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Anyone with a camera and a big heart has soul.


Andy Levin

Andy Levin, a former contributing photographer to Life Magazine, started his career as a staff photographer at Black Star in 1977. His work has won numerous awards, including a 1983 photo essay on Nebraska farmers for Life Magazine that took a first place in the National Press Photographers Association annual contest. He has participated in 15 of the Day in the Life book projects. A native of New York, Andy now makes his home in New Orleans, where he has devoted himself to documenting and participating in the city’s reconstruction. His work has appeared in Time, National Geographic, The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ, Rolling Stone, U.S. News & World Report, Fortune, Popular Photography, American Photographer, Paris Match and People. He edits 100 Eyes magazine and leads the 100 Eyes photography workshops.

Wayne: You have said that your father was an avid photographer who brought people like Weegee, Cartier-Bresson and Paul Schutzer back to the family home in Long Island. How did your father’s photographic interests influence your own? What are your memories of these visits by such well-known photographers?

Andy: My father was a writer, and he was very passionate about photography. He had a Rollei and later a Nikon SP, and photographed our family when we lived in Europe in the ‘50s. I think this made me comfortable with cameras. Being photographed and photographing people was natural to me. My Dad made thousands of 4×6 black and white prints that I used to sort through as a kid, and I was influenced by his 1950s style. A few years ago I went back through his negatives and printed them, which was quite interesting, working on those old negatives.

Paul Schutzer was a close family friend, and his death on an Israeli halftrack in the Yom Kippur war struck home. It may be the reason I have never been very interested in war photography, or at least bought into the romanticism about it that seems pervasive these days.

Wayne: What do you mean by 1950s style?

Andy: To me 1950s style is shooting in black and white, using 50mm and 35mm lenses, and with rangefinder cameras or at least manual focus cameras.

Wayne: Do you remember your first camera? How much were you shooting when you were young? What did you do during your formative years to develop your eye and skills?

Andy: I took pictures with my Dad’s Rollei when I was six. There were some shots of my grandfather that seemed to capture his personality, and I got a lot of encouragement from the family after that, but I wasn’t really all that interested in photography until my early 20s.

Wayne: Where in Europe did your family live? What was it like working on the old family negatives?

Andy: We lived in Italy, England and Spain. My father was writing for men’s magazines at the time, so he moved the family over by ship, bought a car and traveled around. We lived in Positano when it was still a village, and spent a lot of time with local families and friends. As I said, I began to print some of the negatives about 10 years ago as a sort of therapy. Technically some of the “negs” were very thin so it was tough to get any contrast through them. Emotionally, as a 50-year-old man printing pictures of myself at five or six, I had to come to terms with the course of my own life, the mental illness of my mother, their divorce and the early death of my Dad. Hopefully, I can put these online as a slideshow at some time in the future.

Wayne: How did the turmoil of your early life affect and color the way you document life now as an older man?

Andy: We lived in Long Beach, [Long Island], and the beach was always a sanctuary for me. This was very much on my mind when I spent all that time at Coney Island and traveled to India to shoot there. My mother had live-in maids from Jamaica, Trinidad and Alabama, who took care of me when she was depressed. They were almost part of our family, or at least it seemed that way to me as a young boy. When she disappeared emotionally, they helped me. I owe them a great debt for that. I think living in proximity to these women gave me a familiarity with African-American culture that shows in my life and my work.

Wayne: Which, if any, of the photographers to your home were among your influences? Any other favorite photographers? What did you learn from them?

Andy: I was only three when Weegee and Cartier-Bresson came around, so I don’t remember them, but the atmosphere of photography was very much a part of the house. Weegee was in the back of my mind when I spent all those years in Coney Island. Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, William Klein, Gene Smith, and, of course, Cartier-Bresson. My work is very much about rhythm and movement, and about living in the moment. I started the Coney Island project in the mid-80s when I was doing a lot of magazine work and needed a personal project that would allow me to use different voices and experiment with different ways of framing shots. I bought Gilles Peress “Telex-Iran: In the Name of Revolution,” thought it was a very important book, with an ambiguous style that is very truthful, at least in my opinion. That book began a whole style of photography. Gilles really began that tilting thing.

Wayne: How did you use Coney Island to experiment with “different voices?”

Andy: That’s just a way of saying that I wanted freedom. It was personal work, and I did it for myself. If I wanted to experiment with tilting the camera, or odd framing, that was the place. I enjoy taking pictures and interacting with strangers so I would jump on the F train every day that I could, mostly in the summer, sometimes just to get out of that summer heat. And I printed all my own work.

I tend to be obsessive, and in retrospect maybe I should have opened up to other subjects, but I am very proud of that Coney Island work. Hopefully more people will get a chance to see it now. I still haven’t had a show in New York.

Wayne: What do you mean by the need to “open up?”

Andy: I think I had the resources in the late ‘80s to do more self-assigned work.

Wayne: Can you explain what you mean by “rhythm and movement?”

Andy: I am very interested in music, and in having photographs that work poly-rhythmically, like Cuban rumba, which I studied up in Spanish Harlem and played in Tomkins Square Park with my Puerto Rican friends. I love Gary Winogrand’s stuff from New York. I find it very musical. I also admire work that has soul. Bruce Davidson’s work had a lot of soul.

Wayne: Can you talk more about “soul?” Besides Davidson, what other photographers have it? If you’re willing to name names, which photographers do not have it?

Andy: As far as soul goes, there is “soul” in a strictly ethnic sense, and I think of Gordon Parks and Eli Reed and especially Chester Higgins. And there is “soul” in the sense of a depth of emotion, and perhaps an inner belief. Stevie Wonder performed here in New Orleans last week and did a song called “Heaven Help Us.”

“Heaven help the child who hasn’t got a home. Heaven help the girl who walks the street alone. Heaven help the roses if the bombs begin to fall. Heaven help us all. Heaven help the boy who won’t live to 21. Heaven help the man who sold that boy a gun. Heaven help those with their back against the wall. Heaven help us all.”

So soul is about compassion—even for those who oppress us. Anyone with a camera and a big heart has soul. Gene Smith comes to mind. Who hasn’t got soul? Bruce Gilden. I thought his stuff on Haiti was garbage. Either that or they are great photos, and he is just a disturbed person.

Wayne: How did you end up at Black Star? What did you learn from your time at the agency? Any good stories about Howard Chapnick?

Andy: Black Star had represented my father for some pictures he had taken on Jackie Kennedy when he had interviewed her just after JFK’s election as president, and the Chapnick also lived in Long Beach. I worked at the mailroom at Black Star in 1968 when I was just out of high school. In 1973, after I graduated from college, Howard gave me a job in the library. It paid $70 a week, and I sublet an apartment from one of the photographer’s girlfriends in Little Italy. My job was to “key word” the pictures onto index cards that might read “Vietnam War/Central Park/Demonstrations” or something like that. I would type in the photographer's name and the folder number. It gave me a chance to see a lot of great photography, especially the civil rights pictures of Charles Moore, Flip Schulke and Steve Schapiro. I sometimes think that my work in New Orleans is a logical extension of that tradition.

Howard loved opera and was a big gambler. He would sit behind his desk in the old office on Park Avenue South and make his picks for the pro football games and sing opera. He would tug at his ears. When I arrived at Black Star they hadn’t brought in any new photographers for a long time. Howard had been burned a few times, gone out on a limb and was let down, and the agency was relying on old-timers like Flip Schulke, Charles Moore, Fred Ward, Dennis Brack and John Launois. Howard took a chance on me, and my modest success with New York Magazine and Time gave him confidence, and he started corresponding with a photographer working in New Mexico who turned out to be Jim Nachtwey. Chris Morris was at this time working in the library, with his girlfriend Jackie, who is now married to Gilles Peress. Nachtwey was followed by Anthony Suau, and then the Turnley brothers, and Joe Rodriguez who also worked in the library. Unfortunately, the agency was not able to hold on to any of us. It’s too bad because that was quite a talented group, and I was fortunate to be a part of that.

Howard helped a lot of people and deserves all the respect he gets. He was truly one of a kind. I owe him a great deal for giving me that first chance. I appreciate what he and people like Phil Rosen, Sal Catalano and Ben Chapnick did for me. Also John Loengard at Life Magazine really helped me out, as well as Karen Mullarkey at New York and later Newsweek.

Wayne: Why were the Black Star civil rights photographs important to you? Why do you think they most resonated with you?

Andy: How could they not resonate with me? They are great photographs. They shocked the world.

We need to remember that blacks were lynched in America even after World War II, and it was less than 50 years ago that our schools were integrated. Yet we were a “democracy,” and we lived under “the” Constitution all those years. And if we don’t remember that, it can happen again. The word “democracy” has little meaning if it is subverted by special interests and cronyism, and politicians use racism to polarize us. People will hang from trees again—this time it might be Arabs, who knows?

We need to learn how to get along. That’s why I like New Orleans. It’s a strange place in that way, because everyone is a mix. New Orleans is much more integrated than New York. Up North everyone is politically “correct.” Not so in New Orleans. We talk about race all the time. It’s an acceptable dinner table conversation. Black men and women have white fathers.

Wayne: How did you become involved with the Day in the Life book projects? Any particular challenges in any of the assignments that stand out in your memory? How important were the experiences in your development as a photographer?

Andy: I met Ric Smolan when Karen Mullarkey was working at New York Magazine and hired me to work on “A Night in the Life of New York.” This was just after Ric produced “A Day in the Life of Australia,” and he and David Cohen invited me to the Canada project shortly after. I ended up doing the rest of the series. It was a great experience, and I got to meet a lot of very talented people like David Harvey, Reza, Abbas, Gerd Ludwig, John Loengard, Eli Reed, Alex Webb, Sarah Leen, Misha Erwitt and his sister Jennifer, Ric’s wife. My style and interest in everyday life was well suited to these projects, and I was usually well-represented in the books, and this gave me a lot of self-confidence. Those books were a rolling party before a day of very hard work. I remember flying to Tokyo non-stop with about 50 other photographers. Another time we flew from JFK to London to Bangkok—first class, I might add. Ric didn’t pay much, but we went in style.

Wayne: What is your personal take on why we have seen so many incarnations of Life Magazine over the years? What will the photo magazine of tomorrow look like?

Andy: Life defined America with the camera, and America loved the camera. But it was a different country then; people seemed more tolerant and bit less polarized, and less emotional about their differences. There isn’t a Life because that country doesn’t exist any longer. The country has fragmented, and this is evidenced in the media and on the Internet.

Needless to say Life offered great possibilities for photographers—especially for the generation before mine. I had the opportunity to do a black and white story for John Loengard on the farm crisis in Nebraska in the early ‘80s. They gave me five weeks to shoot the story, it was a great luxury… After David Friend took over they put me on the masthead as a contributing photographer, although in all honesty my best stuff was invariably not used. But that’s the way the business works.

Wayne: Your thought that no real national picture magazine exists today because our country is more fragmented than it has ever been has a lot of resonance. Technology seems to have compounded this fragmentation (cable TV and its hundreds of channels, and lower expense of online publications). What does this fragmentation mean for the future of photo essays?

Andy: That’s easy, Wayne, there are not too many photo essays, and precious few photography books. I am self-driven and actuated. People will catch up to my work sooner or later or never.. Here is what I do, you either like it or you don’t. But it’s important to me. That’s all that counts. I met Matt Rose, a Times-Picayune photographer yesterday, and he remembered my name from a huge group show on Katrina at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He didn’t know me from Adam, but the work had an effect on him. That made my day.

Wayne: You attributed your interest in New Orleans to a previous visit when you worked on A Day in the Life of America. You now make it your home. What about the city resonated with you?

Andy: I was attracted to the indigenous African-American culture and the music. It’s a very visual place, as you know. There is beauty amid great suffering, and I find that inspiring. The music and food aren’t bad, too. I had lived in New York for over 30 years, and everything looked the same to me. Much of the city that I loved was gone, replaced by something that resembled Disneyland—and then 9/11 happened. So I moved although I still have a place across from Magnum on 25th, just down the block from where Gene Smith lived on 6th.

It was very odd. I was here for one year before the storm. I thought I would have ten years to work the city, and then we were blown away a little more than a year later. Many of the people that I photographed are no longer here. I am afraid some may never come back.

Wayne: How has living there made it both easier and more difficult to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? What kind of personal, emotional toll has the tragedy taken on you?

Andy: Unfortunately, a rather large one. It’s a feeling of great loss. This was a very special place, but it was a fragile, and often a brutally violent one. When the levee broke after Katrina, I photographed around the Bayou St. John where I lived, but after a day or so it was apparent that people needed help more than I needed to take photos. I pulled a canoe out of a neighbor’s yard and started helping my actor friend John Grimsley evacuate the elderly to the places where the helicopters could land. Of course, I was taking pictures all the time as I did this.

When rumors spread that boats taking survivors to hospitals had been fired on by roving gangs, I went into a neighbor’s house looking for a weapon but didn’t find one. I rowed my neighbors three miles in near 100-degree heat to within blocks of the Convention Center. We had to go around bloated corpses in the streets. My feet were blistered from being in the dirty floodwater, so I waited for Grimsley to bring them over there and come back. We had no idea what was going on in the Convention Center, and of course some great images were made there a few days later by Dallas newspaper photographers, local shooters from Baton Rouge, and New Yorkers like my friend Alan Chin.

The working press did a great job in New Orleans in the short term, and the photography was both heartbreaking and exemplary. Long term the press has been disappointing, but that’s another story, isn’t it?

Eventually, I was forced to leave New Orleans because the conditions were deteriorating, drove to New York city with my dog, and then returned with a press pass just before Hurricane Rita reflooded parts of the city, Two weeks later I was arrested for going into my neighbor’s house and was taken to Hunt State Penitentiary for a week. My picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times when I stood in handcuffs before a judge at Camp Amtrak, the railroad station converted into a temporary jail. Time Magazine had called Contact [Press Images] the evening before and wanted me to shoot for them that weekend.

In the end, I lost the place I was living in, my dog, and I still haven’t got back my camera equipment and computer, all of which was taken by the police as “evidence.” The case against me is still pending, along with 6,000 other cases that are backlogged in the courts here. It’s a scary situation.

For a while after I was busy with some assignments, and I did two large stories for Time that were well received. But now that things have slowed down, the reality of my situation is creeping back in. And my consciousness has changed as a result of the events here, especially my perception of the government. New Orleans will never be the same, that’s for certain. In some ways I don’t think America will ever be the same.

Wayne: In what ways, specifically, has the press disappointed you in their coverage of Katrina? What does this say to you about today’s photojournalists and photo editor?

Andy: Over at a ceremony at the Lower Ninth Ward the other day, the press photographers really created an event of their own and I think that when you have that many cameras things happen for the wrong reason. There is a lot of pressure on photographers to get “the shot,” as Alan Chin calls it, the shot being a preconceived notion of what is supposed to be happening, that will satisfy an editor back in New York. We need to bury “the shot” once and for all. “The shot” and “the story” are the anathema of meaningful journalism. Maybe I will organize a Jazz Funeral for both of them.

The press in general is reactive. Rather than really dig into the causes of a problem, they just report on what others say or do. The press should be all the government for its failures here, investigating instead of reporting. We need more investigative journalism.

Wayne: Why has your interest in digital photography waned?

Andy: I want to get back to that ‘50s thing. Black and white is a mindset, and it requires those canisters of film and going through the mechanical process.

Wayne: You have made an effort to explore forms like video. For instance, you created your video essay “Aftermath,” about the attack on the World Trade Center. Why did you decide to work with video instead of working in stills? How well versed in other media do you think photographers should be?

Andy: The video was a one-time thing for me. It was my way of working through the emotion of being a New Yorker in months after the attack, at a time when I was not interested in still images. I learned to edit using Final Cut Pro, and eventually put the piece together and got it shown nationally on the anniversary of the attack. I learned a lot about the power of words, and how words and images can work together to create something meaningful. It’s a personal decision as to how far one wants to go in that direction—but I am looking forward to a retro movement in photography, getting back to film and silver gelatin prints and to looking at photographs in galleries or books. It happened with music and vinyl, and I think it will happen in photography too.

 

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