When I started doing interviews with Photographers I wasn’t exactly sure what I was after, but it only took a few to understand that what I wanted to get out of these conversations is not the “how” but the “why.” I am not interested in how these photographers achieve their success on a technical level. I don’t care about “what’s in their bag.” What I want to find out is the “why” of it all. What is it about taking a picture? And what is the difference in the “why” of me going out and shooting some landscapes as opposed to my friend “Jane” who loves to take photos of herself and post them on Facebook. They are all images, but they clearly have different meanings and, to some degree, different values. (I promise this is not a jab at “Jane.”)
I have had many conversations, but I think this latest one has me turning a corner. I still don’t have the answers, but for some reason I feel I am closer. To say I am very excited about this interview is an understatement! This conversation was also a little personal for me. For those that know me, you know about our dear departed Winnie. Our dog of 15 ½ years, that was our faithful companion, and is now gone. Through her golden years I began to really appreciate Senior dogs and what they mean to us. Nancy LeVine is known for her work shooting Senior Dogs. Being able to talk to her about that project was worth every moment. (I'm excited to say that her latest book has just been released by Schiffer Publishing!)
When I called her, thinking our conversation would mostly revolve around her photographs of dogs, I was surprised at the depth of her work. (I shouldn’t have been, as I knew Nancy when she was an adviser on my Thesis Project at the Photographic Center Northwest a few years back.) Nancy has an amazing background and body of work. And what is most compelling is that she exudes a confidence I rarely see in women. She is not arrogant by any stretch of the imagination, but she knows who she is and what she brings to the table as a professional photographer. What I wouldn’t give to have some of that.
What is your first memory of photography?
I had a camera in my hand from a very early age. My dad was a serious hobbyist so I grew up with cameras and photography. He gave me my first camera when I was about 5 or 6 years old.
Did you study photography in school?
My major was Film Studies and Photography. But I decided that I was better suited for photography because in film, back then, there was a hierarchy of so many people that it seemed difficult to navigate. With photography you are just yourself. That was a comfortable place for me.
Photography is a means of communication. What do you feel you are trying to communicate and to whom?
There is a term I have used and it’s “Recognition of the Other.” Whatever you are photographing, whether it be another person or a dog or a tree or a still life of a building, the people who are brilliant about it have a deep resonance with whatever it is they are photographing. They are not just seeing their subject in that two-dimensional sense. They are seeing it, feeling it, and they are imbuing it. It’s hard to put a finger on it in language, but something happens and it’s trans-formative. What I want to do is to find the voice of whatever it is I am photographing so it feels palpable and not just a thing that you are looking at on a piece of paper.
How did that translate to your Fashion Photography?
When I was doing catalogs, they were catalogs where you make lovely pretty pictures and make sure the clothes look good. When I was doing editorial work in Paris, I shot it almost journalistically. I would look at the clothes and get the right face, the right location, and make it seem almost real or documentary-like so there was some authenticity there. Yes, I was creating, but it felt real. It didn’t feel like, “Oh, she’s wearing a pretty dress and she’s standing on the corner and she’s looking ‘whatever’.” It was more like there’s that woman on the corner and I just happened to capture her. Everything I have done has been done in the same way. I shoot dogs in the same way I shot fashion. It’s just the way I see.
And what was the catalyst that brought you into the Fashion Industry?
Something just clicked after I got out of college. My mother had a strong fashion influence in my life. She had a store in St. Thomas. I grew up in the Virgin Islands. She always had great taste and an excitement about fashion that she shared with her kids. My dad had the photography thing. I guess I made the decision one day that this is what I could be doing. I moved to New York City, went out on my own and did it.
You did Fashion for 18 years. Did you ever experience burn out?
There was never burnout in the fun and the interest of doing it. The burnout occurred when the times started to change. There was a time when I worked in New York that it felt like a small village. I could see everybody and everybody would meet you. Not only would they meet you, but they would say, “Oh, you should go and see so and so!” And you would pick up the phone and call that person and they would actually answer the phone and you would go see them. There was all of this networking that was possible to do.
As the years went on there were a lot of consolidations and changes in the industry, and there was not as much accessibility as there had been in the early part of my career. The work itself I love. I have not burnt out at all as a photographer, but the marketing components to it have become increasingly difficult. I love the people and the face-to-face contact. That was a large part of it when I was starting out. And sadly it’s such a small part of what we do today.
What do you think are the greatest challenges facing professional photographers today?
There are not a lot of small jobs out there for people to get started with because potential clients with their own camera do it themselves. it's just good enough and they don’t really care for it to be better than that. They will spend multitudes of money to create a good website and typically not spend very much on the content.
But that’s not really my issue. I have always worked and I think that the hindrance for me simply is that I have a profoundly difficult time getting in to see people and to have people answer their phone. To even have a conversation. The advantages in the past were that it was perfectly okay for someone to say to me on the phone, “Oh, I can’t see you now. Call me in a couple of weeks.” The advantage to this, was by the time I did see them we had already built a small relationship formed through the phone calls and when I showed up it became even that much richer.
And now you can’t really get anyone on the phone. And then with email, it’s just hit or miss and it’s so impersonal. There is just no vibrancy in marketing for me. I really cherished and loved meeting everyone and enjoyed that part as much as I loved the photography part. It was social. It was very social. And with the system we are in now I can’t get that.
I really believe people hire you not just because you’re good (and of course you have to be good) but secondarily, as important, they have to like you. They have to want to spend time with you. I have found that to get face to face time with anyone, you have to pay money to do photo reviews. And that’s a whole other story altogether and that’s very pricey for people who are getting started.
At this point, Nancy turned the tables on me and asked me what I thought. I told her what other people were saying in interviews and also that in my industry clients no longer do their own video and photo shoots but turn to stock photography. It was a conversation with many twists and turns and we certainly did not solve the challenges in the world of the photographic professional, but this is my takeaway. Because of social media and the world wide web, access to photography is, well, world wide. We no longer have to contend with the local competition but competition that seems like it comes from a bottomless well. And that competition includes professional and non professional as well as the good, the bad, and the ugly. We are inundated with it all and have no easy way to filter out the bad, and the ugly to get immediate access to the great. It’s a tough nut to crack.
When you are out on assignment what do you do if you get stuck?
It doesn’t happen. (much laughter from me.) It just doesn’t happen. I always get it. (that heavy sigh was from me) I make it look very easy because I have a lot of experience. I can walk in just about anywhere, no matter what the light looks like (of course it helps to be digital) and I can figure things out and make it happen.
Not everything is called out to be brilliant. Some things call out to be descriptive or whatever they may be. There is always going to be a good photograph from the situation.
Compositional form comes naturally to me. The best training in the world is being a fashion photographer. You’ve got casting, lighting, location, weather issues, and expectations of how much you have to get done in a day; there are so many pressures. So many things you need to learn about that go into a photograph. If you can do fashion you can probably do most anything, in my opinion. It taught me so much that I am able to walk into an examination room in a hospital and figure it all out. I see the people and know how to extrude all of the business from the situation. I learned how to do all of that from fashion. And back then with film there was very little latitude and you had to get your exposures just right. You had to do everything just right. And you could never screw up because the expenses of models, makeup and hair, location vans, and catering was so high that you could not NOT bring it back. And you had to do it all the time.
What do you do to prepare?
I just show up. (God love her!) I have my cameras, my back up equipment. I learned this in my fashion days. You make sure you have double of everything you need and you make sure everything is working. God forbid you have a technical glitch.
You have to imagine that I have over 30 years of experience. That’s what I am bringing to the table. I’m walking in and using everything that I have learned. Classically trained and tons of experience. I can walk in and most people might not see anything because sometimes it doesn’t seem that there is much. But when you are really well trained you can see deeper. You start observing certain things like how people are interacting and you just wait for those moments to arise because they always do. Then you simply try to create good compositional form that works with busy situations and backgrounds. Or you bring someone into a situation where there is better lighting. If you can, but sometimes you can’t and you just do it. I hate to say it, but this is where experience comes into play. Digital allows for so much more latitude.
You have a broad range of work from Fashion to Senior Dogs (my favorite). Can you talk a bit about your project “Art: The Moving Thread”?
I picked the first person on the Thread, a nationally recognized woman in the arts. She would then recommend me to the next nationally recognized woman in the arts whom they have worked with and who was a friend or cohort or someone they really admired. That would then lead to the next person and the next and so on. I would get this virtual salon with all of these women. There are 18 to 20 women on each Thread. And it was amazing to meet all of these artists and learn about the extraordinary work they were doing.
In all of your work is there any particular subject or thing that you do that really gets you in the zone?
First and foremost I think if what is in front of your eye is compelling to you then that moves you into the zone immediately. But sometimes it requires work. Sometimes you don’t see it right away. You just keep trying things and you do what I call “coverage.” So, for example, I photographed this woman in New York City in the freezing cold. We were up on a roof and there was snow coming down. We were trying different things with this material that she works with and it’s sort of okay but it felt a little forced. After some time trying new things all of a sudden something happened and we got it. Being in the zone has a magical quality to it. I just think if you are in front of something that moves you in some way then it’s a lot easier to find it. I think getting into the zone is making a deep connection to your subject, whatever it may be, you just feel it and it’s so exciting to get that photograph.
Do your subjects ever get exacerbated while you are trying different things?
No. It’s always collaborative. It’s amazing the enthusiasm. Especially with all of these amazing artists that I photograph. New Yorker's mostly. Not only were they available and cooperative, but they were willing to do what we needed to do to get a great photograph. It was astonishing. I was surprised at how effortless it was to work with everybody. They were really invested. I was impressed.
Most of the dog work I have done recently are seniors and they aren’t super active so it’s easier to document them when they aren’t frisky puppies. Sometimes you see a situation where the dog wants to walk all over the place and you have to follow the dog. You just have to let the dog go into a flow and see what happens.
So, let’s talk about the dogs. Again, this is after my own heart. How did you get started with your project, Senior Dogs Across America?
That came about through my own dogs. Watching how my own dogs were growing older. It was so poignant and interesting how they lived each day, unlike us thinking about the past and the future and what it all means to age, they are just plodding through each day. It was sort stunning to see.
I helped my dog, Babe, years before who was a paraplegic and used a K9 cart. And it was one of the most purely extraordinary periods of my life that was completely about love. It was so special.
At some point I decided that I had not visited America since I had been a teenager and I had an inkling to see our country. And I thought, well, this is the time to do it. I’ll shoot Senior Dogs Across America. I’ll get to see the country, I’ll get to meet the people, and I’ll get to do something interesting. I embarked on the project based on that.
What are the logistics of doing something like that?
I produced it ahead of time based on the region of the country. I would plan to go out for about a week at a time. I would contact veterinarian offices, different people in the dog world, a friend of a friend that knows someone who lives in this town and they would know someone who was there. It was very word of mouth. People networking within the dog world. That’s how it spread and then I met people in rescues and sanctuaries. It was a real range of people that introduced me to extraordinary dogs.
There were definitely some moments that I didn’t expect. Like a time I was flying to New York. I don’t know how long it took me to look up, but I was sitting in the bulkhead seat and I look across the aisle and there was a dog. The most beautiful Whippet. It was some type of service dog and I asked, “How old is this dog?” And it was ten or eleven. Here I was able to photograph “Senior Dogs Across America” on an airplane!”
What inspires you? Who or what is your muse?
Over the years I have had a couple of muses. One by the name of Lisa. She was a model I worked with a lot when I did editorial work. She could be really transformative depending on what she was wearing.
And then LuLu was my muse for my first book, ‘A Dog’s Book of Truths’. In my mind, she was the Meryl Streep of the dog world. She could imbue every location with a different mood. And that’s where the recognition comes in. Some people would just see a dog and I would see something else.
As a teacher what do you say to your students who want to become professional photographers?
I don’t really teach business. What I do when I teach is to try and help people find their own visual voice. And have them be able to articulate it more and explore it more and become who they want to become as photographers. That’s what I do.
And how do you go about that?
It’s a lot of conversation and looking at their work and talking about why they did what they did. I call all of their photographs sketches so I ask them why they sketched this and why they sketched that. And why this works and why this doesn’t. What did they really want to say.
I like to do a lot of one on ones with students. The class I’m teaching now I get a chance to do that. “Storytelling with Photographs.” We meet as a group for the first and last class and then each student gets two classes with me one on one for an hour. Each person is on a different journey.
I think photography can attract very impatient people because it feels like it should be so easy because all you do is click a button and the camera does all the work for you. You have to remind students that people in the arts are putting in their 10,000 hours. Look at a dancer! How many years has a dancer been dancing? Everything takes a huge amount of effort and focus. At the end of the day, photography is no different to be really masterful at it. Some people forget that. Unlike a paintbrush or a violin, you can pick it [the camera] up and start using it. But to be a professional you need technical knowledge. You have to know what an F-stop is. You have to know what a shutter speed does. You have to know these things.
If you could give people starting out advice, what would it be?
A complex question because it is all so different today. Back when I started, I could walk into anyone’s fashion show and sit next to the stage and take pictures. The access was phenomenal. Now it’s all changed. But back then there were fewer stumbling blocks. There were challenges and I had to be very tenacious. Actually, somebody I met at Gray Advertising said that. “You are very talented, but the people who are going to make it are the tenacious people.” And I’m naturally very tenacious. I got braver about contacting people and meeting people for appointments. The more you do something the more comfortable you get. I was very shy and that part of me had to grow up when I had to market myself.
There is nothing like a personal relationship built over time with a client. If you are really good at what you do and you have a great relationship with your client, then you have a great time doing the work.
When I look at your website and at your body of work it seems rather diversified. Did this happen by chance or was your career carefully crafted that way?
There are a few questions that you have posed that are related to planning. [Note: I make a living as a project manager] I was doing fashion and I was ready to explore other subjects and that’s when I started doing the dog work. Sometimes I would bring that work in when I was showing my fashion portfolio and people loved looking at the dogs. That was something they don’t usually get a chance to see. And then over time I decided I would see if I could develop this body of work into a book. You have to be a self-starter. You have to feel that you care enough about something that you can push it through.
Maybe not so much push it through but allow it to form and allow it to become something that it needs to be and then be patient when you are looking for publishers. Nothing happens overnight and it shouldn’t. It’s okay that it doesn’t. Because when you are with it longer you can make more photographs and you can deepen your feelings about it. Lots of things can occur so you don’t want to rush anything.
Whatever you have a visceral response to, pay attention. And spend the time.
10. Color or Black and White? – Black & White
9. Film or Digital? – Both are great
8. Traditional Darkroom or Digital Darkroom? – Digital
7. Objects or People? – People
6. Urban Jungle or Pretty Landscapes? – Urban Jungle
5. Weddings or Root Canal? – Weddings
4. Kitted out with Heavy Long Lens or Point & Shoot? – Point and Shoot
3. Assignment or Fine Art? – Both
2. Tell me about the one that got away. – I can’t really think of any.
1. Tell me about the one you are still chasing. – I want to photograph people who have lived awhile. I’m interested in middle aged and older people. That inspires me. How they do it, how they live, how they create.
The motivation beyond the photograph is being able to meet people who have lived very interesting lives. That’s the pearl for me.
The Parting Shot
A lot of it is just being present. I think that’s the best part of photography. It’s observational, it’s emotional, but you are completely present to it.