The Web site overheardinnewyork.com is devoted to eavesdropping: Bits of conversation are posted by those who overhear them so everyone can share. This entertainment is possible in New York because we are so frequently within earshot of strangers. On the street, in buses and subways, in elevators, in bars and restaurants, we constantly find ourselves smack in someone else's drama. "Helen Levitt Slide Show: Color Photographs 1959-1984," the photography exhibition currently at the Laurence Miller Gallery, is a visual correlative of the Web site.
Photographing bits and pieces of private lives played out in public was one of the central occupations of the photographers of the New York School, a loose agglomeration of artists who flourished here in the middle decades of the 20th century. And Helen Levitt was one of the best of these - she still is. Ms. Levitt is much too private and single-minded a person to be considered part of any formal movement, but she was subject to many of the same influences that affected the rest of them: Charles Baudelaire's notion of the flaneur, "the passionate spectator ... in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and infinite"; leftish political ideas that revalued the spectacles observed in urban thoroughfares, as exemplified by the Elmer Rice-Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes opera "Street Scene"; and Henri Cartier-Bresson's use of the 35 mm Leica camera to take candid photographs of great beauty.
Ms. Levitt, a native of Bensonhurst and a high school dropout, needed no introduction to the city's streets. Her close friendships with Walker Evans and James Agee helped her absorb Cartier-Bresson's inspiration. She is known for the black-and-white street photographs she began taking in the 1930s, but in 1959 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the techniques of color photography; the grant was renewed in 1960.Though the color slides she took in this period were shown as projections at the Museum of Modern Art in 1963, little of her color work has been seen since. Most of the prints in the Miller Gallery exhibition were made recently and take advantage of current technologies. They show her to be as deft with color as she is with black and white.
"New York, 1959" is a very simple picture. A young child, maybe 2 years old, sits naked on a windowsill looking at the camera: to his left, a supervisor keeps an eye on him. The light brown complexions of the two and their black hair are markers for Latinos. The missing paint on the wood of the windowsill is an indication that the building is not well-maintained. The lace curtains and the smart print short-sleeve shirt are clues of family respectability and aspiration. But the attention-grabber is the little boy's face: He has heavy black eyebrows, a moustache and goatee, and black stitches on his right cheek and left forehead that someone drew with charcoal or mascara. Why? No idea. He looks as uncomprehendingly at the camera as we look at him.
How effectively has Ms. Levitt used color in this image? It is not as lush as the color Ernst Haas was using about this time, nor as essential as William Eggleston's, but Ms. Levitt is an artist in a subtle key. The press release I received from the gallery had a black-and-white reproduction of this picture, and it was nowhere near as compelling. The warm skin tones were gone, and with it much of the contrast between the baby flesh and the white curtains. The contrast of the black face decoration was also less marked when the face became a medium gray. Ms. Levitt never draws attention to her technique; here, as always, her point is for us to see the people.
The more dramatic use of red in "New York, 1976" is another case in point. On a street - probably in Spanish Harlem, where Ms. Levitt frequently shot - the front end of a car is jacked up so the motor can be worked on by one man from below, and the hood is raised so it can be worked on by another man from above. The two men are headless as they minister to the car's mechanical problems. The front and rear quarter panels of the car are red, albeit pretty dented and scratched; the door is pale blue and the vinyl roof black. The front tire is a whitewall, the back tire not. The patchwork effect gives a carnival note to what is humble transportation, and contrasts with the serious intent of the men: a classic example of Ms. Levitt's wry wit.
A more laugh-out-loud example is "New York, 1988," a woman and two children squished into a telephone booth. The delicate pale-blue print of the woman's dress contrasts with her solid figure. The green beer bottle in the street, the yellow curb, and the brown car to the right all help to establish the locale.
A picture that is achingly New York is the one taken in the 1970s of a woman distraught in public. There is nothing fancy about this picture. A woman, heavy from the starchy diet of the poor, bows her head on the chest of a man who rests his hand on her shoulder as they both stand on the sidewalk. He is wearing black pants, a white short-sleeve shirt, and a gray fedora with a wide black hatband. She, in contrast, has a green headscarf, a bright green blouse and a print skirt, pale blue with yellow flowers. Across the street, a sign with bright blues advertises Hellman's mayonnaise in Spanish on a building whose solid window guards are rolled down and covered with graffiti.
What grief causes the woman's distress? What is her relationship to the man who consoles her? Is he her pastor? Her husband? A neighbor? A kind-hearted stranger? If you walk about the city often enough, you see these little tragedies where the emotions are as clear as the facts are obscure. Helen Levitt, now in her 90s, recorded these slight moments in color decades ago. They are still part of our ambience, like the playlets made from snatches of dialogue on overheardinnewyork.com.
Until December 23 (20 W. 57th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212-397-3930).