Post-Punk’s Visual Chronicler: Interview with Laura Levine (Part 1)
Posted by s woods on January 21, 2009
Laura Levine’s work is too varied and voluminous to be hemmed in to one particular time, scene, or discipline — the bio on her website rightfully describes her as a “cross-disciplinary visual artist” — but I’m assuming many readers of this site discovered her work the same way I did: via her photography in the pages of several music publications during the ’80s, including the Village Voice, Trouser Press, Musician, Rolling Stone, and especially New York Rocker, where she served as chief photographer before becoming Photo Editor. Levine’s photography resumé reads like a Who’s Who of those loopy years following punk and disco: from early snaps of Prince and Madonna (pre-world domination) to photogenic weirdos like Captain Beefheart, August Darnell (a.k.a. Kid Creole), and Bow Wow Wow’s Annabella Lwin to No Wave shit disturbers D.N.A. and Glenn Branca to “new romantic” mop-fops Yazoo to rap icons Run-D.M.C. and Afrika Bambaata to hardcore visionaries Black Flag and X to… well, you get the picure.
A restless and eclectic artist, Levine eventually branched out from “rock photography” into painting, movies, animation, and antique junk proprietorship, along the way winning awards for her documentary film work and producing a lavishly illustrated series of childrens books (including Wig! a collaboration with the B-52’s). LauraLevine.com is a terrific resource that showcases her work across the spectrum, while providing information about current and upcoming projects. She was a key contributor to Byron Coley and Thurston Moore’s 2008 publication, No Wave: Post-punk. Underground. New York. 1976-1980, which features several of her photographs of that scene’s “horrible noise” merchants. This month, several dozen of her photographs will be featured in the exhibition Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography at the Portland Museum of Art, opening January 22; she has also contributed an essay to the show’s accompanying exhibition catalogue, published by Yale University Press. And this fall, her work will be included in a major music photography retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum.
Levine was kind enough to recently answer a number of e-mail questions about her work, with particular emphasis on her time at New York Rocker, a publication I hope one day receives the proper tribute it deserves.
(In addition to Levine’s online photo gallery, be sure to check out her sale page on Illogator, where, for a limited time, Levine is offering archival hand-signed prints of her 1991 photo of Bjork to readers at a special discount. Of the image, Levine says: “I’m often asked if I have a favorite photo and I can say without hesitation that it’s this one right here. All of the elements combined to make it one of my favorite moments as a photographer, and it happened purely by chance.” Click on her gallery to read more of the story behind the photo.)
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Scott: I assume that, like everyone, you were into music at a young age, but what first sparked your interest in the visual aspect of music? How did these two passions come together in your mind?
Laura: I didn’t consciously make the connection between music and photography until I’d already been shooting pictures as a teenager for a few years (documentary-style street photography), but now that I think of it I was probably influenced by the magazines and album covers and imagery of the time. I had rock posters and photos I’d cut out from magazines in my room and in particular I remember a copy of a photograph of Janis Joplin taken by the great David Gahr on my bedroom wall which I’m sure seeped into my subconscious night and day.
Being the wily New York City kid that I was, as soon as I had a camera I was sneaking it into concerts, even if it meant shooting from the nosebleed seats. I’d hide my camera in my jeans and the telephoto lens in my sock, and I actually managed to get some pretty decent shots (this was around 1974) of Elton John at the Garden, Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue, etc. I printed up a fake press pass and managed to talk myself in as “press” to shoot Patti Smith and Paul Simon (among others) from right beneath the stage at a concert in Central Park. Getting the shot always involved a bit of stealth and moxie if you were a sixteen year old kid. Years later, when I had proper press credentials, I never lost that thrill to be able to have the run of the backstage at the Garden or shoot from the side of the stage or from the photo pit.
So even though I later ended up focusing more on portraits, it started, I guess, with performance photos.
Scott: Before you actually picked up a camera yourself, which artists were you most attracted to or intrigued by in a visual sense? What did you find particularly compelling about them?
Laura: I don’t know if I had thought much about photography until I saw the Diane Arbus exhibit at MOMA when I was fourteen, and I walked away thinking, “I want to do that.” It really had an effect on me. So I borrowed my dad’s Konica camera and signed up for after-school darkroom classes in my neighborhood at The Henry Street Settlement, and I never looked back. I really liked Irving Penn’s work as well, and documentary photography and photojournalism in general. I was drawn to reportage, portraiture, people. People are endlessly fascinating, and being a portrait photographer or photojournalist gives you a special access and relationship with people, even if it’s just for a short while. I think both Arbus and Penn shot people without a lot of artifice – just as they were, honestly and straightforwardly – and that’s what I responded to.
Scott: What prompted you to take up photography? What sorts of things did you photograph early on? Do you have any formal training?
Laura: When I first started shooting I was doing a lot of “street photography.” I grew up in a very interesting — and at the time undeveloped — area of Lower Manhattan, on the border of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, very urban and inner city. So I guess in some ways I was exploring the nooks and crannies of my neighborhood, shooting the streets of Chinatown, the Hasidic pockets near Essex Street, kids playing in the housing projects across the street, the fish stands at the Seaport, the transients on the Bowery. Abandoned storefronts, old signs on the sides of buildings and vestiges of old New York all intrigued me. I’ve always liked to investigate and nose around.
Aside from the darkroom classes I took at the Henry Street Settlement, with a wonderful teacher named Nestor Cortijo, I was pretty much self-taught. I set up a darkroom in my parents’ bathroom (enlarger on the toilet seat, trays in the bathtub) which of course had to be moved whenever anyone in the family wanted to take a shower. Once I was in college I took a couple of photography theory courses, but I didn’t really focus on photography academically (I majored in anthropology). Most of my time in college was spent at the school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, where I became the Photo Editor and was shooting all the time. I always thought I’d become a photojournalist, and that’s what I started out as. I not only shot news stories on a daily basis for the Crimson, but I was a campus stringer for AP and UPI and Newsweek. The summer of my junior year I was awarded an internship at the Washington Post, which was a very intense full-time job. I was sent out in a radio car, as were all the staff photographers, and shot five or six assignments for the paper every day. Drive back to the newsroom, process and print the film, type up the captions, see it in the paper the next day. I had over 70 photos published that summer, everything from White House press conferences to prison life to aerial shots of DC from the Goodyear blimp. After I graduated I worked as a photo researcher at New York magazine, and then got an internship at the Village Voice, and that’s when I started to focus more on shooting music.
Scott: When you first started doing music photography, did you have any particular aesthetic in mind, or did you figure that out as you went along? Similarly, were there any specific photographers whose work you emulated early on?
Laura: There wasn’t a lot of “music photography” that really spoke to me, because most of the music photography that I was familiar with was performance photos, and I was more interested in documentary photography and portraiture. Aside from some of Annie Leibovitz’s work, perhaps (I especially liked her candid backstage shots). Early on I was more influenced by documentary photography.
Scott: You mentioned Diane Arbus. Am I wrong to interpret your photo of Yazoo from 1981 as being a bit influenced by her? Is it fair to draw that connection?
Laura: Well spotted! I stood on a chair and shot them with a wide-angle lens, and I’m sure that sub-consciously I must have had that in mind.
Scott: Who are some of the thinkers about photography that have influenced you? Would you say any particular ideas expressed about photography by others have had a serious impact on your own approach?
Laura: Nope. I’ve always been a big fan of substance over style, however – honest, straightforward, journalistically true. Since I came from more of a journalistic background I guess that makes sense.
Scott: Tell me about your first big break as a music photographer.
Laura: Technically, my first-ever assignment/published photo was of a Leslie West concert for the Soho Weekly News when I was sixteen. I think it paid $15. Or maybe $5. In fact, I don’t think I was ever paid! And I had some great opportunities to shoot musicians in college, including, for example, a session with Frank Zappa in his hotel room when I was seventeen, which was used by his family as the poster and T-shirt image some thirty years later for Dweezil’s current Zappa Plays Zappa tour.
But it was at the Village Voice where I started to really focus on music. Every week I was sent by the Photo Editor (the legendary and wonderful Fred McDarrah) or Robert Christgau, and later Jon Pareles, to shoot bands. I was also shooting a little for the NME and Sounds, and then Sounds hired the writer Tim Sommer and me to be their American writer/photographer team, covering the New York music scene (which Tim was deeply in the know about) as well as hot British bands coming over to the U.S. for the first time. That led to lots of features and covers for them, flying around the country, spending five days with the Clash during their Bond’s run, etc. I started to shoot for Interview, the New York Times, Trouser Press, Creem, and Musician. One day I showed my friend and fellow photographer Harvey Wang a photo I’d taken the night before of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein onstage with James Chance at Hurrah and he suggested I show it to the New York Rocker, and that was that. I started shooting for them, became their chief photographer, and then Photo Editor, pulling all-nighters (as we all did) once a month to paste up the issue. My salary was $50. a month. I pretty much lived there and at Danceteria, the Mudd Club, Tier 3, CBGB’s, Peppermint Lounge, and Hurrah. Between Sounds, the Voice, and the Rocker, I probably shot most of the NY and L.A. punk, new wave, No Wave, hip-hop and post-punk bands of the ‘80s, many of them when they were just starting out.
Scott: You mentioned that, while growing up, “There wasn’t a lot of ‘music photography’ that really spoke to me.” Which is interesting because, in many ways, the era and scene you first really become renowned for – the post-punk scene, captured so perfectly by the New York Rocker – was a very specific break from the music of the past, especially with the No Wave acts (I mean in the sense that there was really little precedent for this music). Were you consciously, at the time, trying to break new ground with your photography? Would you say the visual aspect of post-punk was as new as the music itself? Is this one of the things that interested you about this stuff?
Laura: I was conscious of trying to take photographs as opposed to “rock photographs” – I thought of myself as a photographer and not strictly a “rock photographer,” so in that sense I suppose I was trying to avoid repeating certain visual clichés of music photography and instead take it to a different place. (Or if I did reference those clichés, it was done consciously, as an editorial comment or visual homage). Stylistically, my work is actually very traditional and not experimental in any way. I’m not big on alternate techniques, weird processing, and other gimmicks.
It never really occurred to me that there was, as you say, a new movement in music, as it all happened so gradually and when you’re in the midst of it you’re not very aware of it. In fact, if you think about it, a lot of the post-punk bands weren’t especially focused on their visual image, were they? (Whereas punk bands had the punk image, and metal bands had their image, etc.). Every now and then I’d be tossed a softball – say, the Revillos (with their punk-meets-Jetsons look) or the Misfits, but groups like R.E.M. or the dB’s or the Replacements or Mission of Burma didn’t have an “image,” which, when you think about it, was very much in keeping with their music and wanting the music to speak for itself as opposed to a contrived “look.” Which I suppose made it more challenging for me as a photographer to be able to present them in a way that reflected what they were about.
The early hip-hop groups that I photographed at that time (early ‘80s) didn’t have much of an offstage image either – the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow… they wore mostly street clothes. The fashion industry and stylists didn’t have as strong an influence on the music world at that point as they did later on, and in fact that’s one of the reasons I eventually got out of the business – I didn’t like the way that images were being created and molded by the record and fashion industries and being imposed on the artists, and I was aware that the portraiture of musicians had become fashion photography, i.e. the outfit was more important than the artist. That being said, I always adored working with musicians who had their own unique and creative sense of style. In fact, I created a series of portraits called “Rock Star Fashion Tips” for Details (and later Detour) which focused on musicians who had a very personal sense of style.
Speaking of image – and taking clothing out of the equation – if a band or musician had a certain “image” or public persona, I usually tried to capture the “real” person behind the facade, show them in a more private and intimate light. For example, I love the shot of “tough girl” Joan Jett laughing while playing with my cat (whose claws are deeply embedded in her wrist), or Iggy Pop lost in puppy love embracing Chrissie Hynde. I suppose that’s what drew me to photography, and photographing musicians in particular. It gave me an opportunity to connect with people I admired and respected, to get to know them on a more personal level, and hopefully communicate what I felt and saw through my portraits of them.
Looking back, it’s nice to think that the visuals created and seen at the time may have been as important in their own way as the music itself, and had an influence on fans and bands alike.
Scott: I also want to respond to your comment that you “pretty much lived” at the New York Rocker, Danceteria, the Mudd Club, etc. It strikes me that the New York Rocker was integral to the development and growth of this scene. Can you talk a bit about that collusion: how the mag co-existed with the scene (if that is indeed true)?
Laura: There was a small core group of us – Andy Schwartz, Glenn Morrow, Elizabeth Van Itallie, Ira Kaplan, Michael Hill, Janet Waegel, Drew Wheeler, Annene Kaye, and others. There was a definite overlap between the Rocker and the Hoboken scene, for example. Glenn (Managing Editor) and Janet Wygal (art/production) were in the Individuals, Annene lived with Jim Sclavunos who was in 8-Eyed Spy and a million other groups; the dB’s were pretty much the house band – they played my birthday parties at the Rocker offices every year, and everyone would get up and sing and play, one big crazy jam. Ira and Georgia Hubley of course formed Yo La Tengo later on. In fact, I have photos from one of my birthday parties where I’m singing, being backed on guitar and drums by Ira and Georgia, and Ira recently told me this was the first time that he and Georgia had ever played together in public – the debut of Yo La Tengo, as it were. So there were a lot of interconnections, but I don’t think that the Rocker necessarily promoted any sort of personal agenda. If they liked it, they covered it. They were very fair in their coverage and very enthusiastic about music in general. Their covers ranged from Prince to DNA to Captain Beefheart to Grandmaster Flash. Did I mention Maxwell’s before? I should have – that’s probably where I spent most of my time, hanging out in the club and the kitchen and crashing in Steve Fallon’s apartment upstairs if it was too late to go back to Manhattan. Maxwell’s was a big part of it.
Scott: Is there ever a danger, as a photographer, in being too close to a particular scene? I know that for music writers it is often necessary to maintain distance, given that it’s hard to be critical of those you are too close to. Has this ever been a problem for you?
Laura: Never in terms of taking a particular photo but yes, probably in terms of deciding whether or not to publish it. I think it can only help as far as getting access that others may not get.
Click here for part 2 of rockcritics.com’s interview with Laura Levine