A Way of Seeing, 1965
Author: Helen Levitt
Essay by: James Agee
Publisher: The Viking Press, New York
About the book:
Some 20 years elapsed between the publication of Helen Levitt's A Way of Seeing and the taking of the pictures. But as with Walker Evans's Many are Called, the delay did not diminish the pictures. Indeed, they fitted perfectly into the post-Americans photographic world: Levitt's street pictures of New York children in underprivileged areas (like Evans's subway portraits) exemplify the shift from New Deal social documentation to a more personal and elliptical way of looking at life. Levitt, a close friend of Evans, worked, just as he did, with the writer James Agee. She made her vibrant street pictures in the late 1930s and 40s, while Agee wrote his essay in 1946, when the book was due to be published by Reynolds and Hitchcock. However, the project was shelved when one of the firm's partners died, and it was only revived by Viking in 1964, by which time Agee had died. Apparently, someone at Viking edited Agee's original text, since the essay is not as infuriatingly convoluted as usual.
Levitt's photographs are beautiful - major, underrated works. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, she achieves a rare balancing act: her pictures have sentiment without being sentimental, always maintaining an objective distance. Formally, she is looser than Cartier-Bresson, pointing towards a more casual style of 1950s New York photography eminently suited to the ebullient life in that city. Although these are warm photographs, her sympathy is tempered by an underlying clear-sightedness. But in the changing political climate of the 1940s, she cleverly sublimated this; the casual observer of these pictures, dazzled by their poetry, could easily miss the harsher realities masked by the surface warmth and joie de vivre.