95 Lives: A Film You Should Know About

The 95 Lives film logo.

Ever wanted to learn more about an amazing, captivating, female pioneer only to find the story undocumented, or worse, simply buried? That's what happened to me when I discovered the work of Jewish American photographer Helen Levitt. I am making a film to fill that gaping hole. 95 Lives uncovers Helen Levitt's legendary career documenting NYC streets for 70 years and transforming American street photography forever. Born in 1913 in Brooklyn to Jewish Russian parents, Levitt died at aged 95 with an outpouring of obituaries celebrating her art while noting her disdain for fame.

When I first learned of Helen Levitt through a photography master class, I wanted to read a biography and watch a documentary about her, a true American master. None existed. When I asked why, the seminar curator (an expert from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) replied, "the right person hasn't come along." I was convinced my documentary training and passion made me ready for a camera-shy photographer like Levitt. A few months later, I flew to New York and met her, as it turned out, just before she passed away. I asked Helen Levitt if I could make a documentary about her life, and she replied, "Wait till I'm dead, hon." I am taking on this no-nonsense photographer because I am passionate for her work's power to make us laugh, think, and travel straight to the moment and place it was captured. I have found a magical world and want to share this story of discovery with you. Why is this story so important?

Will Tanya Reach Her Helen Levitt Film Funding Goal of $28,500 by Sunday 8:59PM PST?

Before street photographers took Manhattan by storm, there was Helen Levitt. An artistic pioneer, Levitt lived as a total enigma, determined to dodge the public eye in favor of what she loved most: capturing the city at play. 95 Lives searches for the many, colorful lives of this female pioneer and the formidable contributions she made to 20th century art and to the city that shaped her incredible body of work: New York.

95 Lives goes back in time to explore Levitt’s near-century life and the rich worlds she navigated: the energy of 1920's Brooklyn, the avant-garde Jewish radicals and European-influenced artists of 1930's Manhattan, the poker mavericks, the African American Lindy Hoppers, and the working class New Yorkers who are beautifully captured in Levitt’s street lens.

How did she find her place in those worlds? How did this razor-sharp Jewish Brooklynite in bright red lipstick find creative inspiration in the street culture, dance halls, and music scene of Harlem? How is her photographic method linked to her star poker performances? Because Levitt famously declined invitations to be interviewed, it’s a treasure to go beyond a character portrait or straight biography into something richer: an inside look into this luminary’s life and the bohemian circles and neighborhoods that shaped her artistic journey.

I'm 75% finished with my filming! I launched production in 2009 in New York with contemporary street photographers; since then, I continue gathering oral history through filmed conversations with artists, friends of Helen Levitt, and scholars related to the story. I felt the race against time in order to speak with some of Helen Levitt's friends who were thriving yet in their late 80's and early 90's. The interviews I secured in the earliest productions are fabulous insights I can't wait to share. For three years, I have been working in archives, historic film collections, and searching for surviving friends of Helen Levitt. I successfully completed a 30-minute short film called Serious Play: The Worlds of Helen Levitt, which accompanied a 2011 museum exhibition with Levitt's work. 95 Lives is an expansion of the short film, with fresh explorations and vibrant reenactments.

I am gripped by the story of a fiercely independent woman who found magic in 1930's Harlem with a used camera. Through her lens, I find visual poetry in our everyday lives. In helping her legacy live on, I hope her work inspires countless more generations of innovators and artists. Ultimately, I seek to change the reality that Levitt is a major female artist of the 20th century who innovated in street photography and film, yet is virtually unknown outside of elite art circles. To introduce the work and life of Helen Levitt to audiences, I activated social media and a film website. Currently, the film is campaigning for final production funds. Kindly join our pages in your preferred way of staying connected. I treasure every backer for the support you share. I can't wait to share Levitt's incredible story with you!

For more on the film, check out the 95 Lives YouTube Channel and their Facebook page.

Topics: Photography, Film
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now


Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

Get JWA in your inbox

Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now

How to cite this page

Sleiman, Tanya. "95 Lives: A Film You Should Know About." 12 December 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 12, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/95-lives-film-you-should-know-about>.