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.
At the same time, I’d just started to paint. I’d never painted before, nor taken an art class, but I really enjoyed the freedom of it. It was just me and some brushes and paint. No publicists and equipment and productions. Not having to deal with weather and labs and scheduling. So for a while there I did the two side-by-side, shooting bands and also illustration. In fact, my first illustration assignment was an album cover for Jack Bruce, and some of my favorite jobs were album covers. Richard Thompson’s Rumor and Sigh was a wonderful example of being able to create the entire package, both the cover illustration and CD booklet photos, as well as the publicity photos.
Another really fun project where I was able to combine the two was a series of photo-illustrations I did with Bjork, well before the days of Photoshop. In this case it was a high-concept project. With the help of some wonderful stylists and hair and make-up artists, she and her Sugarcubes bandmate Siggi were transformed into some of my favorite fairy tale, nursery rhyme, and fictional characters. I posed them in front of a white backdrop, photographed them, made color Xeroxes of the shots I liked, and then painted the backgrounds directly onto the color Xeroxes. It all seems so primitive now!
And then in 1994 I did one last shoot, with Nick Cave (who was a sweetheart) and called it quits. Since then I’ve continued to paint, I’ve created and illustrated several children’s books, made music videos and documentary films, created an animated TV pilot for MTV, opened a junk shop, you name it!
Laura: From the moment I picked up a paintbrush, I was painting portraits of musicians; in fact, my first experiments at painting were copies of photographs I’d taken of musicians, and it continued from there. So I’d been creating and exhibiting this ongoing series of biographical musician portraits for many years, and I first started to explore the idea of adding separate text to go along with the artwork and packaging them as picture books for children (and adults) well over a decade ago. It seemed to me that this was an untapped market in the field of children’s books – today’s parents grew up on rock music, and no doubt they’d want their kids to know about the legends of rock & roll. I had a very clear vision of the project from the get-go. I wrote a detailed proposal pitching a series of illustrated picture books covering various musical genres, listed who would be represented, and wrote the first few sample chapters myself (as well as doing the sample artwork, of course). Then at some point well into the process I decided that I’d rather focus on the overall concept and artwork and bring in another person to write the brief bios to accompany the art. At various junctures I’d approached different people to write the text, and eventually I invited Holly George-Warren to handle the text. Because of the success of my previous children’s book (Wig! which was a collaboration with the B-52’s), I had a bit of a track record in the children’s book world, which helped. I pitched my idea to Houghton-Mifflin and they were very enthusiastic about it. The first book, Shake, Rattle & Roll: The Founders of Rock & Roll, did very well (it’s since been released in paperback and has gone into a second printing) and Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels: The Pioneers of Country & Western Music followed.
The original paintings I created for Shake, Rattle & Roll were given a four month solo exhibition at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, as well as shown at the Experience Music Project, Yard Dog Folk Art, and the Buddy Holly Center.
Scott: Were you pleased with how those books came out? You got some great reviews for them – including from George Jones and Roseanne Cash. That must be pretty cool.
Laura: Oh yes! The publishers gave me a lot of creative control over the design and look of the book; in fact, they made no changes whatsoever from what the designer and I submitted. The blurbs were great – a real honor.
Scott: I see you’ve done some corporate illustration work – i.e., for Sony Playstation and Absolut Vodka. How did those projects come about, and do you enjoy doing projects like that? Is there any stigma in the arts community with taking on corporate work?
Laura: At various times I’ve had illustration reps, and the Playstation job was brought in by a rep. The Absolut job was commissioned directly by The New Yorker magazine; they’d asked three illustrators who worked for them to create ads for the three different flavors of Absolut. Yes, I love doing advertising work! The ideas are usually well thought out and needless to say, the budgets are generous. I don’t think there’s much of a stigma about taking on most corporate work at all, at least not among illustrators. (There are exceptions, of course, such as tobacco or certain political causes; no doubt every artist has their own personal list of dos and don’ts).
Scott: I’m also curious about your website, which is a really great resource – well designed, simple to navigate, and it contains a fair bit of your work on it as well as biographical information (and no silly animated gifs to distract me). Do you design it and update it yourself?
Laura: Thanks. I designed the overall look myself although I hired a programmer/designer to upload it all and design the smaller bits, as I don’t know the first thing about code, etc. I can update it myself in the most basic way (adding images and text) but anything beyond that is outside of my capabilities.
Scott: I can’t recall exactly how I discovered your website – it must have been through a link somewhere – but a few years ago, when I stumbled upon it, it was exciting for me to finally connect your name to so many of the photographs I had loved when I was younger, especially those from New York Rocker (hence, the reason I finally tracked you down for this interview). Have you received a lot of feedback about your site, and has it generated interest in your work you may not have generated otherwise? Or is it just a necessary tool that you need to have?
Laura: I truly think that anyone who’s involved in any sort of career that relies on the “outside world” to generate work ought to have a website; even just a splash page will do in a pinch. It’s really made a difference. Everything from sales of my photographic prints to painting commissions to dear friends and musicians who I haven’t heard from in 25 years making contact again. Then again, there are millions of websites, so unless you’re searching for something specifically or someone links to your site, it’s easy to remain under the radar. You can have the best site in the world, but people still need to find you.
Scott: Of all the various and many projects you have done – and we haven’t even discussed some of your films and other projects – what would you say is: a) the most personally satisfying one; and b) the furthest out-there (i.e., the one that has the least or no connection at all to your other work)?
Laura: Certainly the furthest-out pursuit of mine is my junk shop, Homer and Langley’s Mystery Spot Antiques (named for the famous hoarders, the Collyer Brothers). I’ve always been a thrift store/flea market junkie and collector of the weird and old and unusual, and at a certain point I decided it was time to share my accumulated wealth with the rest of the world. Plus it’s a neat way to support my collecting habit and also meet like-minded people. The shop is in the Catskills village of Phoenicia, NY, where my family has had a small weekend cabin since I was a kid. The Mystery Spot is very much a part-time venture – it’s only open on weekends, Memorial Day through Thanksgiving, weather permitting, maybe 10 hours a week, tops. Lately I’ve really been getting into vintage clothes, and I just bought a mind-boggling estate collection of over 15,000 records (country, rock, jazz, mostly from the 60s) which will no doubt make it into the shop this spring. Phoenicia also has the best pancakes in the world, at Sweet Sue’s, across the street. If your readers find themselves up that way, they should check it out!
It’s hard to say which project is the most personally satisfying, as that changes on a daily basis. Having my film selected for the Sundance Film Festival ….going there, that whole experience, that was a definite highlight. And certainly the photography was – and still is, to some extent. I guess because so many personal relationships were created along with the photographs. Even though I’m not shooting anymore, I continue to mine my archives for exhibitions, books, magazines, and film projects. The most enjoyable work I’ve been doing recently is probably my personal painting – those pieces I create for gallery shows and private commissions and the like.
Scott: What project or projects are you focused on currently?
Laura: Right now I’m working on an album cover commission for a wonderful young British singer/songwriter signed to Virgin who records under the name Alessi’s Ark; a series of paintings of tiny dogs for the next issue of Blab! magazine, and – something new for me – producing archival pigment ink prints of my paintings and photographs. I’ve found it’s a wonderful way to make my work more accessible to collectors who don’t have the budget for an original painting or silver gelatin photographic print yet want to own something to hang on their wall. I’m really impressed with how gorgeous the quality of modern-day printmaking is.
The two museum exhibitions that you mentioned are coming up, and I hope to start showing my photographs more extensively abroad as well. It’s very gratifying that so-called “music photography” is finally starting to receive recognition from the fine art and museum world. There are many talented artists who have worked in that area and I feel it’s long overdue.
Click here for part 1 of rockcritics.com’s interview with Laura Levine