Levitt died Sunday in her sleep in her Manhattan apartment, said Thomas Roma, a close friend and the director of photography at Columbia University's School of the Arts.
Levitt was best known for street scenes of children in the 1930s and 1940s. In one photo, three children with masks stand on their stoop before trick-or-treating. In another, four girls on a sidewalk turn to stare at soap bubbles floating in the air.
Levitt was drawn to neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side where, in a time before television, people treated the streets as their living room.
Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, said Levitt's photos "were as good as anybdy ever made at capturing the life spirit of kids on the street."
"They've now become historical documents because there was this
kind of openness and freedom and safety on the streets that hasn't
existed for a long time," Galassi said.
Levitt was born on Aug. 31, 1913, in Brooklyn. After dropping out of high school she taught herself photography while working for a commercial photographer.
As she began to hone her craft, Levitt struck up acquaintances with celebrated photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans.
She contacted Evans in 1937 to show him her photographs of children. "I went to see him," she told The New York Times in a 2002 interview, ``the way kids do, and got to be friends with him."
Fortune magazine was the first to publish Levitt's work, in its July 1939 issue on New York City. The next year her Halloween picture was included in the inaugural exhibition of MoMA's photography department. In 1943 she had her first solo show there.
Levitt worked as a film editor to support herself in the 1950s. She returned to still photography in 1959 and was one of the first photographers to work in color. Galassi said Levitt's use of color was pioneering.
Surveys of Levitt's career were 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.
Books of her work include "A Way of Seeing" (Duke University Press, 1965), with an essay by James Agee; "In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938-48" (Duke University Press, 1987); and "Mexico City" (Norton, 1997).
Roma called Levitt "unquestionably among the greatest photographers that ever lived."
"She never had a moment where she wasn't completely engaged," he said.
He said Levitt's mind was sharp until the end. Just days before her death, Roma said, she "grilled" him during a visit about what he was photographing.
"She demanded constant updates of what was going on in the outside world," he said.
Levitt is survived by her brother, Bill Levitt, of Alta, Utah, and several nieces and nephews.