For the past 40 years, Randal Levenson has captured the lives of unheralded America with his Hasselblad camera, aiming for the hardened underbelly of the strangers among us who live in the shadows, often off the grid, without electricity to illuminate or warm their lives. He also ferrets out the beauty in the mundane lives of often-overlooked working men and women.
Levenson’s latest photography show, The Lives of Strangers, is up through March 8 at the devera.iglesias gallery in the Wynwood Arts District. The opening expands on an exhibit that recently closed at the Pyramid Studios in southern Miami. Levenson is slated to give a talk on the exhibit at the gallery at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The one-man show is akin to reacquainting oneself with an obscure genius. Levenson made a name for himself in the 1970s and ’80s with his stark black-and-white photographs of carnivals and the people who populate the side shows. His work made its way into a book, In Search of the Monkey Girl. Spalding Gray, of Swimming to Cambodia fame, wrote the text that accompanied Levenson’s photographs.
Today, Levenson shoots in color and enlarges those images into portraits that can take up more than four feet of wall space. The color photographs, though contemporary, evoke a warm feeling of remembrance. One work in particular captures both grandeur and intimacy. Shot two years ago in Newberry, near the University of Florida, Wally and Sich is a 39-by-52-inch portrait of two farmworkers in a hayloft. Soft sunlight envelops the scene in jewel tones evocative of an Old Master’s painting. At the same time, the focus remains so crisp that individual blades of hay stand out amid the dozens of bales stacked in the loft.
When he looks at that portrait today, Levenson still marvels at the light. He attributes it to luck. This is the same man who will patiently wait three days for the perfect moment to shoot a freight train passing through the Ohio countryside.
“You make your own luck, but it helps to be lucky within that luck,” he says by way of explaining the intangible magic that often accompanies hard work.
And sometimes his best shots happen serendipitously, when he’s completely relaxed and not in the throes of work.
Such is the case of the Bee Man portrait. Levenson had a bee infestation at his Miami studio and called the Alpine Farms Bee Removal service. Jeff Thomas showed up to smoke out the carpenter bees. When Thomas arrived in his white jumpsuit, thick gloves and veiled helmet, the photographer rushed off to get his camera and tripod.
Levenson calls himself “a 19th century photographer with 21st century technology” that often involves a tripod and camera under dark cloth. He uses a variety of film and digital cameras, including Cambos and Hasselblads.
His chance encounter with Thomas in 2010 became the first in a series of “beekeeper” photographs Levenson continues to make today.
The large and lush creeping vines behind his studio add counterpoint to the portrait of a young man who looks at the viewer with calm, steely eyes. He has the look of a dog that wouldn’t bark before he bites.
“He was a sergeant in the Marines,” Levenson says when a visitor remarks on that look.
Another occasion when good luck followed bad and resulted in an extraordinary photograph is the time Levenson found himself rushing through an Oregon mountain pass last November. Even though he wanted to stop and shoot the silhouettes of dark cows against the snowy terrain, he pressed on before the highway patrol closed the road. The missed opportunity with the cows led to an even better shot of a stand of poplars farther down the road. Just before sunset, the brilliant golden light illuminated the white bark of the trees, the way a fireball does during a forest fire.
“You make your own luck, but it helps to be lucky within that luck,” he says again, softly.
Levenson’s luck has taken him through various permutations in life. The 6-foot-6 native of Wichita Falls, Texas, has seen a lot of this country — from the curious to the commonplace. He did a stint as a Fuller Brush salesman and studied electrical engineering at Brown University. He has lectured at Harvard University, and his work can be found in several prominent and permanent collections, including the National Gallery in Canada.
In later life, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and in The New York Times as the inventor of the “TV Allowance,” a device that shuts down a television set once it reaches a preset limit of viewing hours.
He and his wife, Rustin — who worked as a painting conservator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and later went on to co-author with Andrea Kirsh the highly regarded book Seeing Through Paintings — have three children and sought to limit the amount of television watched at home.
Levenson studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design after becoming interested in the subject while working in Alaska during the 1960s. For a decade he traveled with sideshow performers such as Penguin Boy, Lobster Man, Gorilla Girl and the Man with Two Faces. Shot during the same era when Diane Arbus became famous for photographing freaks, Levenson’s portraits appear more humane than exploitative. They also document a bygone era in American culture.
At one point Levenson was so taken with their lifestyle on the road that he contemplated joining them. He wanted to buy the Gorilla Girl Show, which starts off with a beautiful woman who suddenly transforms into a big, hairy ape before startled spectators who run out of the tent screaming when the beast breaks free of its cage.
He never did buy the gorilla act. Instead, he worked on his book with Gray, whom he met playing pickup basketball in Greenwich Village. Published by Aperture Press in 1982, In Search of the Monkey Girl chronicles Levenson’s adventures on the road and his attempts to persuade the naturally hirsute Monkey Girl to submit to a photo session. She never did sit for him.
On the last page of the book, Levenson points out his self-portrait memorialized in the shadows cast on the fairgrounds pavement.
In his latest photographs, Levenson shows he has mastered how to minimize his presence, even in the shadows. A close look at his photograph of the Ohio freight train reveals his muted presence amid the shadows cast by surrounding trees, but you have to know where to look.