Interview: David Levine – Life through a lens

10am – I am poised by my computer, dictaphone in one hand, mobile in the other. After tapping in the number, there are a short couple of rings before I hear a voice at the other end. “Can you call me back in 40?” It's just another manic day in the life of the iconic photographer, David Levine.

Born and bred in London, David never had any other ambition than to pursue his passion in photography. He describes his parents as neither ‘encouraging nor discouraging' but it didn't really matter as his mind was set and no-one could have stopped him from going after his dream.

David_picsHis earliest memory with a camera, was holding his Uncle's in his hands at the age of six. He then went on to study photography at school and from there managed to get a photographer's assistant role after “fixing some Scottish guys stereo”. He remained with that guy for four years and made the decision to embark on his own when the clients were starting to call him directly to ask if he would do the jobs. His boss never found out.

Levine's focus lay in music and fashion photography (it still does). The work came in steadily and his clients were never displeased with the result. However, his big break came after Boy George happened to see the photographs he had done for a mutual friend. George rang Levine immediately and demanded Levine take his portrait. “I basically was famous overnight for making Boy George look like a woman.” The result was awe-inspiring and the work started to pick-up-pace: Adam Ant, Kylie Minogue and The Cure are just a handful of names that posed infront of his lense.

His work took him across the pond to New York and then to Tokyo; incidentally, the former would be where he would wake up to spend his ideal day, the latter would be a nightmare. “There are so many people to please and lots of red tape to get through in Japan.”

Has he ever said ‘No' to anyone? “I've had discussions with clients and suggested alternatives to some names, yeah,” but his lips remain sealed and he won't name any names. There are, however, still many people he would love to shoot – Boy George being one of them, adding a ‘before and after' aspect to his portfolio, another dimension to his portraits. And he doesn't believe that we've seen the best of him yet, “That's what keeps you going. The moment you think, ‘That's my best work,' you're done and it's time to hang up the camera and find something else to do.” A very modest and refreshing point of view from the man who counts David Bailey among his ‘friends' though he explains, “Photographers are some of the most critical and fiercely protective people you will ever meet, they never really like to hang out with each other”.

But he has never been one for rules. When a certain actor turned up and his people proceeded to present Levine with a list of ‘dos and don'ts' he merely turned round to him and said, “What's the point if you're not going to let me do my job?” The actor's people may have nearly passed out in shock but the person in question just laughed and let Levine get on with it. The result was far better than it would have ever been if he had allowed himself to be constrained in such a way. Also, if he ever walks up to you at a party and proceeds to tell you that your recent shots are “crap” and that you should let him have a go, don't be surprised. “It's a good ice-breaker and a great way to judge their character.” He certainly has balls.

His career is not all fun and games. When I was contacting Levine about setting up this interview, I thought I was emailing him personally but was a little curious when I got a reply from, what I later found out, was his agent. “The musicians are not the only ones who get hounded. I get hate mail from people who don't like a picture I have taken of their idol. I get weird stuff too. Some years ago, a young girl wrote to me and literally offered herself to me, in whatever capacity I wanted. After that, I never opened a piece of mail again. It all goes through my agent.”

I always think that you can judge a good photographer by how he makes you feel within the first minute. With Levine, I felt like I was talking to an old friend. His work, however, speaks for itself.

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  1. Nice interview, I’ve always liked David’s work and I couldn’t agree more with his statement ” I always think that you can judge a good photographer by how he makes you feel within the first minute” It’s incredibly important to make your client feel at ease when they meet you, as for many actors the headshot session is a truly daunting experience.

  2. I have since this interview Photographed Boy George again. When it was exhibited in 2011 many thought it was a 20 year old image as he looked so good in it. No retouching was used on it.

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