Purple Diary

[April 2 2009]

HELEN LEVITT 1913/2009

It was a bitter twist of irony that saw New York street photographer Helen Levitt pass last Sunday at the age of 95, just hours before The New York Times announced that it would fold its City section.

Many critics and reviewers have described Levitt’s work as “lyrical,” maybe to describe how she captured the seemingly haphazard, yet subconscious organization of people – both busy and aimless – on New York’s streets. She especially took to the subject of street urchins in the most literal sense and likened their activity to the rites of tribal customs. Levitt presented these images in 1938 without any intellectual grandstanding and when recently asked about her subject matter she simply said, “The kids were just there on the street.” Nobody has better recorded the use of public, urban space by its residents and suggested a synthesis of both.

I would like to think that the Times retired its City section in homage to Levitt – it was the literary articulation of her photographic works. In every Sunday edition of the Times, you could count on reading a whole collection of articles crafted in the tradition of long-form journalism, made full with the nuanced perception of writers who enlightened readers to the specific, yet underappreciated folks and situations that make up the pedestrian life of New York, parsed into sections as prideful as the neighborhoods they represented. The sensationalism of the everyday certainly persists – I just hope that there’s someone there to put it all down.

Text by Jordan Hruska

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