930s and 1940s, a colorful spectrum of social, emotional and cognitive energy protrudes as a result of the children’s playful nature. Gray’s tenets of good well-being via play are clearly evident in Levitt’s work. Images of children playing in the streets show their interest in the urban environment and culture around them (ex. Children with Broken Mirror, New York, c.1940) and learning to get along with others as equals while experiencing joy (ex. New York, Two Children Dancing, c.1940).
Levitt was initially employed to teach art classes to children in 1937, as part of the Federal Art Project. She was fascinated by the chalk drawings that the children would make on the sidewalks during their recreational time. The drawings, as well as the young street artists, became muses for one of Levitt’s best known photography series that lasted over a decade. Her photographs employ her sentiment as an arts educator as much as they do her identity as an artist. Rather than depicting the children and their art in either a journalistic or voyeuristic manner (which was common within the street photography genre at the time), Levitt tried to photograph her subjects in a way that expressed their perspectives. Photographing their chalk drawings in a clear and concise frame, reflects how the children interpreted and interacted with their environment. All of this creative impulse happened largely without the influence of adults.
New York City’s streets are often cited as a formative environment for individual and collective development. The term “street smarts” describes a person’s astute experience and knowledge which they apply to adequately deal with the potential challenges of life in an urban environment. These skills are not attained in traditional classrooms, but are just as important –if not more essential– for one’s survival and growth. Many of the kids photographed in Levitt’s work came from poor and marginalized backgrounds. Their communities and neighborhoods were neglected and the city streets could be dangerous at times due to vehicle congestion, illicit activities and degrading infrastructure. However, the children persevered through play, which is a testament to how children are often able to balance serious real-world issues with joys related to childhood. Through playing and making art on the streets, children create a world for themselves and their peers that juxtaposes whimsy and fantasy with reflections of reality. It is an empowering process that is uniquely child-centered, although there have been instances where adults have facilitated by ensuring that the streets were safe and the children had ample materials to work with (see: “Elvira Leite and the Art of Playful Pedagogy in the Streets”). Adults were clearly inspired by this phenomenon. Levitt’s response was playful and creative in its own right, albeit more constrained and structured in its form, concept and context. Author James Agee, who shared Levitt’s affinity for chalk drawings stated: “all over the city on streets and walks and walls the children have established ancient, essential and ephemeral forms of art, have set forth in chalk and crayon the names and images of their pride, love, preying, scorn and desire” (Agee, 1939. Quoted in In the Street Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938–1948). In 1948, Agee collaborated with Levitt and cinematographer Janice Loeb, on a silent documentary film called In the Street, which extends Levitt’s photography via moving images of children playing in the city’s streets. The film’s intertitle states that the streets of cities are “a theater and a battleground…There unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer.”
Levitt’s work was unique as a formative artful representation of children’s play and creativity made by an adult artist. However, the themes depicted are timeless. Playing in the street continues to be a major life force of New York City’s culture. Chalk drawings have also remained a popular medium for their self expression. Soledad Tejada’s photo essay of New York City children making chalk drawings, juxtaposing Levitt’s 1930s photographs with her own photos taken in the 2020s, shows how “New York City kids have long used chalk to reclaim space for art and play” (Tejada, 2021).
While none of this could happen without the ingenuity of children, adult documentation is valuable as a means of advocating the importance of play within everyday life. Photographs of play show the physical, emotional and cognitive benefits of play. This includes carving out significant recreational time during the day for children to engage in free-play, whether they are at school, at home or out in their communities. The photographs also highlight the need for city legislators to create “open streets” scenarios where citizens can safely enjoy leisurely and recreational activities. It should come as no surprise that these initiatives are growing in popularity. The streets are the world’s most engaging classrooms, community centers and beacons of democracy. They are essential paths that enable the intersection of diversity, freedom of expression and humanity.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Block, Melissa. “Helen Levitt Captured Perfect Moments, Unnoticed,” NPR: All Things Considered, 30 March 2009. https://www.npr.org/2009/03/30/102504602/helen-levitt-captured-perfect-moments-unnoticed
Elkind, David. 2017. The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally. Boston: Da Capo Lifelong Books.
Graves, Lauren. “Inheritors of the Street: Helen Levitt Photographs Children’s Chalk Drawings.” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum. 28 (1): 58, Spring 2021. pp. 58-83. doi:10.5749/buildland.28.1.0058. Archived from the original on 2021-12-31.
Gray, Peter. “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents.” American Journal of Play, v3 n4 p443-463 Spr 2011.
Levitt, Helen and Coles, Robert. 1987. In the Street Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938–1948. Durham: Duke University Press.
Rivera, Lisa. “It’s a Hard Knock Life: The City as Playground.” Museum of the City of New York Blog, 8 October 2013https://blog.mcny.org/2013/10/08/its-a-hard-knock-life-the-city-as-playground/
Sobel, David. 1993. Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Tejada, Soledad. “Drawing Comparisons—a photo-essay inspired by Helen Levitt,” Street Lab, 7 June 2021. https://www.streetlab.org/2021/06/07/drawing-comparisons-a-les-photo-essay-inspired-by-helen-levitt/