It’ll be clear when looking at the forthcoming images that there is a lot going on in conceptual street/landscape/portrait photographer Morgan Levy’s work. Many of her images will seem caught in an impenetrable stillness. Some will require more than one look to completely register. But soon enough you’ll see that they are all irreducibly precise, made at the perfect moment between action and absence. Caught, as she describes them, in the “pregnant pauses” of transition, these photographs are like those lonely silences hidden between the notes struck loudly on a piano. Moments you know are there but that soon fade to the sounds bracketing the quiet.
But it’s in the stillness, or absence of sound, these in-between moments of breath, that a song becomes something real. These beats of pause — much like the invisible dark matter structuring on our universe — are the valleys and mountains fashioning wind, sound, and light to their moving forms. Her portraits, whether they be of landscapes, city life, or people, are exactly like these natural structures. You are seeing things as they are before they seek signification. She is capturing the thought before the smile, the recognition before the glance, the dark before the light. It is practically unbelievable how precise Levy’s eye can perceive transition.
In this interview, Levy talks about how she built an identity through photography, explains what capturing pregnant pauses means, and reveals her approach to portraiture and landscape work.
Your photography is really measured. I like the stillness of your compositions. How did you get your start? How would you describe your work?
I started photographing pretty seriously around age ten or eleven, though I had a camera from about age five. By thirteen I’d built a darkroom in my garage and spent most of high school building an identity founded on photography. Photography is what I’ve done basically my whole conscious life, so in my mind there is no exact “start.” I’d describe my images as pregnant pauses. Sites of transition and the tension between the interior and exterior life of people and places attract me. Meaning, for me, is created in the small sliver between two moments. Therein lies a pregnant pause and the stillness that you sense. Others have also commented on stillness in my work. I’m happy that my images generate that feeling.
You’ve done portraits as well as landscapes and street. Which did you find first? Which do you find more difficult?
From a young age I created photographs of my friends. So I guess in that sense I came to portraiture first. But I was (and admittedly still am) a real Francophile, enamored with Cartier-Bresson, so reportage and “decisive moment” images have always been a part of my work. Arbus and Avedon and Sander came into my life a little later, introducing me to a more deliberate approach to portraits. Mainstream images played a major role in my visual world. I tore through Vanity Fair in middle and high-school devouring Annie Leibovitz’s over-the-top photo spreads.
My landscape work proves to be most challenging, both conceptually and technically, though of course portraiture has its own inherent difficulties. Though I often work in picturesque places, the intent isn’t to depict beautiful landscapes. It’s to find and create an image (or the raw material from which to composite an image) that represents or evokes a specific idea or thought. Using landscape to successfully convey ideas is challenging. And I don’t always succeed.
I find Iceland to be a productive place to try to create these types of images because of the geothermal and geological activity; Iceland sits on the rift between the North American and Eurasian plates. Geology serves as a wonderful metaphor for psychology. Something is always going on below the surface on the small nation island. Furthermore Iceland is a relatively empty place where I can easily get a bit lost. I find that to be an incredibly productive state to work in.
How do you approach framing your landscapes? You seem to prefer getting real close. Why do you think you prefer a tight frame?
In regards to framing my landscapes: The history of landscape photography in America has much to do with control and power, and the use of imagery to explain or make sense of an unknown place. I prefer moving in closer because disorientation and the unfamiliar excite me. Being lost is a state of transition too, and I enjoy finding ways to use photography to create that feeling.
I like “How Will We Ever Find One Another” and “Mom/Dad Imagined” (above) very much. They both feature little points of focus that tie everything together. When shooting landscapes, what recurring patterns have you found yourself drawn to?
Thanks! Well as I’ve mentioned, there are themes that resonate throughout all my work. Playing with scale has been an effective visual strategy for conveying the ideas I’m after. When things are small in an image, the viewer knows they are far away.
What would be the three most important tips to give to other aspiring landscape photographers?
I don’t think of myself a landscape photographer; I’d say I’m a photographer who sometimes shoots landscapes. But! If I were to give three tips… I’d say this:
1. Landscapes are more than just attractive vistas. They tell stories, hold history, and have personalities. Images of landscapes that truly engage me aren’t ones where I say, “wow, that’s pretty.” The ones I remember are images that make me say, “wow, I never knew that.” That’s a long-winded way of saying don’t create the same postcard image of the volcano… go deeper, show me the volcano like I’ve never seen it.
2. Understand the impact of scale and depth of field, ie. Speak the language of photography fluently. Ask questions like how do these technical aspects function in my image, what am I telling the viewer? For instance, what is the effect if only one thing is in focus?
3. Get a pair of fly-fishing gloves. Perfect for photographing in arctic conditions and closing a tripod when it feels like your hands are going to fall off from frostbite.
Your titles are important to your images. I like their poetic length. What is your process to titling them?
My titles are important, yes! I’m happy you picked up on that. My process is two fold. When I’m making a body of work I read a lot, and the reading often informs the title. During the editing process I sit with all my test prints, stare at them and start writing words and thoughts that come to mind on the back of the prints. Then I refine them. It is intuitive, but there is a method.
Your portraits share the detached objectivity of your street/landscape images. I think the last one in Women illustrates this detached tone perfectly. When you’re taking someone’s portrait, what are you hoping to capture? You seem wary of contrived expressions.
I think I’d rephrase that description of my work, and say instead that my images are framed from a conscious distance. “Detached” doesn’t quite feel right to me. Often my subjects convey vague expressions. I’m attracted to ambiguous undertones. If a subject smiles in a photograph, the viewer thinks he or she understands something about this person or this moment. Expressions I’m drawn to are ones where the answer isn’t obvious, where the viewer is left wondering. This is what I mean by a “pregnant pause”: a moment embedded with meaning and significance that is somewhat withheld. I think this enables the viewers to project a bit of themselves into the image, which I find to be a more fulfilling visual experience. A favorite quote of mine is, “women are never stronger than when armed with their weakness.” The Marquise du Deffand said this in the 16th century. She’s asserting that there is strength in weakness, getting at the deeper complexity of human emotions. I set myself the task of finding that vulnerability in my subjects without ever conveying them as weak.
Your portraits also highlight your preference for soft/natural light. I really like how the light in the 14th of Women (top) and the 2nd in 2007-10 (bottom) make me feel. Why do you like this lighting? What is your process to getting the most out of it?
To clarify, I do often work with artificial light. But generally speaking, like you said, I keep it on the softer side. There is nothing ironic, sarcastic, or overly critical in my work. I think images with harsher light are often interpreted as such. There is sensitivity in my work and softer lighting lends itself to that feeling. I do, however, love the contrast of dark to light spaces. A background in art history gives way to a love of chiaroscuro, which not uncommonly, I find to be very dramatic and poetic. Typically the camera is situated in the dark area of the image. Looking from a dark place and situating the viewer in one interests me.
Besides other photographers, what has most influenced your work?
Artists and writers in no particular order with tons excluded from the list: Gerhard Richter, Goya, Vija Celmin, Ida Applebroog, Rebecca Solnit, Barthes.
Be sure to check out all of Morgan’s work on her website!