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Helen Levitt began making photographs in the mid 1930s. Her technical knowledge came from a commercial photographer with whom she worked, but her artistic education came through exposure to the emerging photographic scene in New York. She was aware of the Museum of Modern Art's incipient photography program, and frequented the Julien Levy Gallery, one of the few galleries that exhibited photographs. In 1935 she saw the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans; she subsequently became friends with both. She printed some of the images for Evans' 1938 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and worked with him on a series of images taken in the New York City subways between 1938 and 1941.
Levitt quickly gravitated to the subject that would become her trademark: children and children at play on the streets of New York, especially in Manhattan's Yorkville, where she lived, and Harlem. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, her work began to appear in publications such as Fortune and U.S. Camera Annual. Her work was included in the MoMA photography department's inaugural exhibition in 1940, and she had her first solo exhibition at MoMA in 1943. In the mid 1940s, the writer James Agee encouraged Levitt to compile her images into a book, to which he would contribute a text. The resulting publication, A Way of Seeing, was published in 1965.
Levitt turned to filmmaking in 1947. In 1949, with Janice Loeb and Sidney Meyers, she made The Quiet One, a feature length documentary about a home for delinquent boys; it received first prize at the Venice Film Festival. In 1951, she completed In the Street, a project with Agee and Loeb that aimed to capture in film the spirit of her photographs. In the early 1960s Levitt began to use color materials in her still photographs, shooting 35mm slides, which she exhibited as projected slides. She returned to black-and-white film in the 1980s. The first national retrospective of her work was organized in 1991 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 1997 she received the International Center of Photography's "Master of Photography" award.