Friday, May 20, 2011

Kids with Masks, Helen Levitt

Identity Loss
According to, Helen Levitt was an American photographer particularly noted for her “street” photography around New York City and has been called “the most celebrated and least known photographer of her time.” In 1959 and 1960, Levitt received two Guggenheim Foundation grants to take color photographs on the streets of New York. She lived in New York for nearly 70 years. Helen Levitt was known to be notoriously private publicity shy.
According to, in 1938, Levitt contracted with Evans and Cartier-Bresson, both members of the Film and Photo League. Evans had a way of being sparingly, frontally direct with his common place subjects and Cartier-Bresson had a gift for catching everyday life in graceful, seemingly transparent flux. These two had a lot of impact in Levitt’s photography technique. Helen Levitt had a way of capturing instances of a cinematic and delightfully guileless form of street choreography that held at its heart, as William Butler Yeats (an Irish poet and playwright) put it, “the ceremony of innocence.” According to, in an interview, Helen talked of using a device that fit on her Leica camera called a winkelsucher which allowed her to look one way and take the picture the other. It virtually allowed her to turn her camera sideways and capture moments people had no idea were being photographed.
The photograph “Kids with Masks” was taken in the early 1940’s. Needless to say, the photo was taken on the streets of New York City. Levitt captured three small children getting ready to go out for Halloween in their masks, according to However, beyond the real reason the children were dressed like that, I believe Levitt was trying to communicate a less obvious message.
In this photo, there are three young children; believed to be one girl and two boys. The girl stands on the top step wearing a nice dress holding up her mask. One boy is standing with one foot on the top step and one on the bottom step also wearing a mask covering his face and nice pants and a jacket. The other boy is standing on the bottom step, peering off into the street with a nice jacket, pants, and a mask as well. The porch they’re on looks to be made of concrete with an old chipped wooden doorway, and elaborate looking railing. It looks like the porch belongs to either a small home or apartment type building. The door is made of glass panels that reflect the building across the street. At the bottom of the door is a wooden rectangular frame design and also has wood that frames the outside of the glass. The actual building is made of brick, which you can see in the far right. The boy in front seems more relaxed with his legs crossed, while the other two seem unready and have uncrossed legs.
Was Levitt really trying to capture Halloween in New York City or a deeper reflection of society during that time? Could it be possible that this painting symbolizes how people in the 1940s and still today have to put on a certain cover before going out into the real world? Does acceptance have greater importance than one’s inner being and feeling? The masks represent the cover up that many people put on to create a different identity or illusion than what they really are at home. You can see that the little girl, being closer to the doorway between reality and the real world is still trying to get her mask on all the way. Does that bit of struggle to hold up her mask as she enters the outside show that we as humans have the hardest time pretending to be something we’re not when we’re closer and more connected to our inner selves? The farther we are from being in touch with who we really are the easier it is to identify with something you’re not? The little boy on the first step is completely relaxed and comfortable with his new identity and also happens to be farthest from the home. The doorway could represent the passageway from identity to fraud. The wooden frame along the outside is strong and sturdy which could be the image that most people put on in public while inside the frame are fragile glass panels that reflect the outside images which represents our inner being that we try to hide. Do we all try to prevent revealing the truth? Does the world around us influence what we do and reflect into the kind of person we become? Has honesty and openness become a sign of the weak?
The concrete porch represents the sturdiness and stability a person believes they stand on when they stay closed off and lie to the world, instead of showing what’s inside and risking vulnerability. If they didn’t have that barrier to keep up in front of others, they’re concrete porch would come crashing down around them. Do people’s opinions really cause that much satisfactions and self-acceptance?
The archetype “the innocent” can be seen in this photograph. The children in the painting represent this innocent and inexperienced being. They’re like a clean slate without much reflection from society, yet it shows that the youth of our culture is already being influenced by what they see around them. Why did Levitt use children as the main subject of this photograph? Was it to show how these children being very na├»ve still mock what they see around them? Are we dooming the future generation to a life of fraud and dishonesty.
Levitt was truly a mastermind of her time. Her photographs revealed images of society being caught off guard and most subjects not even knowing Levitt was taking a picture. Her work makes you look at things more closely and question the behavior of society. Levitt didn’t let the little things go unnoticed.


  1. I do believe that the photographer is trying to get a deeper meaning on identities. On how that everyone puts on a mask in society and when you are at home you are yourselves and don't have to wear a mask. I can see the archetype innocents because they are little kids and have done nothing wrong. I think that Levitt used children in the photo because she wants to say that even the little innocent kids put on masks in society. Therefore adults would definitely have masks on.

  2. That was a really cool interpretation. I find it very interesting she used a camera that took a picture of something that was not directly in front of her, very sneaky. I agree with the deeper meaning you have brought forth. I feel like the children could also represent the youth and how hiding who you really are can start so young. I really like this picture too, I love how she captured something so natural yet so interesting.

  3. When I first saw this photograph, I thought it was going to be one of Diane Arbus. The way you interpreted the photo also has similarities to Arbus' work. I don't doubt that Levitt was trying to portray a deeper meaning than simply Halloween. I noticed that the little girl is still putting on her mask and she is closest to the door. Using your interpretation, I would say that she feels the least comfortable, not yet ready to fully commit to fraud.

  4. I find it weird, almost false, to recognize symbolism in a candid photo. A candid photo is just a still of something someone is doing. I find it hard to believe the symbolic elements of this photograph, or view this photo as symbolic at all, because these kids didn't plan to do this in order to portray a meaning. They simply happened to be captured on camera while being themselves.