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Artist
Helen Levitt
Title
New York
Date
c. 1940
Medium
gelatin silver print on paper mounted on matte board
Dimensions
Image: 7 1/2 × 10 1/2 inches (19.1 × 26.7 cm)Sheet: 11 × 14 inches (27.9 × 35.6 cm)Matted: 16 × 20 inches (40.6 × 50.8 cm)
Tags
Photography
Credit Line
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.
Accession Number
1996.5
Helen Levitt was born in Brooklyn, and New York City remained her home until her passing in 2009. It was there, in 1935, that she met Henri Cartier-Bresson, a defining event in her career. Through her contact with Cartier-Bresson, she began to recognize the power of ordinary events and people. She acquired a Leica hand-held automatic camera, which afforded her the luxury of making pictures instinctively and instantaneously as she strolled the neighborhoods of the city. Thus armed, and with Cartier-Bresson as her muse, she established an approach to photography that was to become her trademark: capturing that moment when a gesture or a glance or a series of poses define the reality of a poetic moment.

Levitt’s photograph of three children standing on the top steps of a brownstone in New York is a prime example of her success in this pursuit, and is probably her most recognized image. In 1940 the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which had become an early champion of the art of photography, organized the exhibition Sixty Photographs, which included her now-iconic picture made that same year. Levitt recalls that it was probably Halloween because the children are wearing masks and she “always went out on Halloween.” The simplicity of her signature approach is apparent. She captures the precise moment when formal elements hold the composition together, yet the children are portrayed as individuals with worlds of their own to conquer. In this relatively simple moment, three masked children are frozen in anticipation of whatever comes next while enjoying what is now. It is hard to imagine that an artist using any other medium could possibly have composed a more perfect metaphor for childhood. The fact that it was done in an instant makes it all the more remarkable.