A retrospective of the US street photographer overturns conventional wisdom about her work, revealing it as political and human, as well as demonstrating her acute eye for the unusual and telling image

The American poet and cultural critic David Levi Strauss memorably described Helen Levitt as “maybe the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time”. That was in 1997, when Levitt was 84 and the subject of a retrospective at the International Center of Photography in New York, the city in which she was born and made most of her work. Just over two decades on, and 12 years after her death, aged 95, in 2009, one could argue that little has changed in terms of her enigmatic status.

In a few weeks’ time, though, a more radical retrospective of Levitt’s work opens at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, having garnered much attention at the Arles photography festival in 2019. Titled In the Street and curated by Walter Moser, art historian and chief curator for photography at the Albertina Museum, Vienna, it suggests that almost everything you know about Helen Levitt, if indeed you know her at all, is wrong.

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