Interview: David Leventi

Curtain, Palais Garnier, Paris, France, 2009 © David Leventi

Sheena Hang: How did you get into photography? Who/What are your influences?

David Leventi:The first photography class I took was in high school with Mr. Swayne. My first camera was a Nikon 6006. It was my dad’s and I took it from him in order to take the class.

The first photograph on the first roll of B&W film I developed was an arrangement of yogurt containers stacked in a pyramid in the fridge.

Structured. Organized. That was always what I sought out. I enjoyed trying to capture a perfect composition—it was a way of putting a chaotic world in order.

During the class, my family and I went on a trip to Italy and my brother and I went for pizza across the street from the Gallarate train station outside Milan. At the train station, I shot a photo that—looking back now, more than fifteen years later—was like a prediction of my current work. It was a compositionally organized shot of train tracks, train sign posts, train lights, overhead train power cables, everything to do with trains—in a precise grid, in a single picture.

But, the majority of my photographs at the time weren’t so static. I was looking to photograph a moment, to capture all the essential elements uniting within a single frame. I wanted to be a conflict photographer and photographed with a Leica through college. My first job in the photo industry was working as an intern in the archive at Magnum Photos under Kim Bourus (now a partner at Higher Pictures Gallery).

I admired Henri-Cartier Bresson and his obsession with capturing the decisive moment. He was one of the founding members of Magnum Photos and it seemed like a great place to start studying outside of an academic environment. I too was looking for that decisive moment and for perfection within the compositional frame. Shooting with a Leica was spontaneous. It was ok for pictures to be out of focus and just an arrangement of forms. For me, the inherent beauty of 35mm photography is its ability to provoke an instant emotional response due to the rapidity and spontaneity of it, to draw attention to a nihilistic issue.

But, my appreciation of this changed when I started working for Robert Polidori. I came to appreciate the different type of beauty exhibited by large-format photography—one of immersion, the ability to print photographs so large and clear that they make you feel as if you are enveloped in and existing within a space. I enjoy the precision and structure of it. But, I also love the surprises I find in my large-format images when I enlarge them—things like the signature of Chagall on the ceiling of the Paris opera house or peeling paint at The Met that I never would have seen with my naked eye.

However, I still adore the decisive moment and believe Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects to be a large-format version of this obsession.

Margravial Opera House, Bayreuth, Germany, 2008©David Leventi

Sheena Hang: Who are your photographers that inspire you?

David Leventi: Andreas Gursky, Robert Polidori, Joel Sternfeld, Alexey Titarenko, Simon Roberts, Simon Norfolk, amongst others.

Thomas Struth’s photograph of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh is masterful: http://nyr.kr/oXTz1K

Amargosa Opera House, Death Valley Junction, California, 2009© David Leventi

Sheena Hang: Did you know you wanted to become a photographer?

David Leventi:I wanted to be a doctor until junior year in high school. I never imagined I would be photographing with a 4x5/8x10 view camera today.

Teatro Olimpico, Vicenza, Italy, 2010©David Leventi

Sheena Hang: How did you market yourself?

David Leventi:I don’t market myself as well as I should. I don’t enjoy shamelessly self-promoting. It’s not my personality.

But, after graduating from college, I wrote letters to five photographers I admired asking for the proverbial “foot in the door.” I started working as an intern for Robert Polidori, grew from that into an assistant, then a Studio Manager, then a Drum Scanner. I met many contacts through him, but more importantly, I saw how a professional photography business was run and benefited from getting his feedback on the work I was producing at the time. That was invaluable. He’s been an incredible mentor and friend.

My first editorial job was for Tracy Doyle at Time Out NY. I dropped off my portfolio on the drop-off day and she called back with an assignment to photograph interiors of stores for the 2nd Annual Shopping Awards issue. After that, I got hired to shoot a huge amount of stores and restaurants for the Time Out NY tourist Guidebook to New York and then periodic assignments afterward. Some of those shots inspired my portfolio of shots of neon storefronts in the city.

It was all really low-budget, but it gave me a bit of editorial validity as a photographer. Soon, I got called by Leana Alagia at New York magazine, then Lisa Berman at Vanity Fair, etc. It was a slow snowball as I got increased exposure. Each opportunity seemed to open a new door.

Sheena Hang: What made you decide in photographing Opera Houses? Do you have a story behind these photographs?Bold

David Leventi: The first music hall I photographed was the Romanian Athenaeum in Bucharest, Romania. I was there working on my other major project - photographing my family's history in Romania. It was an impressive-looking interior, awe inspiring, with so many ornate details. Standing alone inside the massive hall, there was a power emanating from the space. When I came home, I processed and printed the film of the Athenaeum. Looking at it from over 4,000 miles away, though you're not actually in the space, you feel it through the picture. I judge the good images from this project by the tangible emotion I feel when looking at them.

It also connects back to my family history with the story of my grandfather. The opera houses are spaces in which my Romanian grandfather, Anton Gutman, never got the chance to perform. He was a cantor who was interned in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp called Krasnogorsk from 1942-1948. The Danish operatic tenor Helge Rosvaenge, also a prisoner, heard my grandfather sing an aria from Tosca and gave him lessons. I grew up listening to him sing in our living room.

For me, the act of taking a picture with an 8×10 large format camera from center stage is a performance in itself. In homage to my grandfather, I guess you can say I’m living out our dreams.

I recently photographed the Bolshoi Opera House in Moscow which is relatively close to Krasnogorsk.

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