MICHAEL LEVIN PHOTOGRAPHER INTERVIEW
A short interview with fine-art photographer Michael Levin
By Joel Tjintjelaar
Michael Levin is a multiple awarded fine-art photographer from Canada who had a major influence on the style of black and white long exposure photography that became very popular in the last decade: minimalistic and very aesthetic black and white photographs from mainly seascapes and landscapes. I’ve had the pleasure to ask him a few questions for this short interview on the challenges he’s facing with people trying to emulate the aesthetics of his work, his own favourite photographs, an advice to aspiring fine-art photographers and on his new KOYO virtual workshop that intrigued me as a new way of teaching workshops and also triggered this interview.
MICHAEL LEVIN INTERVIEW
JT: Michael, you’ve made quite a name with your minimalistic long exposure black and white photographs of seascapes: your style and meticulous compositions have received not only a lot of recognition and top accolades but also have been emulated by many photographers. Only very few have come close, if at all, to this beautiful synthesis of black and white and compositional perfection that make your images stand out. How do you feel about being copied by so many and does this change/affect the way you approach your own future work? In other words: do you feel challenged to do something different than fine-art long exposure photography?
ML: Long-exposure photography has become popular because it offers a beautiful aesthetic appeal. I appreciate that some people feel inspired by my work to seek out the locations where I’ve taken some of my key photographs. It can be very useful to try and understand the process and compositional choices that any photographer goes through to make a compelling image. What makes a photograph resonate can be a bit of a puzzle so being in the same location can help you identify and understand those choices better. But for me, I’m always looking for something off-beat and unexpected whenever I’m traveling. And I’ve learned to let my natural curiousity lead me to a fresh perspective and always keep pushing myself. I don’t even think of myself as a “long exposure photographer” – while it’s a technique that I’ve employed, my full body of work has broader boundaries. Mostly, I just try to challenge myself and see where that leads me.
TWILIGHT 2014 (c) Michael Levin
JT:What is your favourite photo from your own work and why?
ML: That’s a tough question as I typically think of the experiences attached to the photographs and that’s what’s important. I’m somewhat fanatical about the editing process and I only put out what I feel is the absolute best I can do so I have a strong connection to all of them.. But for an early photograph, 30 Road proved pivotal in my creative development. For any photographer, you have to find ways to push yourself forward. 30 Road ended up being that type of creative challenge. I had been driving some back roads in Japan – a little lost as often happens when I’m there – and I just decided to stop my car right at that spot. I think I sort of sensed a visual possibility but wasn’t really sure of it. But there was very little traffic so I had a chance to breathe in the scene. Then the whole space became my own puzzle that I needed to solve. In my old contact sheets, you can see that I framed that vantage point from so many different angles but nothing was working for me. Then I decided to put my camera right on the road marker on the ground and suddenly I felt the photograph explode forward. It was like a bang went off in my head. I think after that image I was willing to challenge myself even more and trust my creative judgment. But I also just remember the experience of being in that moment, alone in Japan, and feeling the joy of that. It was a good day.
JT: What would you advise aspiring fine-art photographers wanting to make the a living from fine-art photography like you do? Is it even possible to just make a living from shooting fine-art?
ML: While I firmly believe that there a number of factors that need to be considered before making the leap to being a full time photographer, it’s absolutely possible. You need to first and foremost have a solid portfolio and basic understanding of business. You really can’t have one without the other. You also need to consider if photography is something you can do full time or is it more of a hobby for you? And you must be willing to invest in your creativity – which is more about time and curiosity than money. But after all of that you have to figure out a purpose and start to define your market identity as a photographer. There are so many great photographs being taken but you have to pursue ways to elevate your work and gain broader exposure for it. The marketing and business aspect of fine art photography is so fundamental that I decided to devote a large part of my upcoming KOYO workshop to addressing all of these challenges. But there are definitely ways to get ahead by focusing on both your creative output and your creative identity.
JT: Recently you’ve announced a workshop in Koyo, Japan. But it’s a virtual photography workshop. Could you tell us what that is and why you’ve decided to do a virtual photography workshop instead of a real life one?
ML: I’ve now done a number of workshops in Europe and North America and while I feel it’s been beneficial to the participants there’s never enough time to cover everything or show people how I personally go about getting an exceptional image. So I wanted to come up with a way to demonstrate some practical advice that will benefit all types of photographers no matter what or where they shoot. The KOYO workshop will be able to show in an up-close, behind-the-scenes way what I go through to scout out and compose a scene and then how I capture, process and print it. I think it will help if people get to see all of the challenges and complications and hard choices that go into getting a great shot. Nothing comes easy but you have to have the resolve to make it right. And I think hosting KOYO in Japan will be inspiring – particularly since the segments are being filmed by a topnotch production crew in novel ways that will give everyone an incredible experience of the beauty of that country and the visual journey I go on when I’m there. I will also be doing a live Q&A session which I think will be very informative and also cool to do as a live-streamed event. KOYO has been carefully structured to give all sorts of photographers very practical advice and show the experience of what it takes to get an exceptional photograph that will resonate with others. But the workshop also allows people to better understand the business side of my career and how they can move forward in their strategic development. I always enjoy sharing the lessons I’ve learned over the years trying to find, create and then sell a photograph so it appeals to others.
To learn more about Michael’s workshop please visit www.koyo2016.com