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Utah Museum Presents One of the Most Important Photographers of the 20th Century
Helen Levitt, New York, c. 1940, c. 1940, gelatin silver print, gift of Toby and Heather Levitt, UMFA, University of Utah © Estate of Helen Levitt, Courtesy Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

SALT LAKE CITY, UT.- In the words of author Robert Coles, “Helen Levitt has had the uncanny ability to offer us those brief, revealing moments in everyday life that give our time here meaning.” The Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) presents Helen Levitt Photographs, an exhibition celebrating the influential works of one of the most important photographers of the twentieth century. This exhibition is presented with support from Albion Financial Group.

Consisting of more than thirty photographs from the museum’s permanent collection, Helen Levitt Photographs are on view in the UMFA’s second-floor LDS Galleria from February 24, 2011–June 12, 2011. Many of the works in this exhibition were donated to the UMFA by Helen Levitt’s family, including her brother, Bill Levitt (1917-2009), of Alta, Utah; Bill’s wife, Mimi Levitt; Bill’s son, Toby Levitt, of Salt Lake City, Utah; and Toby’s wife, Heather Levitt.

This presentation of photographs highlights key periods in the career of artist Helen Levitt (1913-2009), with a special focus on her urban street images of children and everyday life in the late 1930s and early 1940s––when Levitt emerged as a key member of the New York School photographers––as well as later works from her long and accomplished career.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Levitt was a self-taught photographer who lived and worked in the same place for over seventy years. Levitt began her photography career in 1931 when she dropped out of high school to work for commercial photographer J. Florian Mitchell. During this period, Levitt came to know several leading photographers of the time, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn, and she was greatly influenced by their desire to inspire social change through photography.

Levitt began her life-long fascination with urban street life in 1937 while teaching a children’s art class. She became fascinated with ephemeral chalk drawings on New York City streets, and soon began photographing the transitory drawings and the children who made them. From that time on, Levitt focused her work on children who viewed the streets as their playground, and the everyday lives of ordinary people in the city’s working class neighborhoods. Levitt’s black and white photographs during the 1930s and 40s captured fleeting moments in a lyrical, unobtrusive style.

In 1939, Levitt’s noted photograph, Halloween, was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) inaugural exhibition for its new photography section. During the same year, her work was published in Fortune magazine. Four years later the MoMA held Levitt’s first solo exhibition, titled Helen Levitt: Photographs of Children.

Levitt took a job as a film editor in the early 1940s, and soon began working on documentaries and films of her own. In 1948, Levitt was nominated for an Academy Award for The Quiet One, which she wrote and created with Janice Loeb and James Agee. Levitt continued making films for nearly twenty-five years.

In 1959 and 1960, Levitt received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, and returned her focus to still imagery. Levitt was a pioneer in color photography, capturing the innocent, vibrant activity of her beloved New York City streets in dye-transfer color prints.

The first major published collection of Levitt’s work took place in 1965 in a catalogue called A Way of Seeing. Today there are numerous published collections of her photographs. Levitt received her first national retrospective in 1991, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which traveled to major American museums and introduced the nation to one of the most celebrated yet least known photographers in history.

The UMFA’s exhibition, Helen Levitt Photographs, combines dozens of candid black and white photographs from the 1930s and 1940s, as well as later works, both color prints and gelatin silver prints, from the 1970s and 1980s. Together, these photographs highlight Levitt’s astonishing capacity for capturing lyrical and mysterious moments in the everyday life of New York City.

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