How one photographer illuminated humanity on New York’s streets in the 1960s-1980s
What is it that makes us human? It might be our resilience; our ability to come together in times of need; to create, even in times of dire hardship. This is the portrait of humanity presented in Builder Levy’s photographs of New York City, shot between the 1960s and 1980s, and now collected in a forthcoming book published by Damiani, titled Humanity in the Streets.
Levy in fact started out as a painter and sculptor – as an art major at Brooklyn College, as he explains in a preface to the book, he defined himself as an abstract expressionist. ‘At the same time,’ he writes, ‘I felt a need for a direct connection to the social realities of life in the city, nation, and world.’
It was this social impulse that propelled Levy out onto the streets of New York with a camera, and specifically, to the streets that swelled with civil rights and anti-war protests. Identifying with the causes he captured, he referred to himself as ‘a partisan participant’.
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Medallion Lords, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, 1965, by Builder Levy
He is not as well-known as some of his peers in the genre – but this doesn’t take away from his place in the canon. As Deborah Willis writes in an introduction, ‘He is quick and he is steady as he shapes a story about protest and the everyday. He questions what it means to be non-violent when arms surround a young black man’s neck in a menacing way.’
The camera wasn’t only a way to document what was going on in the world around him – a world he knew well. It was the way to seek out ‘possibilities of a better world’, to make some order out of the chaos and find some beauty in the turbulence.
From Coney Island to photographs Levy shot while living, and teaching in Forte Greene, Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant, many of his images, though soaring with human spirit, are depressingly similar to scenes today, as protests continue to ripple under Trump’s reign. Yet what you also notice about Levy’s pictures are the smiles: children, protesters, passersby – they are angry, but they are empowered. §
Students with Signs, at the citywide school boycott rally, near headquarters of the New York City Board of Education, Downtown Brooklyn, 1964, by Builder Levy
Alternative High School Student in Telephone Booth, Manhattan, 1989, by Builder Levy
Group in Hall, Concord High School, Staten Island, 1989, by Builder Levy