Laura Levine: Musicians at Steven Kasher

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday July 13, 2011

Laura Levine’s photographs of rockers have been in major exhibitions during the last couple of years,including Who Shot Rock & Roll(which opened at the Brooklyn Museum in October 2009, and is currently on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art), and Looking at Music 3.0, on view at MoMA last winter. With her first solo New York show opening next week at Steven Kasher Gallery, I contacted Laura for an email Q&A:


Left: R.E.M. Walter's Bar-B-Que, Athens, GA, 1984. Right:Exene Cevenka and John Doe, X, New York City, 1982. Copyright Laura Levine: courtesy of the artist and Steven Kasher Gallery, New York.

Peggy Roalf: When did you get interested in music and what was the first album you owned?
Laura Levine:I can't think of a time I wasn't interested in music. The first album I remember playing to death was Diana Ross and The Supremes Greatest Hits. I used to dance my Barbies to it. I got the album because I'd just met the Supremes, when I appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was ten, singing God Bless America with one hundred other Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and Irving Berlin, on the occasion of Berlin's 80th birthday. We also sang Happy BIrthday to him, with Ethel Merman. Anyway, I digress. The Association, Greatest Hits, on cassette, was another early acquisition. I was a big fan of Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers – and The Beatles, of course.

PR: What was the first live performance you attended?
LL:Probably either Jethro Tull or the Allman Brothers.

PR: What was your favorite club?
LL:I spent a lot of time in them all (CBGB's, Danceteria, Mudd Club, Tier 3, Club 57, The Ritz, Hurrah, Irving Plaza, Peppermint Lounge) but by far my favorite place to hang was Maxwell's, in Hoboken. The owner, Steve Fallon, was a good friend, and booked great bands. If I was too tired to take the PATH back to the city after a late night, I'd just crash in his apartment above the club.

PR: When did you start making photographs?
LL:When I was fourteen. I'd seen the Diane Arbus exhibit at MoMA and walked out of there thinking "I want to do that." I signed up for an after-school darkroom class at the Henry Street Settlement, borrowed my dad's Konica camera, and started taking street pictures in my Chinatown/Lower East Side neighborhood.

PR: When did you start shooting the music scene?
LL:Almost immediately. I made a fake press pass and finagled my way into the photo pit at free shows in Central Park (the first time I saw Patti Smith), or snuck my camera into shows I had tickets to (Elton John at Madison Square Garden). Once I was in college I immersed myself in photojournalism (photo editor of the Harvard Crimson, photo internship at The Washington Post, etc.) but at some point after graduating and working for a while as a freelance photojournalist, I made the conscious decision to focus on documenting the music scene, my true love.

PR: What was the first music photo you sold?
LL:My first professional assignment was from the Soho Weekly News, when I was sixteen. I was assigned to shoot Leslie West (of Mountain) in concert, and it paid fifteen dollars. It was a great feeling.

PR: For 15 years or so, it seems you were everywhere that punk, post-punk, new wave and no wave music was. What was the publication you liked best for your photos and why?
LL:My heart belongs to the New York Rocker. I brought them a photo I'd taken the night before of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein onstage with James Chance, and one thing led to another, and soon enough I was shooting for them, then became their Chief Photographer, then Photo Editor. The paper was newsprint, so it wasn’t the best for repro, but it didn't matter. The content was top-notch. We were like a family, a very tight-knit group who had parties, went out to clubs together and pulled all-nighters pasting-up the issues. The Rocker was way ahead of the game as far as knowing who was up-and-coming and where the good music was coming from, and I was lucky enough to get many of those assignments. The other publications I enjoyed working for were the Village Voice (starting as a post-college intern under the tutelage of the legendary Fred McDarrah, who taught his interns priceless lessons about how to protect our work and stand up for our rights), and Sounds, a London-based music paper, which hired me as their US photographer. I give a lot of credit to the music writers and editors I worked with at those papers; I learned a lot from them. And of course, I often set up my own photo sessions with bands that I liked or thought were important to photograph.

PR: Why did you put down your camera?
LL:Oh, a variety of reasons. The short answer is, I'd grown tired of it. I didn't like where the music industry was headed. Portrait sessions were becoming fashion shoots; often the styling and makeup seemed more important than the artist. I sometimes found myself on huge soundstages, often with ten or fifteen people in the room, each with an opinion about what the artist or I should be doing. I missed the intimacy and authenticity of one-on-one sessions.  I was losing control of my images and what I wanted to accomplish. I could see where the industry was headed, packaging and marketing artists, and it lost its appeal to me. At the same time, I was painting, making Super-8 films, illustrating children's books, shooting music videos, about to get into an animation project at MTV. There were so many other things I wanted to try.

PR: Your bio states that you are a self-taught artist. Where were you headed when you made the turn into art?
LL:I was probably at my peak earning power as a photographer. By then I'd been shooting a lot for record labels, i.e. the plum jobs one hopes for as a freelance photographer. But I didn't feel very challenged anymore (creatively) and I wanted to try something new. I decided I needed a hobby. I walked over to Pearl Paint and I bought a beginner's set of Windsor and Newton paints. I had no idea if I could paint or not, or what it would look like. I pulled out one of my photographs and copied it, and I liked what I saw. I then spent the next few years doing both painting and photography, including illustration. (Fortunately I had a wonderful agent, Laura Hinds at Visages, who encouraged me in whatever I wanted to do, and began to rep my illustration work as well). A few years into it I decided to put down my camera and just paint.

PR: Are you thinking of restarting your photography career?
LL:I have no plans to, but I see photos in my head all the time. I wish I could just click some sort of internal shutter. That being said, I'm thoroughly enjoying going through my archives (I've done over five hundred photo sessions) and revisiting the work, some of which I hadn't seen since the day it was shot. I'm thrilled that my work is starting to be recognized by museums and important galleries. I'd like to continue showing my work, and hope to do a book. I think that's the next step.

Laura Levine: Musicians opens Thursday, July 21st at Steven Kasher Gallery. 521 West 23rd Street, NY, NY.




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