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.