Photographer's Forum Magazine

Mental Landscape: A Conversation with STU LEVY

Barbara Crane ©STU LEVY

Barbara Crane ©STU LEVY

At the edge of Portland, Oregon’s Washington Park, with its roses, Japanese gardens and forest trails, Stu Levy welcomes me into his bungalow home. Right away he gives me a tour of the art that he and his wife, Cris Maranze, collected over 35 years — images by photographers like Imogene Cunningham, Brett and Edward Weston, and Josef Sudek. In the living room it’s books, magazines and papers; Native American baskets and pottery; and an upright piano, huge stereo speakers, a guitar case on its side, a conga drum and another drum that he tells me is from Ghana — nearly every surface covered, as if caught in the midst of a creative act. From the sofa, I glance into a room across the hall that brims with stacks of books, papers and photographs, the scene divided by the glass panes of French doors. And then it hits me.

Claire Sykes: I feel like I’m sitting in one of your grid-portraits.

Stu Levy: One early impetus for doing those portraits had to do with issues of stuff in my life, and how our possessions define us. Even if the person wasn’t in the photo, somebody who knew them well could look at it and say, Oh, they always have that in their living room, or whatever. The objects are also part of the portrait.

I’ve recently started thinking about the gridportraits as miniature movies of a person’s life. We follow a person on certain pathways — in this room, in another room, at different times — and we remember this frame and that frame and another frame. And they are combined into the grid-portrait, a sort of memory trail of the person through these different aspects.

Gordon Gilkey © STU LEVY

Gordon Gilkey © STU LEVY

CS: You’ve photographed mostly artists, musicians and craftspeople — some famous, like artist David Hockney, musician Graham Nash, and photographers Jerry Uelsmann and Walter Chappell. But also the owner of a rock shop, a volunteer disc jockey and a Portland mayor. To me, a grid-portrait gives a more complete picture of the person than a straight-shot portrait.

SL: A straight portrait represents one fraction of a second, and I wanted to tell more of a story. The grid-portrait and my write-up about the person, explaining how I met them or know them, and a little bit about them, are combined in the final piece of art.

CS: I’ve enjoyed reading all 34 of them in your book Grid- Portraits (Nazraeli Press, 2010), your second monograph. Then there’s your first monograph, a single grid-portrait of photographer Carl Chiarenza, One Picture Book #30, titled Cranial Czar, Eh? (Nazraeli Press, 2005). And your latest, of Jerry Uelsmann — One Picture Book #75, Honk If You Love Steiglitz. Your other main body of work is made up of your landscapes, which are so lush and expertly crafted. What does photography say for you that no other medium can?

SL: Photography creates an illusion of reality. In a sense, it’s one of the more evolved abstractions because of the intensity of the claim that it’s recreating reality, when in fact it’s not. It condenses a three-dimensional world with colors and sounds into a two-dimensional world, either in somewhat reasonable colors or in shades of gray that don’t have a one-to-one correspondence, necessarily, to the reality.

One of the things I learned from Ansel Adams was that he highly interpreted things. He had a concept of how he was going to manipulate a scene through exposure, development, filtration and printing that created a different reality for him, and his art shared that alternate reality. So photography can pull off that illusion. When I realized that I was able to participate in that, it really excited me.

CS: As a child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio in the ’50s, how did you get into photography?

SL: There was no art in the house, but my parents did take photographs, which were important mostly as family archives. I learned that I could operate the camera at an early age, and I became the family photographer. It could’ve been a fascination with the camera itself, but also, photography allowed me to socially relate to people, as I was pretty shy. Then, in the sixth grade, I saw a friend develop some prints in his darkroom, and it was as if magic was happening to me.

I became my high school and college yearbook photographer. In college, a friend and I also started a rock ’n’ roll cover band. We had a light show and dancers, and ended every evening with a fog machine and a 45-minute version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.” When I wasn’t playing guitar, I was photographing local groups and bands coming through town, like Iggy Pop, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.

CS: You became a physician, not a musician. Why?

More of this article can be read in the Fall 2013 issue.