At age 35, Michael Levin left behind his original career as a restaurant owner to experiment with an inexpensive digital camera. Just a few years later, he has been called a “rising star” by Focus magazine which called his images “soulful and evocative,” and year after year, the prize panels agree. Levin has been recognized as Photographer of the Year by the International Photography Awards and at Prix de la Photographie. He regularly places in fine art and book categories in these competitions, as well as in the PDN Photo Annual.
Levin cites painter Mark Rothko as an early influence, as well as Michael Kenna. The latter may come as no surprise, perhaps, given the extended exposure and eerie landscape of our featured image. Levin praises Kenna’s surreal images. “I wondered how this guy could make a tree or a stick in the mud look so unbelievable,” he says. Patience and commitment temper Michael Levin’s meteoric rise in the photography world; they are also the hallmarks of his approach on location.
Levin’s editing process is intense. Our featured image was created during a three-week long photography excursion through Italy; it was the only image he selected for his portfolio (an alternate angle and a video of the location follow below). His dedication to his subject matter is equally intense “I fired off shots all day and all night for two days,” he says of photographing this one pier. “I had driven past a thousand docks, this one was different,” he says. He used a Linhof 4×5 camera loaded with black and white film and a Schneider 80mm XL lens. The lens was stopped down during the twenty minute exposure and only basic Photoshop work was used to clean up the image. Levin admires the beauty of film but unfortunately for him in this case most of the two days shooting this scene could have been spent relaxing in his hotel room “The final photograph turned out to be very first shot I took at night,” he says.
His career, which began only a few years ago, has the velocity that any budding photographer would dream of. With only five photographs in his portfolio he was approached by IKEA about turning his images into posters; two years later they had sold hundreds of thousands of posters worldwide. Before long, a gallery owner wanted to represent him. As much as he draws on painting, there is something of the poet in him: he is spare in what he includes, unsparing in what he discards. This, too, is part of his success. “My dealers appreciate how I edit,” he says. “Photographers have a hell of a time editing their own work. They might have two great photographs, but eight of them are mediocre and they bring down the level of those two great photographs.”His business sense, from his previous life as a restaurateur, has helped him rise from obscurity as much as talent. “My job is to promote my work as much as possible. That’s the reason that the work is successful,” he says, telling the story of pitching his first book to a popular UK-based publisher that is inundated with book proposals every week. “I sat down and really thought about why he should publish my book and wrote a cover letter to him which I FedEx’d with the rest of the package. About two weeks later I got an e-mail from him saying that the work was interesting and [he] wanted to talk about it further.” He sent only one book pitch: “He was the guy I wanted.”Levin is proud to stand apart from the crowd, whether on a publisher’s desk or an Italian pier. Fondness enters his voice as he recalls sleeping in his car, compelled to capture the image that had made him stop at this pier of all piers, busy even at 4AM. “[The fishermen] were wondering what the hell is this guy doing,” he said.A strange scene to be sure, but strange scenes, especially abroad, have always engaged him. “I can remember driving around on the family trips down to the US and it seems like I was always looking at an interesting rock rather than a landmark,” he says. “I like looking at these very common views with an uncommon sort of approach spending time in places that easily go unnoticed interests me. There are certainly times when I am photographing and I might happen to be in an area where a lot of photographers are, like a beautiful sunset and I am always pointed in the other direction.”
Levin was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
F STOP: Let’s start by discussing the featured image, Zebrato. Please tell us about how you created this photograph.Levin: It was shot in Italy during the Spring of ’05. I went on a three-week excursion through the country just to shoot. I took hundreds of photographs, but this ended up being the only shot that made it into my portfolio.F STOP: From the entire trip?
Levin: From the entire trip. I have a box full of 4×5 negatives here that will never see the light of day. It was early in my photographic career and I was still trying to figure out composition and the technical aspects of long exposure photography. I think the editing process is often overlooked by photographers in general. I’m really tight about editing and at the time that was the only one that made sense to me.
F STOP: What made sense for you about it?
Levin: It was clear that it would be a harmonious addition to my then small portfolio. The clouds are very dramatic in that image. I originally didn’t want the fishermen sitting at the end of the dock, but in the end it actually turned out to be quite amazing. He adds both context and mystery to the image.
F STOP: How did you come across this location?
Levin: The locations aren’t actually listed on any of my photographs anymore because I don’t really know where I am a lot of the time. I’m not focused on capturing vistas of known locations, it’s the subject matter that is most important. I find my locations by chance, just driving around and surveying. I found the Zebrato location about half way through my three week trip. I thought it was special at the time. I spent two days photographing that pier from slightly different angles. With long exposure photography you never know what you are going to get with cloud formations, so I fired off shots all day and all night for two days. The final photograph turned out to be the very first shot I took at night.
F STOP: So you didn’t know it at the time but you could have stopped at the first shot and gotten it.
Levin: Exactly, and slept in a hotel as opposed to sleeping in my car.
F STOP: It’s impressive that you dedicated yourself to spend two days just photographing one location. Why did you decide to do that?
Levin: I’m the kind of person that when I need to capture a scene I’ll do whatever it takes. If I need to stay there all day in my car in the pouring rain in order to get the shot, I’ll do it. I had driven past a thousand docks, this one was different. I was engaged with the texture of the dock and those two upright posts really separated this from the others. There is a commitment with every photograph, but some you just feel more strongly than others. That was the case with this photograph.
F STOP: Were there people around? I mean, you were there for two days.
Levin: There were people around and I’m sure they were thinking ‘what the hell is this guy doing?’ This location was quite remote and these guys were just fishing all day long. They just sort of walked by me and nodded quizzically while speaking Italian to me.
F STOP: You mentioned that you were trying to get fluctuations in tide and the ambient light throughout the day. The final image was shot at night. Did you know you wanted a night shot?
Levin: Typically I have the most success at nighttime with these images; you’re able to have longer exposures with the low light and no harsh shadows. I took photos during the day because I was there and it was a very remote location, it wasn’t like I could go for coffee or anything. The 5am light is what I was most interested in capturing.
Levin: That’s the way I visualized the scene, white water with a strong black line reaching for infinity. I tend to try and visually create dramatic scenes from very pedestrian views.
F STOP: Aside from the equivalent of dodging and burning did you do anything else to the image in Photoshop?
Levin: No, that’s it. But I certainly spent a long time trying to manipualte the tones in the clouds. When you look at the video, you can see it’s a very dark and brooding sky in real life. There was a storm brewing in the distance and I think this adds the drama to the image.
F STOP: Did you always do twenty minute exposures, or did you mix it up a bit?
Levin: I mix it up all the time. This was metered for twenty minutes. It was getting dark out and I needed that extra time to expose the film properly.
F STOP: Moving on, how did you get your start in photography?
Levin: I owned a restaurant for five years and sold it when I was 35. Around that time I bought a digital Canon D60 camera and started shooting in color, without direction, when I had time away from the restaurant. I was shooting everything and was naturally leaning towards minimalism with some of the photos. The only art that had really moved me at the time was Mark Rothko. Beyond that, I didn’t really have an art background. Soon after that I discovered Michael Kenna. That is where I think the seed was planted, that style of photography. I wondered how this guy could make a tree or a stick in the mud look so unbelievable. I took some time off after selling the restaurant and became more engaged with photography. When I started printing my photographs at a local lab, a couple of gallery owners saw them and asked to represent me. At that point, I only had five or so photographs! About 6 months later, a buyer from IKEA wanted to license two of my photographs for posters. It was like a year after I had started shooting and all of a sudden IKEA wanted to do a deal with me, a little surreal at the time. At that point, I realized that I actually could make a real go at photography. A couple of years later and IKEA had sold hundreds of thousands of posters all over the world.
F STOP: You have been incredibly successful in such a short amount of time. You have a book out and you’ve won all these awards and have all this recognition. How does it feel to go from having a hobby and then a year later having IKEA make thousands of posters?
Levin: It feels great. It turned from a hobby into a business very quickly and fortunately I had the business background and ability to make that transition. As for the awards I do feel humbled, I work very hard at it, there’s no doubt.
F STOP: What kind of process do you use to choose your locations?
Levin: I’ve had businesses that have allowed me the freedom to travel as that was always a priority in my life. The great thing about photography is that it facilitates this perfectly. I had initially started shooting around the Pacific Northwest and I soon wanted another venue. The next place I went to was France and then England. I recognized that before I could go and photograph these places, I would have to market my work and get a business model in place. I spent a lot of time on that, which eventually enabled me to go on these trips financed by my sales. Fortunately, the market was really good back then. The photographs seemed to resonate with people and they were selling. I would fly off to France for a month and then just drive around and shoot. Every trip I would get a couple of photographs, so I have fifty photos from about twenty trips. I should mention that although I have 50 B&W images in my portfolio I also have quite a few color landscape images that I feel are equally as strong. I’ll eventually do a show with this work but it’s not quite ready yet. The majority of the work was done with a 8×10 camera in Iceland back in the summer of ‘07. Iceland really is this mythical place and you just look at the landscape and wonder if it is real. I have since travelled through South Korea and Japan several times.
F STOP: What was the moment when you decided to start taking the long exposures that define your work?
Levin: It was my first photograph, “Ferry Docks,” which was taken here in British Columbia back in the Fall of ‘03. I went to this location and photographed it like a normal snapshot image and as the light was fading I did longer and longer exposures. It was then that I realized that was the look I was going for.
F STOP: So you fell in love with that because your affinity for minimalism?
Levin: It was a starting point. It better enabled me to realize the potential for this style of photography. Images can really take on a painterly quality at this point and I think that’s where the Rothko inspiration became evident to me.
F STOP: You mentioned starting off with a digital camera, but ultimately all your work is shot on 4×5 film.
Levin: I started with the digital camera and I was doing little prints with it that were around 8”x8”. The quality was great (at least I thought so at the time), but if I wanted to make anything bigger it would start to get pixelated and I didn’t like that at all. I saw Michael Kenna’s work in a gallery in San Francisco and it was the first time I had ever been exposed to “real” photographs. They also had 30”x40” photographs that were very dramatic and I thought it elevated the photograph to a whole other level. It was at that moment that I realized I needed to get a film camera in order to achieve this level of visual quality.
F STOP: And why black and white?
Levin: I think there is more flexibility with black and white as far as manipulation goes, I don’t mean Photoshop but rather the ability to expand on tonal ranges and have them still look real. I’m more apt at creating emotion in a B&W print, rather than color.
F STOP: Tell me about your subject matter. It’s almost all natural landscape without people in it. Why have you chosen that?
Levin: I can’t quite pinpoint it. I’m certainly attracted to symmetry in nature and in man-made structures. It’s hard to describe it, more of a intuitive feeling when I see it. Whatever the subject matter is, I want to try to elevate it from beyond a level of being pedestrian. I feel compelled to reveal it’s own private beauty.
F STOP: Do you think you are going to stick with this subject matter for awhile longer?
Levin: Well I think the subject matter is vast and I have lots to explore. I really don’t think in terms of series or themes, whatever engages me I will continue to photograph. I do mix it up, you just haven’t seen it yet!
F STOP: You use Photoshop for the equivalent of dodging and burning. Have you ever thought about using Photoshop to composite in a better looking cloud or something like that, or does that just not appeal to you?
Levin: Even though I have been using Photoshop for five years, I’m still somewhat limited. So when I am out there I take tons of negatives so I do get those great clouds. I have a number of images that are good but not great on account of the clouds or tide level and I will eventually go back and reshoot those until I get it right. I don’t think I could pull it off as far as compositing images goes. I read your interview with Darran Rees and the work these guys do is incredible, it’s so beyond my skill level in the Photoshop department. I do take out some minor things in images if I find them distracting.
F STOP: Is there a message that you want the viewer to take away for your artwork?
Levin: No. These are simply photographs I take because I like to take them and I think they capture the spirit of my experience there.
F STOP: Would you say you are almost exclusively a fine art photographer?
F STOP: Do you have any interest in doing anything else?
Levin: I’d like to be a better classical guitar pIayer! I’ve done a few private commissions, but if someone said, “here is the product, go take some nice photographs” then I am not interested at all. I like doing exactly what I’m doing.
Levin: I approached photography as a business. Initially I interviewed two different gallery owners here in Vancouver to find out how it all worked. I asked them what they thought the strengths and weaknesses of their artists were and what they looked for when they review portfolios. These basic questions gave me a good foundation to go on and learn about the art world. I then became represented by a gallery here in Vancouver and I aimed for Toronto next. At the time I had about ten photographs in my portfolio. Looking back, it seems quite comical that an artist with ten photographs gets representation. When I sent out a CD, I spoke of my dedication to the work and the presentation was paramount. I asked a lot of questions at first. Fortunately, I am interested in a type of photography that a lot of people seem to respond to. There are a lot of great photographers out there who take amazing images, but they don’t seem saleable. I also started entering photography competitions and it helped that I won. I received first place in the first contest that I entered. Then I became aware of other competitions and started submitting my work and the big one was the International Photography Awards in 2006 where I won Nature Photographer of the Year. That started opening up a lot of doors. I started getting magazine articles and people calling me who wanted to represent my work. I have been fortunate, but I also work at it continuously, which is important as a fine art photographer. My job is to promote my work as much as possible. That’s a big factor in why the work has been successful
Levin: I started thinking about a book in October of 2007, but I only had about 40 photographs at the time. I knew that by the time any publisher would respond I’d probably have another 7 images and that would be enough for a book. When I thought about publishers I thought Europe would be the best place to start as I already had presence in the US and Canada. I thought if I went through a European publisher they would be able to elevate awareness of my work in a market that I had a small footprint in. I searched out publishers and decided that my number one choice was Dewi Lewis Publishing in the U.K.I sat down and really thought about why he should publish my book and wrote a cover letter and included about 10 small prints. About two weeks later I got an e-mail from him saying that the work was interesting and wanted to talk about it further. At that point I was confident that we could make something happen. The highly unusual thing about this is that I had only sent out one proposal, so I was extremely fortunate. I had only sent out one book pitch because they were the publishers I wanted.
F STOP: What was the reason you gave him for why he should publish your book?
Levin: At the time that I wrote the letter I had won that International Photography Award. It was the 2006-2007 season and there was momentum behind my name and he was aware of that. I told him that I would work hard at marketing the book in North America and try to get as much press as possible. So, less than a year later the book has won some great awards and is almost sold out.