Andy Levin Interview, Part II

Part II of the interview with photographer Andy Levin.

Wayne: How did you end up at Black Star? What did you learn from your time at the agency? Any good stories about Howard Chapnick?

Andy: Black Star had represented my father for some pictures he had taken on Jackie Kennedy when he had interviewed her just after JFK’s election as President, and the Chapnicks also lived in Long Beach. I worked at the mailroom at Black Star in 1968 when I was just out of high school. In 1973, after I graduated from college, Howard gave me a job in the library. It paid $70 a week, and I sublet an apartment from one of the photographer’s girlfriends in Little Italy. My job was to “key word” the pictures onto index cards that might read “Vietnam War/Central Park/Demonstrations” or something like that. I would type in the photographers name and the folder number. It gave me a chance to see a lot of great photography, especially the civil rights pictures of Charles Moore, Flip Schulke and Steve Schapiro. I sometimes think that my work in New Orleans is a logical extension of that tradition.

Howard loved opera and was a big gambler. He would sit behind his desk in the old office on Park Avenue South and make his picks for the pro football games and sing opera. He would tug at his ears. When I arrived at Black Star they hadn’t brought in any new photographers for a long time. Howard had been burned a few times, gone out on a limb and was let down, and the agency was relying on old-timers like Flip Schulke, Charles Moore, Fred Ward, Dennis Brack and John Launois. Howard took a chance on me, and my modest success with New York Magazine and Time gave him confidence, and he started corresponding with a photographer working in New Mexico who turned out to be Jim Nachtwey. Chris Morris was at this time working in the library, with his girlfriend Jackie, who is now married to Gilles Peress. Nachtwey was followed by Anthony Suau, and then the Turnley brothers, and Joe Rodriguez who also worked in the library. Unfortunately, the agency was not able to hold onto any of us. It’s too bad because that was quite a talented group, and I was fortunate to be a part of that.

Howard helped a lot of people and deserves all the respect he gets. He was truly one of a kind. I owe him a great deal for giving me that first chance. I appreciate what he and people like Phil Rosen, Sal Catalano and Ben Chapnick did for me. Also John Loengard at Life Magazine really helped me out, as well as Karen Mullarkey at New York and later Newsweek.

Wayne: Why were the Black Star civil rights photographs important to you? Why do you think they most resonated with you?

Andy: How could they not resonate with me? They are great photographs. They shocked the world.

We need to remember that blacks were lynched in America even after World War II; and it was less than 50 years ago that our schools were integrated. Yet we were a “democracy,” and we lived under “the” Constitution all that those years. And if we don’t remember that, it can happen again. The word “democracy” has little meaning if it is subverted by special interests and cronyism, and politicians use racism to polarize us. People will hang from trees again—this time it might be Arabs, who knows?

We need to learn how to get along. That’s why I like New Orleans. It’s a strange place in that way, because everyone is a mix. New Orleans is much more integrated than New York. Up North everyone is politically “correct.” Not so in New Orleans. We talk about race all the time. It’s an acceptable dinner table conversation. Black men and women have white fathers.

Wayne: How did you become involved with the Day in the Life book projects? Any particular challenges in any of the assignments that stand out in your memory? How important were the experiences in your development as a photographer?

Andy: I met Ric Smolan when Karen Mullarkey was working at New York Magazine and hired me to work on “A Night in the Life of New York.” This was just after Ric produced “A Day in the Life of Australia,” and he and David Cohen invited me to the Canada project shortly after. I ended up doing the rest of the series. It was a great experience, and I got to meet a lot of very talented people like David Harvey, Reza, Abbas, Gerd Ludwig, John Loengard, Eli Reed, Alex Webb, Sarah Leen, Misha Erwitt and his sister Jennifer, Ric’s wife. My style and interest in every day life was well suited to these projects, and I was usually well represented in the books, and this gave me a lot of self-confidence. Those books were a rolling party before a day of very hard work. I remember flying to Tokyo non-stop with about 50 other photographers. Another time we flew from JFK to London to Bangkok—first class, I might add. Ric didn’t pay much, but we went in style.

Wayne: What is your personal take on why we have seen so many incarnations of Life Magazine over the years? What will the photo magazine of tomorrow look like?

Andy: Life defined America with the camera, and America loved the camera. But it was a different country then; people seemed more tolerant and bit less polarized, and less emotional about their differences. There isn’t a Life because that country doesn’t exist any longer. The country has fragmented, and this is evidenced in the media, and on the Internet.

Needless to say Life offered great possibilities for photographers—especially for the generation before mine. I had the opportunity to do a black and white story for John Loengard on the farm crisis in Nebraska in the early ‘80s. They gave me five weeks to shoot the story, it was a great luxury… After David Friend took over they put me on the masthead as a contributing photographer, although in all honesty my best stuff was invariably not used. But that’s the way the business works.

Wayne: Your thought that no real national picture magazine exists today because our country is more fragmented than it has ever been has a lot of resonance. Technology seems to have compounded this fragmentation (cable TV and its hundreds of channels, and lower expense of online publications). What does this fragmentation mean for the future of photo essays?

Andy: That’s easy, Wayne, there are not too many photo essays, and precious few photography books. I am self-driven and actuated. People will catch up to my work sooner or later or never.. Here is what I do, you either like it or you don’t. But it’s important to me. That’s all that counts. I met Matt Rose, a Times-Picayune photographer yesterday, and he remembered my name from a huge group show on Katrina at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He didn’t know me from Adam, but the work had an effect on him. That made my day.

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