Sunday, April 18, 2010

Exhibition Proposal - Helen Levitt

In the beginning I was interested by something that John Szarkowski mentioned in his forward for ‘The Idea of Louis Sullivan’ where he talks of the best architectural photographs being found in the casual products of the photojournalist because “the life that surrounds and nourishes the building is seen and felt.” This idea, along with an interest in how photography can put a frame on the theatricality in space, led me to the work of Helen Levitt.

For this seminar, I intend to curate an exhibition of 12 to 20 photos taken by Levitt in Spanish Harlem, New York. The focus of the exhibition will be on her black and white photographs, which were taken in the 30’s and 40’s, and these will be juxtaposed with her colour photos taken later in the 70’s.

Spanish Harlem was a vibrant place in the 40’s – full of new post-war immigrants, Spanish, Puerto Ricans, and Italians. Living in tiny tenements – social and family life pored over onto the street. Filling the streets with life. The lyrical and timeless black and white photos of Levitt captured with natural ease, the essence of these new inhabitants.

The people in her photographs embody with great beauty and fullness, “a natural history of the soul’ according to one of her biggest fans, James Agee. She captures the essence of a free, unselfconscious, untamed people fantastically misplanted in the urgent metropolis of New York.

Again in the words of James Agee, her photos are; “The record of an ancient, primitive, transient, and immortal civilization, incomparably superior to our own, as it flourishes, at the proud and eternal crest of its wave, among those satanic incongruities of a twentieth century metropolis which are, for us, definitive expressions and productions of the loss of innocence.”

Her black and white photos of this period are full of grace, drama, pathos, humour and surprise. For Levitt the street was a stage, and its people were all actors and actresses, mimes, orators and dancers.

However, by the time Levitt was taking her colour photos, 1970’s Spanish Harlem struggled with race riots, drug abuse, crime and poverty. The tenements were crowded, poorly maintained and frequent targets for arson. This change coincides with Levitt's use of colour in her photography. Although still lyrical and bursting with natural choreography, the colour photos add to the story. Facial expressions and gestures can be lost in the colours of the surroundings. The buildings are perceived differently in this coloured medium. To me, there are unmistakeable signs that things have changed. The buildings and people look more worn, the cars are no longer shiny, indeed the streets are not as bustling. Of course the question can be asked - has the society changed or has colour photography removed some of the romance from the images? This is something that the exhibition intends to explore.

In keeping with the theme of the seminar - ‘Space Framed’ -my interest is in how Levitt captured occupied space and how the buildings are used. The essential motif running through the exhibition will be an exploration of the urban stoop…the element that projects outward into the great theatre of the street, an elevated platform ideal for observation, courting, a chat, or gossip... This is the essential space that is framed. Her photos capture the potential of the stoop as described by Jane Jacobs in her writings on the Death and Life of American cities.

The placing of the exhibition takes this in mind. My ideal location would be along the stairs from the mezzanine to the second year studio. Another alternative is to space several exhibits at each stretch of four steps.
(Hopefully in pausing to take in the photographs, opportunities for social interaction on the stairs will increase!)

Also for the exhibition, and drawing inspiration from the format of Szarkowski’s book ‘The Idea of Louis Sullivan,’ I am thinking of adding text to the work. So full of drama, dance and theatre are the streets of Spanish Harlem as described by both Levitt (and Jane Jacobs) that they have also inspired the world of music and theatre. Songs such as Spanish Harlem by Ben E King and Spanish Harlem Incident by Bob Dylan also capture the spirit of this place. I feel that extracts from such examples could add further meaning to the photographs. I also intend to write a short introduction for the exhibition.

The format of the exhibition will be A4 or A3 landscape with an image in portrait and text to the left hand side…examples of which I will bring tomorrow. I intend to experiment with this format and background colours to explore which works best with the light of the stairwell.


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