A visual history of resistance in New York City

A visual history of resistance in New York City
People power — For decades, photographer Builder Levy has used his camera to address systems of oppression and injustice in the US: ‘The humanity I was seeing and trying to capture in my pictures – I looked at as a way of countering negativity.’

Builder Levy enrolled in Brooklyn College in 1959 with the dream of becoming an Abstract Expressionist, but the work didn’t resonate the way he hoped it would. Photography, however, made perfect sense. “It allowed me to get more involved with life,” Levy says.

Growing up in Bath Beach, a predominantly Jewish and Italian neighbourhood, Levy lived in a housing development built by Donald Trump’s father, Fred. Living through the Jim Crow 1950s, fraught with the spectres of McCarthy and the Cold War, Levy was sensitive to the struggle of people of colour and the working class, becoming politically aware and engaged at a young age.

I started taking the camera with me to street demonstrations,’ Levy remembers, recognising the importance of amplifying the fight against oppression and injustice.

Inspired by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, and Roy DeCarava, Levy used his camera to address the systems of oppression, honoring those leading the fight including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and the Black Panther Party, as well as the everyday people living through the height of the Civil Rights movement in New York.

Girls at the Gate, Herkimer Street, Ocean Hill

“My mother was born on the Lower East Side on Rivington Street, and I was down in that area looking for the humanity in the streets,” Levy says. “The humanity I was seeing and exploring, trying to capture in my pictures – I looked at as a way of countering all this negativity.”

It’s a message and a perspective that speaks half a century since, a story beautifully composed in the new exhibition and book, The Photographs of Builder Levy: Humanity in the Streets. The works in the show were selected by students at Pratt Institute, a fitting tribute to Levy who previously worked for Pratt’s Planning Department, taking photographs documenting the work done by local organisations to help save and rehabilitate old buildings in Bedford Stuyvesant.

Photography connected Levy with the community in more ways than one. As a New York City teacher, he set up photography workshop programs in Ocean Hill Brownsville, Bushwick, and the Lower East Side, empowering students to engage in the community and express themselves.

Malcolm X Speaking, Labor union/civil rights rally in support of the New York City school boycott, Upper East Side, Manhattan, 1964

Humanity in the Streets is a love letter to Brooklyn from its native son, one that keeps the faith through the storms that come. It is a reminder that the power of the people is within our grasp, a lesson Levy learned in his youth.

“Before I picked up the camera, I found Freedomways and thought it was a great political journal,” Levy says. “I asked if I could sell it, and they said yes. I made 25 cents each copy I sold and it was a big thrill for me.”  

When he began making photographs, Freedomways published his work – but it was only in returning to his archive more than half a century later that, Levy unearthed never-before-seen gems like an image of Malcolm X smiling with joy.

It makes the perfect companion image to one of Levy’s masterworks: the group portrait of the Medallion Lords, a chance shot that happened when one of the teens casually called to Levy, “Hey Parkie, take our picture!” – never knowing this moment would become one for the ages.

Pigeon Cloud, Central Avenue, Bushwick, Brooklyn, 1987

Medallion Lords, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, 1965

Kingfish, Dekalb Avenue, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 1965

Fulton Street, Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Labor Day, 1965

Coney Island Couple, Coney Island, Brooklyn, 1963

March on Washington, 1963

Snow on Melrose Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn, 1981

 

The Photographs of Builder Levy: Humanity in the Streets is on view at the Brooklyn Historical Society through August 11. Humanity in the Streets New York City 1960s-1980s was just published by Damiani.

Follow Miss Rosen on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter

Latest on Huck

Exploring the football fanatic culture of the Middle East
Outdoors

Exploring the football fanatic culture of the Middle East

New photo book ‘Football كرة القدم’ draws together pictures from over a dozen photographers to explore the region’s vibrant football culture.

Written by: Isaac Muk

Drag artists unite to get out the vote, babes
Election 2024

Drag artists unite to get out the vote, babes

East London legend Crystal talks to Huck about her new campaign, Vote, Babes! which brings together over 20 drag artists to encourage young people to use their vote.

Written by: Ben Smoke

In Photos: Riding high at the Appleby Horse Fair

In Photos: Riding high at the Appleby Horse Fair

Since 1775, the sleepy Cumbrian town of Appleby has played host to the annual Appleby Horse Fair – the largest gathering of Travellers in Western Europe.

I interrupted Keir Starmer’s manifesto launch – here’s why
Election 2024

I interrupted Keir Starmer’s manifesto launch – here’s why

One of Starmer’s constituents, Alice tried every way to talk to her then MP about the crisis facing her generation, but he did not listen she writes exclusively for Huck.

Written by: Alice, Green New Deal Rising

Bashy: “My dad kept me alive”
Culture

Bashy: “My dad kept me alive”

In our latest Daddy Issues column, award winning actor and MC Ashley “Bashy” Thomas talks traditional masculinity, learning survival skills from his Dad and ‘making it’.

Written by: Robert Kazandjian

How communities of colour fought back
Election 2024

How communities of colour fought back

Micha Frazer-Carroll examines the challenges that the UK’s minoritised communities have faced over the last five years, and reports on the ways that they have come together to organise, support and uplift one another.

Written by: Micha Frazer-Carroll

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now