The funny thing about photography, still, is that the children you see here will always be playing just like that, when the adults they became have moved on, and the photographer who took the picture has passed away. Helen Levitt died this year at age 95. The photograph is about 70 years old. The kids are….eight? And they always will be.
Where are the adults in this image? Their invisibility is a statement about children on the street without adequate supervision, about society’s priorities. But it’s also obliquely a statement about the photographer herself, who doesn’t intervene in this scene either. Levitt stands at a remove, with a wide border of sidewalk between her and the action. The image is carefully framed. Not only by the doorway but also by the echoing shape of the boys above it, who create another standing rectangle with their arms and legs. Unlike the doorway, though, they are not static, but move and push against each other, despite the stillness of the medium. It was Levitt’s particular gift to balance those precarious forces of action and stillness, formal composition and serendipity. That’s a recipe for timelessness. The social commentary in this photograph, if there is any, is as relevant to my childhood on the Upper West Side of New York City in the 1970s as to these children, who lived perhaps a mile away and three decades before me.