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The fools in the streets of New York

Helen Levitt's exhibition shows how life in New York City's streets in the nineteenth century could be fun and fun – especially for the little ones.


Display: Helen Levitt
Albertina Museum in Vienna, Austria
For 27. January 2019

Helen levitt

The exhibition of works by American photographer Helen Levitt (1913 – 2009) at the Albertina Museum in Vienna showcases a humorous, surrealistic and playful art, with images snapped on the streets of the poor neighborhoods of Harlem and the Bronx in New York City. The exhibition includes works from Levitt's time as a street photographer for documentary filmmakers and highlights her as a pioneer in color photography.

In the middle of the 1930, Levitt went shopping for an 35mm Leica camera – Henri Cartier-Bresson's favorite (1908 – 2004) – and began taking pictures of children's culture in the streets of Manhattan. Her artistry is strongly influenced by Cartier-Bresson and surrealism, where her compositions contain elements of enigmatic and humorous coincidences that appear surreal.

Levitt took pictures intuitively as she strolled down the streets of New York. She often caught passersby in strange poses, giving their bodies an alien look. Like the boy in the pram (New York, 1940), where the body of the mother, who bends down in the stroller the son sits in, seems alienated and weird. The picture makes me laugh, while it seems mysterious and weird.


It is striking to see how vital, creative, inventive and playful the children at that time are, compared to the children of our time, who often sit indoors and "play" on the iPad. Levitt portrays children playing in high gear with what they find on the streets.

The exhibition is a political commentary on the technological world in which we live.

Everything from the photo with the kids who have found a frame to play with (New York, 1940), for children recreating World War II fight scenes with cardboard rifles, seems both naïve, creative and disruptive at the same time.

Towards the end of his 70-year career, Levitt expresses deep sorrow at the changes in the New York landscape: “Children used to be outside. Now the streets are empty. People are indoors, watching television or something. ”

The Levitt landscape, with its portraits of individuals in surreal circumstances, reminds me of the theater genre jester ( "Fool"). I experience the individuals as the fools of the street. Every single person in her photographs represents archetypes from different walks of life: We have the rich woman in fur and high heels – the gossip women sitting right outside the house – the poor boy begging on the street – the working class mother at home – and so on.

In the political and humorous theater genre bouffon, the fools laugh at their audience – and not the other way around. The people in the Levitt landscape are like the characters in a bouffon play, with the street as the stage. When I see them stare smiling into the camera lens, it's just as if they're laughing at me and the times I live in, with war, racism, right-wing extremism, oppression of women, consumerism, and the catastrophic climate crisis just around the corner.

The street as a playground

The big and small bouffon characters use the street as a playground. It is inspiring to see how they exploit the potential of the street in the play: The children hide in nooks and crannies, and play with everything that already exists in the street, such as the public water taps.

For children, what is not meant to be a toy is often more interesting to play with than actual toys. My nine-month-old daughter confirms this theory: She often finds it more interesting to play with a spoon or a wet wipe than the expensive and fancy toys I bought for her. I am reminded daily that simplicity is often the best.

In this political play by Levitt, the children act as actors and the adults as extras or interactive spectators. It inspires, delights and touches me. Part of me wants to take part in the game, but unfortunately these small communities that are captured in her photographs have disappeared from our time. I experience the exhibition as a political commentary, about the technological world we live in, where we are controlled by our mobile phones.

As I watch an excerpt from the short film In the Street (1948) in the last room, I think I wish there was a time machine so I could turn back time and rather live in New York in the 1940s. Suddenly my thought is broken by my mobile phone ringing.

Pinar Ciftci
Pinar Ciftci
Ciftci is a journalist and actor.

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