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In the Street

March 8th, 2010  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  5 Comments

Our friend DaddyTypes had a very good week last week. Not only did he bring forth this hilarious Goodnight Moon Star Wars edition by Noah Dziobecki (titled “Goodnight Forest Moon”, of course), but he also reminded us of the awesome that is mid-century New York street photographer Helen Levitt. She’s got an exhibit at the Lawrence Miller Gallery through March 27, but all you need is the Tubes to get a sense of what a mind-blowing documentarian she was. Below is a German-dubbed version of In the Street, a 1947 short film she made with James Agee and Janice Loeb.

After all the handwringing we do about babies in bars, or in car seats, or in preschools, we have clearly neglected the pressing post-war debate: should we let our babies play all day in the gutter?

I doubt that Levitt would have wanted to romanticize poverty, but I’ll ask this anyway: Are our children really that much happier than these kids? We spend a lot of time and money removing our children from the streets, segregating them from the dirt and noise and rhythms of adult life, shuttling them from one overly age-appropriate activity to another, arranging playdates instead of flashmobs, because the literature claims their delicate minds do better in one-on-one interactions. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want my babies to have scabies either. But to see Levitt’s children is to realize that for all our enlightenment, we might not know everything.


Responses

  1. Matt says:

    March 8th, 2010at 2:51 pm(#)

    I don’t know if our kids are happier, but more of them survive to adulthood.

  2. Alan says:

    March 10th, 2010at 9:52 am(#)

    @Matt – I think that has more to do with vaccines and medical advances than income. Oh, and comparatively our child mortality rate in the U.S. is horrible.

  3. klynstra says:

    March 10th, 2010at 10:45 am(#)

    Ditto the above. The premise is wrong, Nathan. This is a beautiful record of a world that once was, but nothing I’d want to return to unless I could negotiate a happy medium. The games look fun and creative, but kids sleeping in firetraps, lolling hours amid dog poop and crones? No thanks.

  4. John Verity says:

    March 10th, 2010at 12:58 pm(#)

    The streets in which Helen Leavitt made her wonderful photos, and this movie (the rest of which is also available on YouTube), were far different from those of today. One thing that always strikes me when I look at her photos is how few cars there were in NYC back then, in the early 1940s. Very few are parked by the curb and very few are rushing by just a few feet from the sidewalks, threatening everyone around them. This made for a much more peaceful city, and children were able to safely play on the sidewalks and yes, along the curb, too. As we can see in these images, people hanged out on their stoops, and this made it much safer for everyone, and especially for children. Children in the city had a world to explore on their own, by foot; today’s children are driven from this mall to that playdate and have no concept of how the immediate landscape, or geography, fits together. Nothing is their own, it’s all an adult-run and hugely-stretched-out landscape in which cars are a must and feet merely vestigial. Bikes are driven off the streets by cars, too.
    And yes, there was much too much dog crap lying around, but if that had been cleaned up by law, as it finally was in the 1970s in NYC, those streets would have been even more friendly and pleasant for children and adults.
    I had a small taste of this mileu, having spent the first eight years of my life in Brooklyn Heights; we left in 1962 for the greener but far less interesting and more sparse (humanity-wise) suburbs of NJ. I am not sure, now, how much I actually remember and how much of my memory has been enhanced by studying photos such as Leavitt’s. But I remember playing in the streets and wandering far from home with no problem – parents were not afraid of letting their children roam far and wide.
    What is worth knowing about Leavitt’s work in the streets is how she shot in lower-income neighborhoods – not to glorify them but because those places, a bit scruffy but alive, had more going on and offered more good photographs to make. She often used a sort of trick lens, which led her subjects to believe she was shooting this way when in fact, her lens was capturing the scene 90 degrees to the side. But more important than any gadgetry, I believe, is that she managed to gain her subjects’ trust, not through trickery but simply by being one of them – a New Yorker but not wealthy, an artist who empathized with the masses living in NY neighborhoods. She herself lived in a tiny apartment in the Village. (She was no Annie Liebowitz, in other words.) And she set up her darkroom there and made great art. She died only recently, in her 90s.
    The Harper’s blog, which I read regularly and which (thankfully) has just led me to this page, uses the phrase “poverty porn from Helen Levitt and James Agee” as its hyperlink; I find this disgusting. There is nothing porn-like about Leavitt’s images. She was a humble and hugely talented observer of humanity and she managed to set the bar for NY street photography.

  5. Nathan says:

    March 10th, 2010at 7:47 pm(#)

    @John I think Harpers was probably using the word ‘porn’ because I am making fun of myself for fetishizing the poverty in Levitt’s work. Ultimately, the other commenters are right: there’s got to be a happy medium between living out on the street and doing so safely and in good health.

    Thanks for the fascinating insight into her work habits. I’d love to get a trick-direction lens. That would have saved me a few confrontations in my day…

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