The subjects of Laura Levine’s iconic rock photographs were in constant search of expression. To her, musicians were not airbrushed spectacles, but vulnerable, energetic, highly personable creatures worthy of our gaze. She captured such culturally salient figures as Boy George, Grace Jones, and Joe Strummer in a state of rawness and urgency – before, say, Madonna really knew she was Madonna. For a time, Levine was one of post-punk and New Wave’s most avid chroniclers, the eye of a certain place, time, and way of existing.
Laura Levine: Musicians, a sprawling collection of Levine’s vintage music prints, runs through August 19 at Steven Kasher Gallery. In conjunction with Levine’s work, the gallery also exhibits Post-Punk Graphics, a collection of posters and assorted memorabilia from the period. Both shows teem with contradiction, evoking the unresolved feelings and unexplored emotions of the era channeled through flighty, jarring visuals. Levine, whose roots are in photojournalism – she interned with Fred McDarrah of the Village Voice after college – has worked for numerous publications as a music portrait photographer, from Rolling Stone to Trouser Press to The New York Times. She’s perhaps best known for her work with the New York Rocker, a short-lived but nevertheless significant publication, memories of which Levine recalled fondly in our interview.
In our age of plastic idols, the art of music photography is a dying discipline – or, at the very least, it’s one that’s been violently transformed. Around the mid-nineties, Levine became disillusioned with where she saw the medium going, complaining about the impersonality of the shooting process. She’s moved on considerably as an artist now, enjoying success in various mediums, yet her works live on as memories of a time that’s escaped us. Her photographs create a rather dreamy fabric of intimacy that is rooted, nevertheless, in documentary realism. She feeds into the romantic desires we all seem to harbor about our idols, allowing us to imagine these stars, beings we can’t touch, close to us.
Mayukh Sen: I know you grew up in Chinatown – what kind of music surrounded you and what was the rhythm like in your neighborhood? What did America’s political atmosphere look like while you were growing up?
Laura Levine: I was born in Brooklyn but we moved to Chinatown when I was three. I grew up in an undulating mid-century modern apartment building called Chatham Green, one of a stand of three new high-rises in a neighborhood of tenements and housing projects. The building was at the intersection of East Broadway, St. James Place, Mott Street, Park Row, Worth Street and The Bowery – right by what was once the infamous Five Points. The neighborhood was an inner city mix – Chinese, Puerto Rican, Black, Italian, Jewish. Part Chinatown, part Lower East Side. Of the six hundred kids in my elementary school P.S.1, ten were white (including me and my brother). It was a great environment to grow up in, very diverse. There were the usual clashes in the school yard, lunch money muggings and off in the distance, Chinatown gang wars, but in general everyone got along just fine. It was the time of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King (and sadly, their assassinations), the Beatles, hippies, protest marches, the moon walk – America in the Sixties.
The kids played in the streets. We opened the hydrants and sprayed cars with blasts of water in the summer, and shot off bottle rockets and cherry bombs for Chinese New Year in the winter. We were troublemakers, but not the serious kind. I attended after-school programs in my neighborhood – Hebrew School at the Educational Alliance, Girl Scouts at True Light Lutheran Church in Chinatown, and photography classes at the Henry Street Settlement.
I listened to everything from the Beatles to Janis Joplin to Herman’s Hermits to the Supremes. In photography class we listened to a lot of R&B and salsa while we printed in the darkroom.
MS: I’m curious to know what you studied while you were in college, and the extent to which it affected your later career trajectory. How heavily involved were you in the arts back then? Did you anticipate that you’d ingratiate yourself with the art world?
LL: Great question. In fact, I believe my major – Cultural Anthropology – had a significant effect on my career. In many ways my work is about meeting new people and exploring and documenting subcultures in as unobtrusive but revealing a way as possible. I’d been doing street photography as a teenager, and I already knew I wanted to be a documentary photographer by the time I entered Harvard when I was seventeen. I considered combining it with anthropology and took a wonderful course on ethnographic filmmaking, one on film, and a couple on photographic history and theory. But that was the extent of my arts education. Instead, I joined the Harvard Crimson (the daily student newspaper) and spent most of my time shooting for the paper, later becoming photo editor. So I ended up on the photojournalism track. During college I was a stringer for the wire services, had a couple of photos published in Newsweek, and did an intensive summer photo internship at the Washington Post. Everything was geared towards photojournalism. The art world wasn’t something that was on my mind at that time.
MS: There’s always that one musician who really captures our imagination in a way that others failed to before, almost in such a way that they become a figurehead for our music tastes. (For me, I fell in love with The Smiths during my freshman year of high school, and their impression is indelible on me regardless of how I feel about them today.) Who was this for you – was there any particular musician or group who really did this?
LL: You’re so lucky to have been of age when The Smiths were around! I could easily see feeling the same way. But I suppose I was pretty lucky to have The Beatles as an influence growing up. I can’t imagine saying anything about The Beatles that hasn’t already been said. The Beatles and Dylan. That pretty much covers it. When I think back on the posters and pictures cut out of magazines that I had on my wall when I was a teenager, Janis Joplin also played a big part. In particular, David Gahr’s wonderful shot of Janis onstage.
MS: Would you assign any sort of overall tone to your works? Are they dark, whimsical? Or does each photograph simply function as its own self-contained unit?
LL: Some are moody, some are whimsical, some are straight-up documentary. It varied according to the subject, their mood, and the environment. What I think they all have in common is a reflection of my desire to get in close and to show an intimate and authentic side of the subject, without artifice and in as unpretentious a manner as possible. I was never one for gimmicks or stylized images. I guess you could say I was always striving for a certain truth in my photographs.
MS: Looking at your images, I’m reminded of Altman’s Nashville. Especially now, decades later, because we look back on a lot of your subjects and they’re like Ronee Blakley’s character in that movie – these musicians were great but now they’re dead. They’ve been destroyed by their gifts. How do you think time has weathered your images?
LL: I always knew that with time, the images would only gain more significance. I was well aware I was documenting a very specific time in our culture and history and in particular, photographing artists who would never be at that stage of their lives or careers again. (Whether it was young musicians just starting out and destined perhaps for superstardom, perhaps to crash and burn, or successful artists at their peak.) Like a fine wine, I think they’ve only gotten better – or should I say, more meaningful – with distance and age. The passage of time certainly adds another level to them. For me personally, looking at my contact sheets again brings back a lot of memories of sessions I’d forgotten about, or certain details of those sessions. It makes me feel a little old, but also proud of my twenty two year-old self.
MS: It’s easy for me, as a child of the nineties, to look back on your works and photographs and not doubt for a second that they’re works of fine art, because they function as chronicles of a time I’ve always fetishized. But I imagine acceptance, especially from the world of high art, was different back then. What was it like working in the city during the eighties as a photographer of these musicians – were you regarded as a surveyor of some low, degenerate art form?
LL: Ha ha! No, not at all. My whole world – all of the publications I worked for, the people I hung out with – we were all of that scene, so for us, that was our reality. Certainly I, at least, was well aware that these were works of fine art, though they were being seen mostly in the context of the printed page at the time. I always intended them to have a life past that week’s newsprint. I was active in showing my work in galleries at the time as well. Of course, they weren’t “establishment” galleries, but they were the same East Village galleries that most of the artists coming out of the downtown scene showed at – The Fun Gallery, etc. Even though I was often shooting for publication, whenever I composed a frame or snapped the shutter I first considered my photographs as works of fine art. Not for the historical context, which would come later, but for the more formal thinking that went into them, consciously or intuitively: composition, lighting, mood, texture, emotion.
MS: What prompted you to revisit these works?
LL: I’ve never stopped visiting them. Over the years my work has continued to be published in books, on CD covers, in magazines, etc. But because I stopped shooting in 1994 (to paint and make films, among other things), I pretty much fell out of the loop as far as the current photography world. There’s now a whole new crop of photo editors, galleries, and curators than when I was shooting. I always intended to publish books of my work and show in galleries, but I got sidetracked by the art I was actively creating and didn’t have much time to revisit my archives in any sort of serious manner.
Then, a few years ago, the curator Gail Buckland selected two of my photographs for inclusion in the Brooklyn Museum exhibition Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present (which is still touring museums around the country) and from there it took on a life of its own. My work was included in the exhibit Backstage Pass: Rock and Roll Photography at the Portland Museum of Art, and earlier this year ten photographs were shown at the Museum of Modern Art in the exhibition Looking at Music 3.0. And now, the Steven Kasher Gallery – my first one-person gallery show in my hometown.
MS: How do you view such iconoclasts of today as Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj? They parade around with these constructed personae and carry on the same legacy established by women like, say, Madonna, Kate Bush, Cher, Stevie Nicks, the list goes on. Do you think they’re self-aware phonies like I do? Are they too self-aware in their subversion tactics?
LL: I don’t know anything about Nicki Minaj, so I can’t comment on her, but I have to admit I like Lady Gaga. She has genuine talent, but more importantly, she knows she’s in a position of great influence and she’s using that influence in a meaningful way with her audience. Even if it’s self-aware, she has substance, and her message has substance, and I respect that.