We had the good fortune of connecting with Serge J-F. Levy and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Serge J-F. Levy, what is the most important factor behind your success?
It took me a few years to discover that my own criteria for creative success was different from what I might be acknowledged for through paying work. Early on in my career as a magazine photographer in New York City I was lucky enough to be publishing in the New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, the London Sunday Times Magazine and many other international publications. My work was a combination of: 1. self-funded photo essays that were purchased and then published, and 2. assignments that were commissioned by the magazines. In the circumstances of the former, I could wander freely, follow intuition, and experiment. When I was on assignment, the parameters were tighter.
I attribute my success as an artist today with my ability to separate the work I do for money—writing about photography and my private consulting business that caters to photographers who are building their vision and career as artists—and the photography work that I show in galleries and museums. Without outside influence, I am able to hear the content of my internal dialogue. In turn, this allows me to create photographs that feel authentic and unencumbered. For me, this realization about how to tap the deepest well of my creativity has been an invaluable contribution to my personal sense of success.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I started my fine art career as a street photographer in New York City. Street photography is in part distinguished by the photographer’s spontaneous response to an unplanned moment. I was always interested in how the everyday theater of New York City street life spurned strong emotional responses for me. And over time, I realized that the moments and interactions I chose to photograph were often my way of creatively interpreting my internal life.
In 2012 I left my lifelong home of NYC and moved to Tucson. For the first six months I tried making urban street photographs, but it was a resounding failure… until I realized that I had to shift my definition of “streets” to include natural spaces.
My current work uses scenes of the Southwest—mostly desert landscapes—as metaphors for emotional content. Over the past six years I have been amidst a lot of loss and grief. And when I walk into wilderness areas, I feel like I am moving through a world of symbols that embody a spectrum of my psychic life. The spontaneous photographs I make outdoors feel like a conduit to my deepest experiences. And the process of making the images feels necessary.
It didn’t take me too long to realize that the art I was making was challenging. And not all audiences are interested in discovering another way of realizing or seeing painful feelings. Thankfully, there is a type of art for almost every person’s desires. The same goes for the arid, hot, spiny, and sometimes barren feel of the desert Southwest; it isn’t for everyone.
There’s a lot of great photography out there that is able to realize traditional forms of beauty in these spaces. But that’s not what I am doing. And it has been hard to let go of the idea that a good photograph is meant to inspire positive feelings and evoke unqualified beauty.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Needless to say, the city of Tucson has seemingly endless cultural attractions. In all honesty though, I generally skip the city and escort my friends off to the desert or up a sky island (depending on the season). I feel like every trip to the desert is like visiting a museum with rotating exhibits. For the first several years of living in Tucson, I was convinced I discovered a new species of insect every time I went out hiking. There’s a good chance I was wrong. But that joy of discovery is something many of my friends share. Most recently, I had visitors from Brooklyn and for the first time we saw the Red Velvet Mite. It was like watching 1/8th inch stop lights wander across the desert floor. Apparently, they only peek above ground a couple days of the year. It was a lucky sighting.
Otherwise, if they are into camping, we’ll be eating backpacking food out of foil bags, drinking filtered water out of a questionable puddle and staring at cottonwood silhouettes against a starry night sky.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I aspire to be generous with my expressions of gratitude. So, the people in my life who have been supportive hopefully know it. That group consists of fellow artists, mentors, students, family, backcountry rangers for the National Parks Service/Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management, The Arizona Commission on the Arts, The Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona, doctors, my friends and everyone that becomes a part of my extended village. My recently departed feline friend, Pandora, has also been a consistent companion for 19 years—I’m indebted to her for her patience, inspiration, humor, support and kindness.
And then there are the desert landscapes of the Southwest. I can’t imagine where I would be if I hadn’t discovered the palette of ideas and emotions that I can see reflected back to me from these otherworldly spaces. I am emboldened by the resilience of these habitats in the face of the challenges humans—including myself—throw at it.
Portrait of Serge J-F. Levy: ©Stephanie M. Burchett Eight Photographs: ©Serge J-F. Levy