New York is one of the most photographed cities in the world. It is a city that is full of energy and characters that creative types of all kinds are magnetically attracted to. It is also a place where legends are made. One person who falls under both those categories is photographer Helen Levitt. A new book called “Manhattan Transit: The Subway Photographs of Helen Levitt” (Walther Konig, 2018) showcases some of the work that her native city of New York compelled her to make — candid, sometimes whimsical portraits of her fellow subway passengers. While the subject has been photographed by dozens of people over the years, there is an interesting backstory to how Levitt began her foray underground. The photographs, many previously unpublished, also provide us with a compelling window into the past.
In 1938, Levitt set out with another hallowed photographer who had the idea of photographing New Yorkers as they sat in the subway, hurtling through tunnels uptown, downtown or crosstown. That photographer was Walker Evans, and he, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, was a friend and mentor. Evans is probably best known for his large-format work documenting the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. But at the time he and Levitt embarked on their subterranean journeys, he decided to veer away from the large cameras he used in favor of a little 35mm Contax. Levitt wasn’t just along with Evans for companionship. Yes, she was taking her own photographs. But also, according to MoMA.org, “for extra assurance, he [Evans] asked his friend and fellow photographer Helen Levitt to join him on his subway shoots, believing that his activities would be less noticeable if he was accompanied by someone.” Evans eventually finished his project and presented his work to the world. But the work that Levitt did stayed under wraps until decades later. In fact, four decades later, in 1978, Levitt returned to the subway system to continue her work.
Levitt was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to working-class parents in 1913. Eighteen years later, Levitt decided she wanted to become a photographer, so she dropped out of school and started working in a darkroom to learn about photography. She would go on to have a career spanning many decades and become one of the most well-known and revered photographers in the world. Levitt, who has been called “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time,” is primarily known for her work as a “street photographer.” Throughout her life, she turned her lens on her fellow New Yorkers, from documenting children’s chalk drawings on the streets to exploring neighborhoods from Harlem to the Lower East Side. And now we can see the most comprehensive collection of the work she did underground in the arteries of the New York City subway. These photos take us through the turnstiles and on a journey riding the rails of a bygone MTA.
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