“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.