Discuss a Helen Levitt Photograph

Discussion in 'Discussing a ****** Photograph' started by SuzanneR, Aug 5, 2006.

  1. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    First off, thanks to Jim for coming up with a great way to discuss photographs and photography.

    I wanted to post a photograph by one of the best street photographers ever. Her persistent shooting, imho, has created an extraordinary document of urban living, specifically in NYC in the last century. It's something photography, and her photography does very well.

    www.robertkleingallery.com/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=17344

    I would love to hear others' thoughts on this image.
     
  2. jovo

    jovo Membership Council Council

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    Exactly why moms insist their kids wear clean underpants. Talk about a decisive moment...terrific! (Now it would end up as evidence in court.)
     
  3. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    I really like this one. Levitt is one of the great street photographers. She worked as an assistant to Walker Evans in the 30s and her images of childhood always stirke a contemporary chord regardless of when they were made. A signature of great photography IMHO.

    It is also a nice selection because as opposed to the Minor White and William Eggleston photos that can be interpreted in a variety of ways this is just a simple, wonderful slice of life. I'm glad she had the quick eye to capture it on film. I guess it could also have been titled, "boys will be boys".

    I put up a thumbnail if that works better for others. Title is "Boy Lifting Girls Dress 1943"



    Oh, by the way, I thought Blansky grew up in Canada, not NYC.
     

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  4. Markok765

    Markok765 Member

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    Classic blansky!
     
  5. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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    Levitt is one of my favorite photographers, but I wasn't familiar with this photograph. When I look at this, I think: what was the little boy's motivation? I don't think it was malice, or sexual, I think it was simple curiosity.

    It's difficult (at least for me) to remember the attitudes of childhood. Just today I heard a young child say with great pride: "I'm stepping on your shadows!" to his mother....

    Notice I say nothing about framing here, or the rules of thirds, or composition. I'm astonished Levitt captured this "decisive moment" at all...
     
  6. blansky

    blansky Subscriber

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    This picture is about discovery.

    In this case the greys are trying to rid the area of the whites. They have virtually obliterated the white from the wall and they are threatening the white people. To the little boys complete surprise his fellow grey, after further inspection, is actually a white in disguise.

    It is a lesson we all need to learn.

    Don't trust anybody. Or at least check them out.


    Michael
     
  7. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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  8. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    With the right subject matter and the "decisive moment", all the technical aspects simply become secondary to the image.
     
  9. Bill Hahn

    Bill Hahn Member

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  10. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    I see it much as a coda of the Great Depression photos that Leavitt, Walker etc. had produced.

    With the onset of WWII the shared poverty of the Depression across all racial groups starts to diverge. Leavitt could not have known at the time of this photo that the war then just beginning would result in the a post-war prosperity for whites that would enable them to "flee" the inner city.

    And only now, 64 years later do we see much inner city poverty disappearing. Not because we have solved the problems of the poor - but because we are rapidly gentrifying the core inner city in New York pushing the poor further and further to the margins.

    Then again, it could just be a curious little boy taking advantage of a situation where the girl is focused on her dispute with the other lass. Boys will be boys! :wink:
     
  11. David H. Bebbington

    David H. Bebbington Inactive

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    With the passage of time, these images have indeed become a valuable social document. However, I personally find them too haphazard, particularly in terms of composition, to look at them for pleasure. Above all, I get no sense of the photographer's point of view.
     
  12. c6h6o3

    c6h6o3 Member

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    I find the composition perfect. Nothing is left to chance anywhere within the frame.

    The genius of this photograph is that the decisive moment was seized in such a way as to place everything in perfect balance irrespective of subject matter.
     
  13. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    Agreed!

    The photographer's point of view, I think, is careful observation. They are full of life. This one in particular, is humorous and frightening all at once. I find this aggressive play between the girls a little disturbing. And the boy peeking...well, more of a gander really, is what makes this so decisive, and striking without banging you over the head with a brick like so many HCB photographs. I find it a masterpiece.

    Boy, she really has a pair of eyes for the subtle and not so subtle ways children and people move and play on the street.!
     
  14. Digidurst

    Digidurst Subscriber

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    Isn't that so VERY true! But on the other had, her composition is brilliant in this photograph. Was it luck? Skill? A mixture of both?
     
  15. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    Luck to have stumbled onto the scene, but skill to coherently capture the scene. By this time in her career, she probably had internalized aspects of composition to the point of being second nature.

    Regardless if one thinks this shot is somewhat haphazard, look at some of her other work at the link Suzanne provides. ther are some really masterfull shots where quick eye and thoughtful compositon are more obvious.
     
  16. naturephoto1

    naturephoto1 Subscriber

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    Jim,

    That may be true, but the image could very possibly have been cropped (after it was taken) for printing for some improvement.

    Rich
     
  17. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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    I don't think that a millimeter could have been cropped without decreasing the impact of the image. In fact, all the images from the link are composed perfectly. (Try it yourself -- copy them into Photoshop and try masking/cropping any).
     
  18. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Um, cropping an image that's ALREADY cropped doesn't prove anything?

    Levitt was (is?) the largely unsung master of the side-mirror style initially made well-known by Strand, iirc. Gave her time to compose. Fraenkel recently published a book of her color photos -- I find them distractingly flickr-like, though I haven't quite figured out why just yet.

    (Note that this photo -- in fact all photos by well-known shooters -- can't help but lead to broader feeelings about the full body of published work. Why is this okay for Levitt & not Shore? Beats me)
     
  19. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    If by side mirror you mean a right angle lens, she probably got the idea from Walker Evans who she worked for as an assistant in the early and mid 30s.
     
  20. pentaxuser

    pentaxuser Subscriber

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    So good because it's so natural. Just what kids do. This kind of picture involving the innocence of kids and their amusing behaviour was in every kind of "HowTo" photography book just a few years ago.

    How have we allowed ourselves to sleep walk into an irrational culture of fear, wholely disproportional to the situation, where anyone taking street photography is in danger and anyone whose shots involve kids in any context is in serious physical danger and assumed guilty by the authorities until proved innocent?

    If only we could galvanise Joe Public to react the same way when there was even a hint of a mugging and where the fear is often wholely rational then we'd all be a lot safer.

    Soon all such prints will be last century, if they aren't already.

    Sad

    pentaxuser
     
  21. reellis67

    reellis67 Subscriber

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    I find this one entertaining and well composed, but I don't feel like I need to scrutinize it looking for either the following of specific 'rules' or their violation - it either 'looks right' or doesn't. This genre of photography, by necessity, relies more on the internalization of these compositional concepts that on calculated exactness. Although it is poorly represented online - what photo isn't? - it still has the appearance of having been well exposed and well printed. I like the simplicity and the directness of it, and the possibility of mystery and an interesting backstory.

    - Randy
     
  22. catem

    catem Member

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    I think this is a great photo - if it's difficult to define the photographer's point of view (I'm not saying it is, but the point was raised) what a blessed relief. Keen observation, and documentation is where she's at.

    I like because it says something a little serious with a wry sense of humour. Just when you're getting on with something really important some guy just wants a peek at your knickers. I bet it was serious for that little girl, anyway, if she knew what he was up to. I bet she didn't know which one to punch first.

    I like it because it shows the tension of childhood relationships, the intensity and maybe even horror of it at times (more what's going on between the girls than the opportunist curiosity of the boy), but without overstating and without sentimentalising or making any kind of adult 'comment'.

    The photograph speaks for iteself.

    Cate
     
  23. unohuu

    unohuu Member

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    From a sociological perspective, I see a few things going on here. Inner city stresses; lack of parental supervision (they were working and the kids fended for themselves), an assertion of a pecking order with the miscreant boy child trumping the conflict between the two girls.

    There is a lot going on here. Even from the perspective of the photographer. Seeing and observing rather than intervening. How much observation versus interaction with the children was there? Were they aware that they were being observed? If they were was there simple indifference? Would this have been tolerated if a different social acquaintance had been present?

    Rich with perspective and the moment really is decisive from both photographer and subject POV.