THE PHOTOGRAPHS OF BUILDER LEVY:
HUMANITY IN THE STREETS

APRIL 26TH TO AUGUST 11TH
128 Pierrepont Street

BROOKLYN HISTORICAL SOCIETY IN COLLABORATION WITH PRATT INSTITUTE STUDENTS

“The camera allowed me to capture and particularize the emotional and ideological experience of those intense times. “– Builder Levy

For Builder Levy (b. 1942), who has lived and worked in New York City for most of his life, the camera provides the most compelling tool to make sense of the political and social landscape that was the setting for fights for justice and civil rights, physical decay and development, and work and play. This exhibition offers a selection of Levy’s photographs that reflect the variety of these experiences – from some of the city’s most important civil rights protests to gatherings on a brownstone stoop. The compatibility of these images reflects Levy’s insistence that these struggles for equality happened in the activities of daily life as well as in public demonstrations. 

This perspective developed while a student at Brooklyn College, under the tutelage of the photographer Walter Rosenblum. Through Rosenblum, Levy met late generation members of the Photo League, a group, founded in the 1930s, committed to the alliance of art and social action in documentary photography. Leading members such as Paul Strand inspired Levy’s work as did the Harlem Renaissance photographer Roy DeCarava, whose photo-poem, Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), was set to the words of poet Langston Hughes.

Teaching in Brooklyn public schools and local park programs deepened Levy’s way of looking and allowed him to instill the same in those around him. Just as his mentor Rosenblum had encouraged him to go into the streets with his camera, so he encouraged his students; together they boldly but unassumingly explored what was before them. This focus on personal experience can be seen in such works as Levy’s March on Washington that depicts not a wide view of speakers or crowds, but a single woman with a thoughtful gaze. His photograph of Malcolm X captures the civil rights leader not commanding an audience but in an unstudied smile.  His image of a man and woman in Coney Island Couple moves the lens from the neighborhood’s signature roller coaster to the locking of eyes that similarly represents the conviviality of the place. 

No matter the combination of community activism, daily routines, urban life, and artistic eye, Levy’s photographs reflect a persistent conscience in an ever-changing city.