Michael Leviton has an air of the old world, in his richly intricate photography, and in his perception of the world. Based in New York, Leviton shoots on 35mm and medium format film, capturing his subjects in the most evocative way possible. Creates the signature atmosphere and conceptuality of his shots, the artist emphasises his collaborative process with their subject, explaining “I try to come up with a vision of the person that we’ll both find romantic”.
Encompassing a somewhat noir glamour in his vision, Leviton’s creations are captivatingly cinematic. A writer and musician as well as photographer, Michael Leviton is as versatile as he is dedicated, and his polymathic skill seems to seep into his work. From his subtitled series – such as Lola Kirke as femme fatale for HUNGER – which amalgamates his skill for writing with his talent for filmic visuals, to his character-driven portraits, they show Leviton’s deep appreciation and understanding of creativity. We catch up with Michael Leviton to find how how he fell for photography, and how photography fell for him right back…
Over your life, what impact has photography had on you over time?
Photography changed the way I see faces. Everyone looks more beautiful than they used to. My pre-photography brain didn’t see how shadows played. Now, in everyday conversation, I notice an expression I love and know there’s no way to hold onto it and I just have to let it disappear and I feel a weird, little heartbreak.
Do you remember the moment you fell in love with photography?
I’ve been obsessed since I got back my first rolls of film in the summer of 2013. But, in truth, I don’t feel like I’m in love with photography. It’s more like lust.
What photographers have inspired you the most?
Before I took photos myself, I collected portraits of movie stars and writers and jazz musicians by Francis Wolff, William Gottlieb, George Hurrell, Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, Gordon Parks, and Irving Penn. More recently, Ellen Von Unwerth and Helmut Newton make me want to drop my civilized façade and become a fetish photographer. For my self-portraits, I just do impressions of young Stanley Kubrick in his film selfies.
Your subtitled series acts as if they were screenshots from films, would you be interested in directing a feature yourself?
With photography, it takes less than a day to make something beautiful, it’s cheap enough that I don’t need someone else to finance it, and I can make it with one friend, maybe a few other interesting people. Filmmaking requires a ton of money and time and stressful collaboration with strangers. I’d be hung up on whether it was gonna feel worth the years and zillions of dollars spent. I’d be more likely to write the movie and let someone else go through the unpleasantness of raising money and directing it. Besides, narrative stills are a great substitute; it feels like making a movie but the mystery of what’s going on between images can be more thrilling than knowing the whole story.
How would you describe your visual style?
I use Fresnel lights and old film cameras to make things look Old Hollywood cinematic. But I feel like the most defining thing is that I choose subjects who I suspect might have fantasies that overlap with mine. They usually collaborate with me on the concepts. I try to come up with a vision of the person that we’ll both find romantic. The way this makes the person feel, how it shows in the face, is what the photo is really about.
Do you prefer digital or film?
I started liking my photos when I started shooting film. I don’t know how to take a good digital photo.
If you could shoot one subject for the rest of eternity, who or what would it be?
This question makes me realise how much I see photography as mostly about hanging out. This reads to me like: “Of your photo subjects, who is your best friend? Who are you most in love with?” I bet if you looked at all my photos and guessed who I like the most, you’d probably be right.
How do you think technology changes and social media are affecting photography?
I hold the unpopular opinion that everything is better when anyone can make and distribute art. I want photography to be as cheap and widespread as possible. I personally appreciate being able to take pictures and post them without needing the approval of a gallerist or curator. And I love people who make things out of self-expression or connection with friends, which is what social media is all about.
Do you think photography has the power to cause social/political change?
That’s undeniable. Just for one example, imagine how it would transform the culture if, starting today, ads and public images no longer showed any signs of conventional masculinity or femininity? In two generations of that, would ideas about gender be the same? No way. But the amount of photographers that reject parts of their culture, even in subtle ways, are few compared to the overwhelming amount who, consciously or not, use photography to dig in the claws.
What are the 5 films that have shaped you the most?
My infatuation with film noir and vintage styling came from my 1980s childhood watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?I think I learned lighting from shadowy melodramas like Laura and Gilda which I watched over and over as a teenager. I get a lot of ideas from Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and Godard’s A Band Apart in that I like images of people going insane or falling in love with someone they shouldn’t.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m pretty focused on a memoir I’m writing for Abrams Books. But as far as photography, I’d like to print some photos and have a gallery show. And I’d like to work with more actors on narrative photo stories with subtitles, my “fake movie stills”.