Four girls are walking down the sidewalk, their backs to us. It is summer and they are dressed in shorts and sundresses. It's a gritty, stained street. Three of the girls are black, and one is white, but they are comfortably strolling together, all intently looking over their left shoulders at something that is barely visible against the wall across the street -- five small shimmering soap bubbles, gently crossing the street and floating away.
This photograph from New York City's East Harlem in 1945 is one of the many pictures that Helen Levitt took between the mid 1930s and mid 1940s that depicted life on the streets of New York, and in particular, the play of children in the vacant lots, on the curbs, and in the doorways along those streets. A native New Yorker, Levitt had learned her craft from a portrait photographer and had intended to start a similar business of her own, before she met Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans during the thirties and discovered, that she was more interested in the urban dramas that she witnessed daily than in anything that could be posed in a studio.
In one of her better-known images, this one from 1938, a group of boys, black and white, are sprawled on the pavement of a streetcorner. They are peering into the gutter -- perhaps they have found something in the sewer and are trying to fish it out through the grating. One boy, though, has seen the camera, and has positioned himself, his arms spread backward, to protect his friends from the intrusion of an adult into their secret world.
Levitt caught these moments among children -- not of organized play -- but of expressive spontaneity and of powerful involvement with one another. In another photo, two young African American boys sit together on a curb -- one is upset and turns away from his brother, crying, hiding his face in his hands, while his brother looks on, holding his hand, trying to comfort him. Black children in this country had not been presented this way before, in their own full personhood -- nor had children as a tribe been photographed as Levitt did these kids. She even preserved their chalk drawings and scribbles on the sidewalks and walls -- the heiroglyphics, as her friend James Agee called them, of their mysterious, poignant presence, that appeared fleetingly and then vanished, like those soap bubbles.
Copyright 2003 © John Cech
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