Wednesday, April 08, 2009
I Decided I Should Take Pictures
"Photographer Helen Levitt, best known for her lyrical depictions of New York City street life, died in her sleep at the age of 95. Brooklyn-born Levitt dropped out of high school and in 1931 took a job working for a commercial photographer in the Bronx. "And I decided I should take pictures of working class people and contribute to the movements," she said in a 2002 interview with NPR. "Whatever movements there were—Socialism, Communism, whatever was happening. And then I saw pictures of Cartier-Bresson, and realized that photography could be an art—and that made me ambitious."
That's something of an understatement. Levitt soon met Cartier-Bresson (during his 1935 stint in New York), befriended Walker Evans, and through him, met Ben Shahn and James Agee, who both proved to be major influences on her work. In 1943, she had her first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and went on to show in Edward Steichen's landmark 1955 "Family of Man" exhibition and many, many other shows, including retrospectives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Upon visiting her apartment, a reporter was surprised to find none of Levitt's photographs on display. "I know what they look like," she said. "I don't want to look at them all the time."
The brain understanding itself
Laughs at its shenanigans, its poetry in motion,
Even the missed step, misstep,
The Trip on the near ladder rung or near the top railing,
The Unfortunate standing on a dance partner’s toe safely covered in shoe.
Even in the Old Days, as ancients prepared to visit the Oracle,
They were reminded to Know Thyself; know what you want to know,
Before you ask for answers, and be ready to hear the answers,
I’ve always had this affinity for infinity, this dalliance with what I thought was brilliance, teasing it out,chasing it down, the light at the end of the hallway, or the Shakespeares, the Sherlock Holmes among us, moving fast with lantern in hand, eyes on the next prize, the answers always ready to be shown, as asked for.
When I read of someone like Helen Levitt dying, and a quick postcard view of her life affinity for photographing the common man of her world, the people on the city street, how she came to know this documentation itself was its own art, her way – I’m reminded of how beautiful it is when we follow, live the art of our heart through the tenacity of our thinking mind. The obituaries and tributes I read of Helen Levitt brought Grace Paley to my mind. I love images, documentation, especially when images are appreciated in their own detail. Certain minds appreciate certain images, because our emotional memories are what they are to us, and our thinking evolves as we develop those relationships within us, honor them as the eternal flames they are, in life.
Recently I watched part of a UNCTV program about linguists. Two young scientists documented their journeys around the world, in their commitment to preserve dying languages. They traveled to Siberia, Bolivia, among other places. They did a wonderful job sharing their commitment to this preservation of life. My memory may be inaccurate, but I think I remember that in Siberia, fewer than 10 people still speak Chulym, and 4 of those had died since the four years of their documenting. Some of their subjects had never seen a video camera or computer, nor, then, themselves upon the screen, played back. One man wiped tears from his eyes as he remembered his mother encouraging him to keep the language. He spoke of his disappointment and shame when he tried to write the language, using Russian letters, and offended people when he showed it to them and they did not understand it. It was another great example to me of how much damage we create, with its many ripple effects through history and culture, when we fear something “unknown” to us, and we are unwilling to embrace new thought, knowledge, learning ,change - and how much wonderful memory, joy, we create when we acknowledge and cherish our memories.