Post-Punk’s Visual Chronicler: Interview with Laura Levine (Part 3)

Exene and John Doe, NYC, 1982 © Laura Levine
Richard and Linda Thompson, NYC, 1982 © Laura Levine

Scott: Did you ever reach a point with music photography where you felt you had enough? You’ve branched out into so many other interesting areas – is it because there were always other things you wanted to do, or did music photography take its toll?

Laura: Both, in fact. I felt I’d accomplished all I’d wanted to in photographing bands (creatively, that is) and I wasn’t interested in repeating myself. I probably could have made a nice living taking variations on the same photos over and over, but truthfully that wasn’t very interesting or challenging to me, from a creative point of view. At the same time, the industry was changing. I felt the focus was becoming more on style over substance – image, fashion, high-concept shoots. Celebrity culture. The makeup and clothing were the stars, not the artists. Some of my photo sessions evolved into huge productions, involving a dozen people on a sound stage. Once the novelty wore off, this didn’t interest me. In fact, towards the end I refused to shoot anyone unless it was just one-on-one – just me and them and maybe one assistant – preferably in natural light, as intimately as possible.

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Post-Punk’s Visual Chronicler: Interview with Laura Levine (Part 2)

Joey Ramone, NYC, 1982 © Laura Levine
Joey Ramone in his kitchen, NYC, 1982, © Laura Levine

Scott: Talk a bit about your job as Photo Editor at New York Rocker. Was being an editor something you particularly enjoyed (I mean, in comparison to being a freelance photographer)? What was the atmosphere like there? Was it difficult putting the paper out every month?

Laura: I have great memories of the Rocker. As Photo Editor and chief photographer, it put me in the enviable position of being probably one of the few photographers of the time who had access to most of the punk, post-punk, new wave, No Wave, and college radio (as it was called then) bands of the time. I was there during Andy Schwartz’s reign as Editor, from 1980 until 1983, when it folded. The Rocker was on the second floor of a commercial loft building on lower Fifth Avenue – a few metal desks, a stereo that was always on (and where I first heard Mission of Burma, Prince, and countless other bands), tons of posters and flyers and a few ratty sofas. As a freelance photographer you’re always on the move, but being a member of the editorial staff meant I had a home base, and, without sounding too corny, I was part of a family, which I really appreciated. Once a month we’d pull an all-nighter pasting the issue together, with Xacto blades and melted wax. Since the Rocker was around the corner from Danceteria, we’d generally meet at the office and all head over there for gigs afterwards. I made some wonderful friends there who I am still close with.

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Post-Punk’s Visual Chronicler: Interview with Laura Levine (Part 1)

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.

Laura Levine and Michael Stipe in Athens, GA, circa 1983

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.)

Bjork by Laura Levine
Bjork, Woodstock, NY, 1991 © Laura Levine

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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.

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From the Department of Naughty and Nice: Jason Gross opines off on the best and worst in music writing of 2008

It was the baddest of times, it was the even worse of times. Amid firings, layoffs and buyouts, Perfect Sound Forever‘s Jason Gross lays it all out for us at Pop Matters with his Best Music Scribing Awards 2008. Categories include Super, Superior, Quality and Bottom of the Barrel. Topics covered range from heady (various artists facing health challenges) to humorous (posts left in response … Continue reading From the Department of Naughty and Nice: Jason Gross opines off on the best and worst in music writing of 2008

The Best of the Rest, ’08

Aside from holiday blues, year-end wrap up and best ofs can be as irritating or oppressive. That said, we’re delighted to bring you ours, collected from an intimate variety of writers and artists. Below, lists and links are posted if only in a tidier fashion. You may even have fun spotting the duplicates. So, here’s the best of what last year had to offer – … Continue reading The Best of the Rest, ’08