Andy Levin, a former contributing photographer to Life Magazine, started his career as a staff photographer at Black Star in 1977. His work has won numerous awards, including a 1983 photo essay on Nebraska farmers for Life Magazine that took a first place in the National Press Photographers Association annual contest. He has participated in 15 Day in the Life book projects. A native of New York, Andy now makes his home in New Orleans , where he has devoted himself to documenting and participating in the city’s reconstruction. His work has appeared in Time, National Geographic, The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ, Rolling Stone, U.S. News & World Report, Fortune, Popular Photography, American Photographer, Paris Match and People.
Wayne: You have said that your father was an avid photographer who brought people like Weegee, Cartier-Bresson and Paul Schutzer back to the family home in Long Island. How did your father’s photographic interests influence your own? What are your memories of these visits by such well-known photographers?
Andy: My father was a writer, and he was very passionate about photography. He had a Rollei and later a Nikon SP, and photographed our family when we lived in Europe in the ‘50s. I think this made me comfortable with cameras; being photographed and photographing people was natural to me. My Dad made thousands of 4×6 black and white prints that I used to sort through as a kid, and I was influenced by his 1950s style. A few years ago I went back through his negatives and printed them, which was quite interesting, working on those old negatives.
Paul Schutzer was a close family friend, and his death on an Israeli halftrack in the Yom Kippur war struck home. It may be the reason I have never been very interested in war photography, or at least bought into the romanticism about it that seems pervasive these days.
Wayne: What do you mean by 1950s style?
Andy: To me 1950s style is shooting in black and white, using 50mm and 35mm lenses, and with rangefinder cameras or at least manual focus cameras.
Wayne: Do you remember your first camera? How much were you shooting when you were young? What did you do during your formative years to develop your eye and skills?
Andy: I took pictures with my Dad’s Rollei when I was six. There were some shots of my grandfather that seemed to capture his personality, and I got a lot of encouragement from the family after that, but I wasn’t really all that interested in photography until my early 20s.
Wayne: Where in Europe did your family live? What was it like working on the old family negatives?
Andy: We lived in Italy, England and Spain. My father was writing for men’s magazines at the time, so he moved the family over by ship, bought a car and traveled around. We lived in Positano when it was still a village, and spent a lot of time with local families and friends. As I said, I began to print some of the negatives about 10 years ago as a sort of therapy. Technically some of the “negs” were very thin so it was tough to get any contrast through them. Emotionally, as a 50-year-old man printing pictures of myself at five or six, I had to come to terms with the course of my own life, the mental illness of my mother, their divorce and the early death of my Dad. Hopefully, I can put these online as a slideshow at some time in the future.
Wayne: How did the turmoil of your early life affect and color the way you document life now as an older man?
Andy: We lived in Long Beach, [Long Island], and the beach was always a sanctuary for me. This was very much on my mind when I spent all that time at Coney Island and traveled to India to shoot there. My mother had live-in maids from Jamaica, Trinidad and Alabama, who took care of me when she was depressed. They were almost part of our family, or at least it seemed that way to me as a young boy. When she disappeared emotionally, they helped me. I owe them a great debt for that. I think living in proximity to these women gave me a familiarity with African-American culture that shows in my life and my work.
Wayne: Which, if any, of the photographers to your home were among your influences? Any other favorite photographers? What did you learn from them?
Andy: I was only three when Weegee and Cartier-Bresson came around, so I don’t remember them, but the atmosphere of photography was very much a part of the house. Weegee was in the back of my mind when I spent all those years in Coney Island. Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, William Klein, Gene Smith, and, of course, Cartier-Bresson. My work is very much about rhythm and movement, and about living in the moment. I started the Coney Island project in the mid-80s when I was doing a lot of magazine work and needed a personal project that would allow me to use different voices and experiment with different ways of framing shots. I bought Gilles Peress “Telex-Iran: In the Name of Revolution,” thought it was a very important book, with an ambiguous style that is very truthful, at least in my opinion. That book began a whole style of photography. Gilles really began that tilting thing.
Wayne: How did you use Coney Island to experiment with “different voices?”
Andy: That’s just a way of saying that I wanted freedom. It was personal work, and I did it for myself. If I wanted to experiment with tilting the camera, or odd framing, that was the place. I enjoy taking pictures and interacting with strangers so I would jump on the F train every day that I could, mostly in the summer, sometimes just to get out of that summer heat. And I printed all my own work.
I tend to be obsessive, and in retrospect maybe I should have opened up to other subjects, but I am very proud of that Coney Island work. Hopefully more people will get a chance to see it now. I still haven’t had a show in NY.
Wayne: What do you mean by the need to “open up?”
Andy: I think I had the resources in the late ‘80s to do more self-assigned work.
Wayne: Can you explain what you mean by “rhythm and movement?”
Andy: I am very interested in music, and in having photographs that work poly-rhythmically, like Cuban rumba, which I studied up in Spanish Harlem and played in Tomkins Square Park with my Puerto Rican friends. I love Gary Winogrand’s stuff from New York. I find it very musical.
I also admire work that has soul. Bruce Davidson’s work had a lot of soul.
Wayne: Can you talk more about “soul?” Besides Davidson, what other photographers have it? If you’re willing to name names, which photographers do not have it?
Andy: As far as soul goes, there is “soul” in a strictly ethnic sense and I think of. Gordon Parks and Eli Reed and especially Chester Higgins. And there is “soul” in the sense of a depth of emotion, and perhaps an inner belief. Stevie Wonder performed here in New Orleans last week and did a song called “Heaven Help Us.”
“Heaven help the child who hasn’t got a home. Heaven help the girl who walks the street alone. Heaven help the roses if the bombs begin to fall. Heaven help us all. Heaven help the boy who won’t live to 21. Heaven help the man who sold that boy a gun. Heaven help those with their back against the wall. Heaven help us all.”
So soul is about compassion—even for those who oppress us. Anyone with a camera and a big heart has soul. Gene Smith comes to mind. Who hasn’t got soul? Bruce Gilden. I thought his stuff on Haiti was garbage. Either that or they are great photos, and he is just a disturbed person.