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Levitt, Helen and James Agee.

A Way of Seeing.


Levitt, Helen and James Agee. A Way of Seeing. New York: Viking Press, (1965).
Oblong 8vo.; illustrated throughout with black-and-white gravure plates; grayish-green endpapers; black cloth, stamped in white on cover and spine; pictorial dust jacket; very minor  shelf wear at top edges. In a specially made slipcase.
First edition. Signed on the title page by Levitt.
Though it did not see print until 1965, A Way of Seeing, Helen Levitt's first published collection of photographs, was essentially completed in 1948. All the pictures in it had been taken over the previous decade in the streets of Yorkville, Harlem, and the Lower East Side, and many of them had already been on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. James Agee, dead ten years in 1965, had written his essay for the book in 1946 during the time he was collaborating with Levitt and her friend Janice Loeb on a cinematic translation of Levitt's work, a short film called In the Street (itself not released until 1952). One New York publisher was seriously considering the book when a key member of the firm died, and Levitt, never an aggressive self-promoter, let the project languish until a friend nudged it back to life. Still, this first version of A Way of Seeing was very much as Agee had imagined it, and it reflects both the sequencing he indicated in his essay and Levitt's modest self-sufficiency.  
Although Agee may not have been the first writer to apply the word "lyrical" to Levitt's marvelously serendipitous images of urban street theater, his essay was for some time their most persuasive critical frame. In this edition, his text literally brackets the 50 photos, which are arranged in an episodic montage-bleak, antic, poignant, sometimes melodramatic, often comic-at once suggestively narrative and as ephemeral as a passing glance. Levitt cropped a number of photos to fit the book's small format and its consistently varied layout design, featuring solitary and juxtaposed pictures, some in full-page bleed, and others straddling the gutter or set up into a corner or framed in broad white bands. (In subsequent editions, published in 1981 and 1989, Levitt restored most of the photos to their full frames and made changes in their sequence, adding some images and dropping others.) Agee's essay, reportedly edited at Viking to remove gratuitous swipes at the evils of photography as well as some of its stickier enthusiasm for Levitt's enterprise, remains tendentious and over the top, yet happily, Levitt's work easily escapes the text's abrasive grip, its buoyancy and grit intact.

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