Helen Levitt’s 1970s color photos resonate with a distinctive color palette, full of blue, turquoise, green and red hues. Her shots are of people, alive in their environment, rich in the structure of “ordinariness,” and not simply adornments found in a grey-hued urban landscape. Like Joel Meyerwitz, Levitt waits for those normal gestures that mark humanity, but with a turn that he missed parading up and down 5th Avenue as he did. Levitt worked closer to her Brooklyn home, a place of residences and neighborhoods, and her shots are part of a family album, people perhaps known to her, but not us.
We are given the feeling that we’ve been allowed to peek into those private moments relished by grandparents — a boy leaning possessively on a gumball machine, his potbelly suggesting, perhaps, he’s had enough. Older sister sucks at a straw in her lovely flowered dress — rendered in Levittine hues — waits … we wonder for whom and for how long.
It is an ordinary, stupendous moment, not only because the children are beautiful; not just because they are obviously siblings, telling us more than we deserve to know; but also because they could be us, our parents, the kids down the block. We connect to them because being a child in love with candy is timeless and ever shall be.
Levitt recognized those things we would relate to because they were the moments she related to. Her gift, it could be argued, wasn’t one of technique or editing or even composition (though hers were routinely stunning). Her gift was being a sensitive soul, the type who could aim a camera into an apartment window, at a stranger, and have that stranger hold her gaze and pose, just because she knew Levitt would do her justice.
These children — perhaps descendants of Puerto Rican immigrants — pay her no mind because Ms. Levitt always saw them, always had the camera ready, and always did them justice. That is the gift, the one we all hope to hold, the one that so few of us do.
And yes, we must SEE above all else. We must see how the girl’s clothing perfectly complements her landscape, as Levitt did. The ripe bananas and peaches are the exact colors of her floral print. Her blue tights blend into the wall. The red of the gumball machine matches both the dress and the fruit, and baby brother, his back turned to all of this, himself complementing the grey of the grate, smiles knowingly, as if he’s in on the joke we only slowly recognize. These aren’t real children; surely Levitt painted them here, as Gauguin would have, because fortune couldn’t have blended a more perfect palette nor could a small woman with a camera have seen it so instantly.
Except that she did, and now, for all time, so shall we.