Story 140: Drew Leventhal

What is your backstory?

I’ve moved around a lot in my life, from California to New Mexico to Pennsylvania and beyond. But I always say that I grew up in Philadelphia, it’s the city I will always be from. Both of my parents are anthropologists and so my entire life has revolved around a desirous search for meaning: in our hand gestures, in the wink of an eye, in the objects and landscapes we imbue with memories.

I went to Vassar College to follow in the family footsteps and study anthropology. I ended up combining that with my slow burning love of photography. In those early days I was questioning the inherit power dynamics that arise from the photographic encounter. The curator John Szarkowski wrote a lot about this, how the photograph could be either a window onto the world or a mirror reflecting the photographer back on the viewer. I though there had to be more than that, that the photograph was more than a portal. I came up with the metaphor of the table, a communal space where the image, rather than the end result, was a jumping off point for further conversation and understanding.

I continued these investigations into my time at graduate school. After getting my masters degree from RISD, I can say that my faith in photography as a poetic but explicit dialogue has only increased! Its a flawed medium we work in but those paradoxical errors surrounding the nature of truth and reality are the reason I keep coming back to photography day after day.

What camera gear/editing setup do you use?

I am primarily shooting with a large-format 4x5 camera. For my project “Yosh” I was shooting with a Wista 45dx and for “Mason & Dixon” I used an Ebony 45SVU2. There are also a sprinkling of medium format pictures, which I shot on a Mamiya RZ67.

In terms of film, my go to stocks are Portra 160/400 and Tmax400.

The settings really depend on the scene in front of me. One of the great things about large-format is its versatility. With a small aperture of f/45 or f/64, you can capture every little infinitesimal detail, every tree and bird and dragonfly. Alternatively, with portraits, you can focus all your attention on the person by using a big aperture. This reinforces the gazing relationship back and forth between subject, photographer, and viewer.

How do you achieve the look of your photographs and could you take us through the process?

With “Yosh” I really wanted color to play a huge role in the world building I was doing. The project takes place in Belize and its this amazing place that is full of life and energy. Its also extremely hot so I gave everything a warm tone to convey the heaviness heat can bring. The pictures themselves began as an investigation into Belize’s colonial history but I found myself gravitating towards the pictures I made with my friend Eddie. We think together about his family’s place in the history of Belize and how we could make pictures that represent moments in the story. All of the props and costumes came from his grandfather, the eponymous “Yosh.” So in many ways Eddie is his grandfather. That slippage between the past and the present is something I find beautiful.

My current project, “Mason & Dixon” centers itself along the Mason-Dixon Line that divides Pennsylvania and Maryland. It’s this invisible border that holds a lot of the divisive and violent history this country was founded upon. One of the important themes in this project is anachronism, how symbols of hate and division, hope and joy can transcend their place in time. To this end my images took on a kind of “timeless” quality. They are in a tentative and questioning dialogue with the 20th century documentary tradition. I used black and white film and I developed my pictures to emphasize the shape of the light. It was important to me to make pictures that are both descriptive and poetic, investigative and wondrous.

Could you tell us the backstory of some of your photographs?

One of my favorite pictures from “Yosh” is the one with all of the pictures sitting on the yellow chair. It’s just this really beautiful summation of the project. Those pictures came from Yosh’s family and they’re these small portals into scenes from his life. There’s Yosh standing, his father in the British Army, his daughters. Those pictures were always scattered on the walls of the house but I asked if we could bring them together, to make a picture of pictures, stories layered on top of stories, all sitting comfortably on yellow fabric.

In “Mason & Dixon” I always love the one looking out of the car at the statue of the horse and general. I remember that day was really cold and I had been driving around, uninspired. Well, those are always the times when it’s important to push just a little more because usually something amazing happens. I pulled into this memorial just to stop somewhere and this picture just appeared in my windshield. Suddenly the day was worth it. All those hours of wandering and waiting and questioning came to a point in that one picture.

What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

I think I would still consider myself an aspiring photographer too so I’m gonna give myself a little pep talk! I think the most important lesson I’ve slowly learned is that you need to make pictures that are true to what you believe, to the way you react to the world. Make with passion. It has to be for yourself first. You have to care deeply, in your heart and soul, about what you are making. Everything else is external. The gear, social media, exhibitions, awards, books, none of it matters if you don’t believe in yourself first.

Everybody has a unique voice. Find inspiration and put your own twist on it. And finally patience, patience, patience, it’s a long winding road my friend.


Drew Leventhal


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Story 139: Sean Sirota