Issue #160  4/17/2009
Three Major Photographers Pass Away At End of March: Helen Levitt, Pirkle Jones and Gianni Giansanti

Three of the giants of photography passed away at the end of last month: Helen Levitt, Pirkle Jones and Gianni Giansant.


Helen Levitt died on Sunday, March 29th and word of her passing quickly filtered through the exhibition hall at AIPAD. Levitt was a native New Yorker and passed away in her sleep at her fourth-floor walk-up near Union Square in Manhattan. She was 95 and is survived by her brother Bill Levitt and several nieces and nephews.

Levitt was born on August 31, 1913, in Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn, NY. She dropped out her senior year of high school and went to work in 1931 for J. Florian Mitchell, a commercial portrait photographer in the Bronx that her family knew. Levitt began to work for him in the darkroom, printing and developing at a salary of $6 per week.

Levitt approached both Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. She photographed along with Cartier-Bresson on the New York docks, when the French photographer was here in the U.S. in 1935. She even purchased a used Leica in 1936, which is the camera Cartier-Bresson himself preferred. Levitt approached Evans about her photos of children and wound up helped Evans make prints for his exhibition and book "American Photographs."

Through Evans, Levitt met fellow photographer Ben Shahn, who greatly influenced her work, and writer James Agee, who became a good friend and also an influence on her photography. As Evans noted, "Levitt's work was one of James Agee's great loves, and, in turn, Agee's own magnificent eye was part of her early training."

She spent much of the 1930s and 40s shooting the inhabitants of the streets of New York City and became known as one of the finest black and white street photographers of her time.

Fortune magazine was the first to publish Levitt's work in 1939. The very next year her Halloween picture was included in the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art's photography department, and in 1943 she had her first solo show at the Modern.

To support herself, Levitt worked as a film editor. Her friend Janice Loeb introduced Levitt to the film director Luis Buñuel, who hired Levitt to edit his pro-American propaganda films. By 1949, and for the next decade, Levitt was a full-time film editor and director.

Levitt returned to still photography in 1959, although she switched from black and white to color photography. The project was largely subsidized by Guggenheim fellowships that she received in 1959 and 1960. But much of this early color work was lost when her apartment was burglarized in the late 1960s. In the 1990s she gave up color because of her frustration with the lab work--the colors weren't always what she wanted.

Levitt had several solo gallery retrospectives, including those held at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York in 1980 and at the Laurence Miller Gallery in 1987. In 1991 the first national retrospective of her work was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to a number of other major museums.


Photographer Pirkle Jones died on March 15 in San Rafael, CA. He was 95 and had lived in Mill Valley, CA. He was known for a number of photography projects and especially for his work on the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. In an interview just last year in Art & Antiques magazine, he described his career "as a bridge between the classic photography of Ansel Adams and the documentary work of Dorothea Lange".

Born in Shreveport, LA, Jones bought his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, when he was only 17 and began to exhibit in the camera salons of the 1930s. After enlisting in the Army and spending his time in the Pacific, he returned and stayed in San Francisco after the war, enrolling in the new photography department at the California School of Fine Arts, which was headed by Ansel Adams.

Jones and Adams hit it off and Jones began to work with him as an assistant and printmaker from 1947-1953. Adams later brought him into an artistic circle that included Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Minor White and others.

Jones married Ruth-Marion Baruch, a fellow photography student and poet. It was through his wife much later that he came to photograph the Black Panthers. Baruch worked with and became a friend of Kathleen Cleaver, the wife of the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver.

In 1956 Jones worked together with Dorothea Lange to help her document the Berryessa Valley, which was soon be inundated by the completion of the Monticello Dam. Their photo essay, entitled, "The Death of a Valley," was finally published in 1960 in an issue of Aperture, and became an instant photojournalism classic. Jones later recalled the collaboration "as one of the most meaningful photographic experiences of my professional life."

Jones's next collaboration was with his old mentor, Ansel Adams. The two worked together on a photo essay on the building of the Paul Masson Mountain Winery.

In 1961 he and his wife spent time in Walnut Grove, CA, to create a comprehensive picture of a dying town. Later he worked again in 1968 with his wife as they photographed the Black Panther movement with the stated goal of promoting a better understanding of the party. The De Young Museum in San Francisco showed the work and drew more than 100,000 visitors. The photographs were published as a book entitled, "Black Panthers".


Gianni Giansanti, a well-known photojournalist, who was known as the "unofficial photographer of Pope John Paul II", died reportedly of bone cancer on March 18 in Rome. He was 52. He was known for his nearly 30 years photographing Pope John Paul II in both public and private moments.

Giansanti's photographs have appeared regularly in newspapers and magazines internationally with many of the images distributed by the Sygma photo agency, for which Giansanti did much of his work.

On Oct. 16, 1978, Giansanti was present in St. Peter's Square when Karol Jozef Wojtyla, a Polish cardinal, was elected pope. For the next 27 years until John Paul's death in 2005, Giansanti followed the Pope on scores of foreign trips and at the Vatican.

Gianni Giansanti was born in Rome in 1956, where he began working as a freelance photographer in 1977. His career-making break was when he captured a dramatic photograph of the body of Aldo Moro, the former Italian prime minister who had been kidnapped, shot and left in the trunk of a car by members of the Red Brigades, a terrorist group.

His many other photographs include images of Pope Benedict XVI, the writer Primo Levi, the pianist Maurizio Pollini, the fashion designer Valentino and a variety of world leaders, among them Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. He also photographed the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and the famine in Somalia in the early 1990s.

Giansanti had several books of photographs published, including "John Paul II, Portrait of a Pontiff" (1996) and "Vanishing Africa" (2004).

Giansanti's survivors include his wife, Anna, and two children.