“Kingfish, Dekalb Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn,” 1965, by Builder Levy.
Builder Levy is one of those rare photographers whose work is at once social documentary, fine art and street photography, and his seamless approach across these genres is as evident as ever in “Humanity in the Streets” currently exhibiting at the Brooklyn Historical Society until August 11.
Levy has lived and worked in New York City for most of his life. Born in 1942, he earned a B.A. in Art from Brooklyn College in 1964, studying painting, art history and photography, the latter with Walter Rosenblum, who would introduce Levy to members of the Photo League, a group founded in the 1930s that sought to marry art and social action in documentary photography.
After earning an MA in Art Education at New York University in 1966, Levy worked for 35 years as a New York City public school teacher of inner-city teens, which he credits with deepening his way of looking and instilling that same depth among his students. Along the way, he also developed close friendships with Helen Levitt, Harlem Renaissance photographer Roy DeCarava (both favorites of mine), as well as Paul Strand, all of which did—and continue to—inform his evolution as a photographic artist.
“Humanity in the Streets” is a selection of images Levy made largely in Brooklyn from 1960 to 1980. A tumultuous social and political time, the exhibition comprises photographs from both important civil rights protests, such as “No War,” portraying individuals marching to a May Day rally, and poetic casual everyday moments captured in “Pigeon Cloud” as well as “Kingfish,” which strikes a personal chord, as it was made on my street, Dekalb Avenue, in 1965. Altogether, the series reveals “a persistent conscience,” states the exhibition text, “formed from tacit connections between subject, streetscape and photographer.”
Levy’s exceptionally beautiful hand-printed, gold-toned, gelatin silver-and-platinum print photographs adorn both the first and third floors of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s location on Pierrepont Street. Offered in tandem with the exhibition is a formidable book by the same name published by Damiani. And while the exhibition appears small, it’s well worth seeing in person.
Here’s an extra tip for visitors: You should, if possible, also consider visiting the Othmer Library (open Wed-Sat, 1pm-5pm), which is at the same location as the Levy exhibition. This magnificent space with tainted glass windows and carved wooden columns will transport you to an earlier time. It also happens to hold one of the most comprehensive collection of materials related to Brooklyn’s history and culture.
For more on the fine-art exhibition, go to: brooklynhistory.org/exhibitions/the-photographs-of-builder-levy-humanity-in-the-streets/