Tuesday, July 19, 2011

5 Minutes With Laura Levine

Steven Kasher Gallery is pleased to present Laura Levine: Musicians, an insider's look at the artists at the forefront of rock, punk, indie rock, post-punk, hip-hop, New Wave, and No Wave. This is the first one-person gallery exhibition featuring Levine's photography, including her vintage gelatin silver prints - many one of a kind. The show will feature over 35 vintage and modern prints, and is being presented with our exhibition Rude and Reckless: Punk/Post-Punk Graphics, 1976-82.

Exhibition: July 21 - August 19, 2011 Reception: July 21, 6-8pm

Q1. What was the first record you bought and what effect did it have on you?

As a kid of course I loved The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Herman's Hermits, etc. but the first record I specifically remember buying was Diana Ross and the Supremes Greatest Hits, when I was about ten. I'd just met them in person when I appeared with them on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968. I was one of a group of NYC Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts invited to sing "God Bless America" (with Irving Berlin) and "Happy Birthday" (with Ethel Merman, to Irving Berlin) onstage in honor of Berlin's 80th birthday. It was a celeb-packed show - Bing Crosby, Steve & Eydie, Robert Goulet, Ethel Merman, Irving Berlin, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Pure 1960's prime time Americana. I remember meeting the three Supremes - they were incredibly glamorous and seemed about ten feet tall, like endless willowy trees covered in sequins. The first thing I did after the show was to run out and get that album.

Q2. Luc Sante said; "Laura Levine's photos are as vividly alive as the music of her subjects. Sometimes when you catch them out of the corner of your eye you'd swear they actually move." What inspired you to photograph the music world?

I always loved music. Perhaps I photographed that world because I had no talent as a musician, but so deeply admired people who did. Even as a teenager, when I first started to shoot, I'd sneak my camera into concerts, staying up all night to develop and print the film in my parents' bathroom. I started out as a street photographer, and then worked as a photojournalist, first in college for The Harvard Crimson, then the The Washington Post and the wire services, but once I started to work as a freelancer it made sense to narrow my focus, and truthfully, music was what I'd been shooting most of the time anyway. That was my social scene, my friends, my true love.

Q3. How has the digital world changed art of photography?

I feel very fortunate that digital photography had not yet been invented when I was actively shooting in the 80s and early 90s. All of my images exist on film, as negatives or transparencies - not as pixels - and for that I am very grateful. I can make beautiful silver gelatin prints of my work.

Now that people can shoot with their cell phones and digital point-and-shoots, I feel that some of the preciousness (I mean preciousness in the best sense) of photography has disappeared, i.e. the thought and planning that goes into every shot is largely gone. In addition, there's so much manipulation of images now, it's hard to know what is "true" and what was created afterwards on the computer screen. Don't get me wrong, there are some interesting images being created these days making use of the digital tools, but I'm still very much a purist and a traditionalist.

In some ways the digital world has made my life easier. For example, I can now send scans to magazines for repro as opposed to actual prints or slides. But it also endangers the integrity of the work. Once an image appears online, viewers can grab it, copy it, alter it, and re-post it, and I've lost control of my work. I want to be able to decide where my work is used, and how. So it's a double-edged sword.

Q4. Rock photography seems to have reached a new level of acceptance by the mainstream. Your work has been featured at The Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum and is currently travelling to six other museums across the U.S. Why do you think this has happened?

I always thought it was inevitable; the art world just needed to catch up with what the rest of us already knew. I suppose there was (and still is) some resistance to labeling such work "fine art" photography by those who think of "rock & roll photography" as nothing more than snapshots of performers onstage. But if you look a little deeper into the work of some very fine "rock photographers," you'll find powerful, artistic, emotional portraits (of subjects who happen to be musicians), dramatic images of live performances, and documentation of subcultures that only a few captured so lyrcially with their cameras. There has always been a core group of intensely serious and creative artists who have made their life's work photographing rock musicians and whose work most certainly belongs on museum walls.

Who Shot Rock and Roll, the Brooklyn Museum show curated by Gail Buckland, was a huge step towards bringing the work to a new level and wider audience. There are a few serious collectors out there - Michael Zilkha, certainly - who understand the significance and beauty of the images, and have devoted years building a world-class collection of important rock & roll photographs. Barbara London at MoMA has consistently forged new ground at the museum, reaching out to artists who have never shown there before, and recognizing important creative subcultures such as the hip-hop and downtown worlds.

It's the result of a handful of visionary curators, dealers and collectors following their own instincts, and of course, we photographers never losing faith in the importance of our work and continuing to work for recognition and respect in the art world.

Q5. If you had to pick one favorite shot from the exhibition, which one and why?

Oh my. Just one? I have a particular fondness for the portrait of Tina Weymouth and Grandmaster Flash, taken in 1981. At the time I was the chief photographer/photo editor of the New York Rocker, an early and very influential downtown music paper. They asked me to shoot the two of them together for the cover. The hip-hop scene was just starting to get noticed by the downtown scene, and vice versa. There was a lot of cross-pollination taking place. Tina and Chris Frantz's new band Tom Tom Club had just released their first album, which incorporated rap and hip-hop beats, and Grandmaster Flash had just released The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.

Tina and Flash had never met before, and they got along like a house on fire. I'd asked them to bring their boom boxes along for the session. They danced, sang, traded records - the energy on the shoot was wonderful. In fact, Tina recently told me that after the shoot she brought Grandmaster Flash back to the studio where the Talking Heads were working on their new record The Name of This Band is Talking Heads to play him some tracks, and later on Flash used the Tom Tom Club's Genius of Love in his song It's Nasty. I love the fact that a musical connection came out of the shoot.

From a visually formal point of view, I love the contrast of the light and dark, black and white, the symmetry of the boom-boxes, and quite simply, I really liked Tina and Flash.


Steven Kasher Gallery
521 West 23 Street
New York, NY 10011
212 966 3978

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