at the Art Institute, through May 2

Helen Levitt’s photographs are gentle, delicate, subtle. Seen a few at a time, or reproduced in books, they may seem only documents of diverse street people–the elderly, the middle-aged, and especially children–caught in positions perfectly expressive of their uniqueness. This in itself is not an inconsiderable achievement, given how often even the greatest photographic or painted portraits become more an expression of the artist’s persona than of the subject’s, or how often pictures of children become trapped in cuteness. But when one views a large number of Levitt’s prints together–as it’s possible to do in this superb show at the Art Institute–a deeper vision emerges, a statement about the true and right relationship between photographer and subject, and between each person and every other.

Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Levitt has spent almost all her life in New York City. Though she was influenced by the social consciousness common to artists working during the Depression, she was rarely overtly political. The 85 images in this show date from 1938 until 1986, spanning almost her entire career; she’s still working today. All but four (from Mexico) were taken in New York City; until 1959 Levitt worked in black and white and after 1959 in black and white and color. The use of a hand-held Leica, and frequently a right-angle viewfinder, allowed her to achieve a directness and spontaneity not possible with larger cameras.

That Levitt came of age during the Depression may help account for the fact that her images are entirely of working-class and poor people, but there’s no simple explanation for the mysterious and ultimately liberating vision she brings to her subjects. Like all great artists who aspire to create some direct relationship between their art and the external world, she understands (with critic Andre Bazin) that “realism” can be achieved only through “artifice.” Bringing her subjects to life is not simply a matter of pointing a well-focused lens in their direction; it involves careful framing and choice of camera angle.

In a 1938 photo, five children are seen playing in back of some tenement buildings. Each seems caught in the middle of some essential action–climbing, walking with open (singing?) mouth, looking. The background is defined by three building walls, each, from right to left, more distant, so that the picture’s space varies from shallow to deep. The camera is also tilted very slightly, so that the walls’ rectangles never parallel the picture’s frame. If the image were more symmetrical and balanced, and more consistent in its levels of depth, we might see it as almost identical with the subjects, as if the photograph offered a direct, transparent view. But the subtle tilt and irregularly receding background open up an invisible distance between the viewer and the scene.

Similar space-opening devices can be found in almost every image in this show. A shot of a pavement graffito of cowboys (1939) is taken with the camera at an extremely oblique angle to the street so that it recedes in depth. A more frontal shot of a graffito of a woman with a tiny head at first glance seems symmetrical; the chalk drawing is framed by two windows. But the window curtains and reflections are different, and the image is actually taken at a very slight angle to the wall so that the wall’s right side is a bit more distant than the left. Streets and curbs often form diagonals; and when a shot is frontal there’s enough diversity of detail to prevent the frame from “locking in” the central subject.

These apparently technical details are not merely a matter of a photographer trying to get a certain look. Indeed, Levitt’s images are never pretty, never beautifully composed, never stunning in themselves. She’s not interested in finding images or forms that impress the viewer or express her sensibility; this is not an artist who imposes her vision on the world. Instead Levitt wishes to observe and represent the world in a manner that respects the integrity and autonomy of its citizens and of their expressions, like graffiti. An image that naively “locks in” to the subject, as snapshots and studio portraits do (perhaps not coincidentally, Levitt’s early training was as an assistant to a portrait photographer), creates a kind of simple identity between picture and subject, as if the photograph were a substitute object. Levitt acknowledges that she can never fully know the people she depicts; the distance her asymmetries create returns to each subject an individuality, a certain freedom.

It’s no accident that many of Levitt’s pictures offer barriers to the viewer’s entry. Though what we are permitted to see is often quite wonderful in itself, scenes also often contain an element that tells us we may not see or understand everything. A 1938 image shows seven boys clustered at a street corner; five seem to be playing together, while a sixth has his back to the group; we can’t see their faces or their game. In front of them the seventh boy looks directly into the camera; he holds his arms out horizontally like a crossing guard, his right hand obscuring the face of one boy looking toward us. His pose asserts that this is a private scene, and the adult viewer may proceed no further. In other shots, children hide behind masks or turn their backs to us. In a 1945 image, we see little more than the legs and feet of several boys playing inside a large box. The box presents a rectangular face of roughly the same proportions as the frame itself: Levitt always identifies with the faces her subjects choose to present to the world, rather than assuming the penetrating gaze of the traditional portraitist.

In Levitt’s later work, compositions tend to be even more complex and open to multiple meanings, and at times unpeopled areas seem as expressive as human figures. A 1980 color image shows two people in a street crowded with vehicles, but we see little of their faces and only fragments of the vehicles. A large part of the background is a white cloth covering a Dumpster and part of a building; the cloth prevents debris from building renovation from falling into the street. But though these objects are clearly identifiable, overall the effect is of a collection of fragments, barriers, masks; the lively, organic, inventive poses of children are replaced by a jumble of almost oppressive surfaces, each of which denies entry. In a 1971 color shot, a woman in the foreground walks toward us on a sidewalk; her hat shades her eyes from view. In the middle ground another woman–wearing a different sort of hat that leaves her face visible–looks at the first. The sidewalk in the far background is in deep shadow, shielded from view in a way that echoes the first woman’s hidden eyes. In both images, the barriers to our entry have none of the playfulness of the boy guard; they seem rather the conditions of a more crowded, more brutal city.

Not all Levitt’s later images are bleak. A 1972 color shot depicts five children on a graffiti-covered street, each facing in a different direction; only one of the children looks at another. The poses range from the commanding look of a boy shielding his eyes from the sun like an actor in a western to the somewhat contorted, angular position of an endearingly awkward gap-toothed girl, who appears not to know exactly what she’s looking at. The composition echoes many of Levitt’s earlier photos–the show also includes a superb 1945 group shot of five people, from a very young child to an older woman, each lost in a separate world. In such images each person’s pose seems a perfect expression of much more than that instant in time: each figure evokes a unique version of some essential human quality–innocence, pride, anger, sadness, joy–with the authenticity, the perfection of a dancer caught in an instant of completely achieved selfhood. At the same time, the way each gazes off in a different direction creates an ever-opening space: our eyes are led in different directions about the frame, and outside it as well.

Levitt’s respect for each person’s individuality is often echoed in her subjects’ attitudes toward each other. In a 1944 image, one little boy sitting on a curb seeks to comfort another, who appears to be crying; they touch, but the comforter does not intrude. In a 1939 shot, a girl grasps a younger boy, holding him tightly but also shielding his face from our view. Her stare confronts the viewer, denying entry, protecting her friend’s or brother’s privacy.

Equally significant in these and most of Levitt’s other photos is the fact that each person expresses a very different mood: she seems to seek out situations that include a wide variety of affects. Taken as a whole, this exhibit is a kind of inventory, almost a symphony, of different emotions. One result is that one cannot identify Levitt’s art, or her meaning, with a single set of feelings: her art is not optimistic or pessimistic, joyous or melancholy. And that is precisely the point: if her images and her formal choices expressed a specific perspective, that would impose a specific vision on her subjects too. These diverse and contradictory emotions tend, in sum, to cancel each other out. Seeing each as a singular, not an absolute, truth, one is left with an openness and generosity that permits the next manifestation of humanity, whatever it may be, to seem equally true.

Levitt’s art is the antithesis of the great tradition of aesthetic formalism, which has given us our dominant view of photographic art for many decades. Edward Weston photographed the vegetables that he ate and the women that he made love to as if they were no more than wonderful shapes to be used for their visual complexity and abstract qualities. At their best his images have the power of the greatest art, but it’s a power achieved by transforming the materials of the world through an inner vision, with its own compositional logic and complex internal relations. Weston seeks to remake the world, if not in his own image, then into images that he loves.

Levitt, by contrast, seeks to find in the world images that she loves. Instead of Weston’s closed, formal perfection, her images have a loose, open, suggestive quality. The eye is led in multiple directions; even in an image of a single person, the subject may be looking one way and gesturing in another. Cumulatively Levitt’s off-center compositions, her antiformalist framing, and the off-frame glances of her subjects create in the viewer a sense of unbounded, ever-expanding space, one that imposes no preconceived limits on the human figure.

This is the space of real liberation: a way of seeing that steps back, seeking neither to enter nor to transform but rather to find tiny miracles in what others may call the mundane. A single hand gesture, the tiny bend in a boy’s legs, the particular pose of a little girl walking toward her mother–in Levitt’s hands, these become moments of revelation, provoking epiphanies as profound as the heart of a Weston artichoke. The deeply expressive poses of her subjects seem almost musical, especially when very different poses combine to make a surprisingly varied composition; this “music” is closer to the unpredictable beats of jazz than to the predetermined rhythmic structures of the Western classical tradition. If a naive documenter seeks to create a substitute for the object and a formalist seeks to transform it, then Levitt, in a vision that is neither naive, presumptuous, nor imperious, seeks to set both object and viewer free.

For the viewer to find a vision of human freedom in elements as subtle as oblique camera angles requires a prolonged, careful, meditative look at a large number of photographs. This exhibit offers the latter, but one aspect of the installation denies the necessary silence. In the center of the single gallery containing the photographs is a video monitor continuously displaying a videotape transfer of a film, In the Street, Levitt made with Janice Loeb and James Agee. This film’s piano sound track fills the galleries almost continuously, except for those blessed moments when the tape is rewinding. The filmmakers decided to add the sound track only after a few private screenings for friends convinced them they needed it; there is no evidence that Levitt felt the same sound track was necessary as continuous accompaniment to her photographs. What was, to my mind, an unfortunate choice on the part of the filmmakers in the early 1950s–providing mood music that directs the film viewer’s vision in a way that Levitt’s images never do–here becomes an aesthetic barbarism. Visitors are advised to bring earplugs.

If this exhibition’s “sound track” is an imposition contrary to Levitt’s observational vision, that is not to say that she doesn’t have specific preferences, tastes, or biases. Her interest in children seems to have many roots, but part of it is surely the playful, imaginative ways they position their bodies. If much of her artistry lies in her particular approach to the world, she also has a view of the relative value of the things of the world. She values individuality over group conformity–there are no military parades here. She prefers old, ornate building facades to spanking-clean new ones, and the organic human body to machine-made objects. A 1939 photo shows a piece of a large poster or billboard, with fragments of letters at left and part of a woman’s face and torso at right, painted in what was for its time an imitation-photographic style. The image itself and the kind of advertising message the letters presumably spelled out–words and images bland enough to be understood by all–represent the kind of thinking to which Levitt’s art is opposed, which is perhaps why we see only fragments. The real focus of this photo is right next to the poster woman’s shoulder: a child’s chalk drawing of a woman, arms akimbo, hemline tilted–it has all the expressiveness of Levitt’s living subjects. A 1980 color photo of a little girl under the rear of a green car makes the point in another way: the girl’s spidery shape, her legs and arms pointing every which way, make a powerful contrast with the car’s sleek, smooth, machine-made lines. A 1971 color photo presents a woman on a stoop, at the frame’s center, surrounded by the steps and front of a moderately ornate brownstone. Her heavy, somewhat flaccid form has an inner dignity that is not out of place with the architecture but powerfully surpasses it.

Two images, among my favorites here, take the contrast between individuals and architecture to an extreme, making the kind of statement Levitt usually eschews. One, shot in Mexico in 1941, shows two boys on the ground in the courtyard of a grand, if faded and boarded-up, Spanish Colonial structure with two levels of ornate arcades. Dwarfed by the building, the boys are entangled in a characteristically Levittian knot, a mixture of wrestling and play. The contrasts established between the repeating arcades and the two boys could not be clearer: Levitt offers a vision of architecture versus the human body; the collective versus the individual; controlled repetition versus the uncontrollable irregularities of play; the imperial versus two children alone; a structure, doubtless copied from others, built for the centuries versus a single, unrepeatable moment in time. One doesn’t sense that Levitt dislikes the old building, only that she likes the children more.

A similar image from New York (c. 1945) shows four girls on a sidewalk next to a street apparently bordered by a stone wall. The girls are different sizes and shapes and–as is so often true in Levitt’s groups of children–of different races. They all look to the left, at five soap bubbles they have presumably just made; these form a luminous contrast to the heavy, dark wall.

It’s impossible to determine the exact location of most of Levitt’s New York photos; too little of the street and of distinctive structures is shown. But to anyone who knows New York well the location of this photo is clear. We are on Park Avenue near 100th Street; the stone wall supports the main line of the former New York Central Railroad, as the tracks come out of the Park Avenue tunnel that leads to Grand Central Station. This rail line was one of the structures that helped define New York and make it what it is, connecting Manhattan to the rest of the nation; the point at which the tracks become elevated also defines the transition between New York’s most expensive and fashionable neighborhood–the Upper East Side–and what was then, as now, one of the poorest: East Harlem, a neighborhood in which Levitt often photographed.

Curator Sandra S. Phillips points out in her helpful catalog essay that when Levitt began making photographs New York was undergoing a building boom; the massive bridges and highways being constructed under the direction of the autocratic Robert Moses, Phillips writes, were “a symbol of what Levitt resisted.” But the structures Moses built had their predecessors–as in the New York Central tracks–and successors. For me, there’s a spiritual link between the grand structures of master builders, which reshape a city, or a planet, into a human image, and the formalist tradition in art, in which the world is transformed–if only on paper–into an expression of an artist’s inner vision. Both are products of a sensibility that seeks to project itself onto the world.

Levitt seeks, more modestly, to find within the existing world emblems of another side of humanity, one that happily–or sadly–finds expression in tiny moments, in a single gesture, in an expressive glance. The bubbles that capture the girls’ attention are kin to the children’s drawings, the graffiti-covered walls, the spidery girl under the car: signs of the individual human spirit, whose fragile, momentary expressions are given, in Levitt’s images, a sublime voice.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.