The Invisible Helen Levitt


  • Alison V. Dean Simon Fraser University


This essay considers the photographic performance of Helen Levitt—in terms of her physical, embodied practice, and the ways in which her gender, “dancing” body, and biography are treated through decades of photographic criticism. In this article, I return to critic’s persistent concern with establishing a definitive portrait of Helen Levitt, whose own social and critical invisibility is brought to bear on the reception of her work, from its emergence in the late 1930s to the present day. Unlike many other photographers of her time, Levitt refuses to engage in writing or discussion about either her photographs or her personal life. This refusal has a muting effect on would-be writers and biographers, and critical discourse on Levitt’s work remains stagnant over the course of decades. Considering the ways in which critical desire and photographic performance intersect (and in this case, find themselves at cross-purposes), this article addresses the relationship between the (female) body and the machine, the pitfalls of critical desire, and the way the “values” of the critics and archives perform on the career of Helen Levitt. This article ultimately argues that Levitt’s work, and the body of criticism that frames her, deserves a closer look.

Author Biography

Alison V. Dean, Simon Fraser University

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Lake District Online Research Project, Simon Fraser University.