– Autumn/Winter 2002

Useless Reportage: Notes on Helen Levitt's In the Street

Roy Arden

Helen Levitt's In the Street is a non-narrative, short film by a photographer. As such it is a very rare bird. There are few entries in this category and they have largely gone unnoticed as anomalies, or unsuccessful experiments.

By 1945, when Levitt, her friend Janice Loeb, and the writer James Agee began filming in the streets of Spanish Harlem, their subject had already been extensively mined by Levitt in still photographs revered today as pioneering masterpieces of lyric street photography. The opening credits reveal that Levitt is not the sole author of In The Street as Loeb and Agee have been given equal billing. Indeed, Levitt was only present for a portion of the filming. Yet the film is habitually referred to as hers, no doubt in recognition of her claim to the subject matter as 'staked out' in her earlier photos. Levitt was drawn to the neighbourhood because of its lively and unguarded street life.
It was a good neighbourhood for taking pictures in those days, because that was before television ... There was a lot happening. And the older people would be sitting out on the stoops because of the heat. This was ... in the late 1930s, so those neighbourhoods were very active.1

Levitt's photographs were made with a Leica camera, often fitted with a right-angle periscopic attachment, or winkelsucher. This device allowed her to appear to be photographing what was before her while actually capturing what was beside her. The winkelsucher bought her the time to wait until her unwitting subjects arranged themselves into compelling tableaux. Whereas her photographs appear as poetic compositions made in a timeless

  1. Excerpt from 'Helen Levitt's Indelible Eye - Photographer Captures the Lost Outdoor Life of New York City', an interview with Helen Levitt by Melissa Block, National Public Radio, Washington DC, 2002

  2. 2 Ibid.