10 Minutes With Morgan Rachel Levy

Interviews with Photographers March 3, 2016 11:16 am

When did you first become interested in photography?

To the extent which an eleven-year-old can have a meaningful relationship with photography, it was around that age that I really started taking pictures. A couple years earlier, the teenage daughter of some family friends secretly showed me a video she’d made of her and her friends hanging out smoking. I was enthralled and then subsequently obsessed with the need for a video camera of my own. Thanks to my parents’ unfailing support of my artistic endeavors (and some babysitting money) I got my camcorder and made videos for a number of years. As with many childhood hobbies, my interest in the video camera dwindled. But around this same time, I was becoming a nerdy-Francophile (and looking at images by Cartier-Bresson and Brassai) and at about age eleven I resolved to be a photographer. I bought my first camera, a Canon AE-1, with money from the babysitting fund. By thirteen I’d built a darkroom in my garage and spent most of high school building an identity founded on photography.

Did you have any ‘aha’ moments? Perhaps the first photograph that you took that you really liked, or a moment with a subject? When did you know that this was what you were going to do?

There isn’t one defining moment that prominently stands out, but instead a series of quieter memories of feeling I was on to something. Looking at my black and white prints of a birdhouse or my best friend with her newly shaved head, the first large-scale color print I made of my sister holding flowers. I have memories of my hands manipulating an enlarger, of gently rocking a print back and forth as it floated in chemistry, the memory of knowing intuitively, that in the red glow of the darkroom I was in the right place. In short, the certainty that I was going to be a photographer evolved over time, I wasn’t struck by a lightening bolt of clarity.

Over the years I’ve been asked on more than one occasion about how I became a photographer. Through this process I’ve crafted a personal narrative out of slippery memories from childhood and adolescence. Being presented with this question again for this interview made me curious if the story I tell had any basis in reality, so I consulted with my parents to see if and how our memories aligned. They corroborated the story about the family friend’s camcorder, and also reminded me of the polaroid camera they gave me when I was eight years old. My step-mom said there was no amount of film that would’ve satiated me, and that I persisted at making a picture until I felt it was right. On a family trip I accidentally left the camera in a taxi and was inconsolable. My step-mom said that it was as if I’d lost a limb.

I love that your family was able to confirm your memories. I am certain that I have created at least eighty percent of mine..
Speaking of family, can you tell me about your personal project My Sisters Are Not Sisters?

Sure, though it’s worth noting that I made this series quite some time ago, primarily as a senior in college. I do, however, continue to photograph my sisters, who are now both 19 years old.

My sisters, Maggie and Cora, are eleven years younger than me. They were due to be born on the same day which, coincidentally, happened to be my eleventh birthday. One was a week early, and one was a week late. My sisters are not twins- they are not related to each other at all. My parents are divorced and remarried and my sisters are a happy product of my mom and dad’s respective second marriages. So, my sisters are not sisters. I made this work to look more closely at two, then, eleven year olds with whom I share the same familial relationship, but who are significantly different individuals. I was curious about how the different relationship I had with each of them, respectively, impacted who they were and how they presented themselves publicly and for the camera.

Are you currently working on any personal projects?

Yes! I’m currently working on a project on the Ft. Berthold reservation in North Dakota where the M.H.A Nation currently resides, photographing the fracking industry’s impact on the community and it’s land.

What sort of research do you do before starting on a project? How do you know when its complete?

Well it really depends on the nature of the project, but it typically involves a fair amount of reading. In the past, when working on my respective Iceland projects I read a fair amount of poetry and fiction. However, for the series I’m currently working on about the impact of fracking on the Ft. Berthold reservation in North Dakota, I’m reading a lot more non-fiction and news articles (but still a little poetry too) , as well as conducting interviews with residents of the reservation prior to making photographs.

I also try to research and look at other photographers’ work that is in some way related thematically or visually to what I’m working on.

It’s difficult to know when a body of work is complete. But I think it’s when I feel I’ve answered any lingering questions that I know it’s time to stop making pictures and start editing.

If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself?

I have a sense that headstrong and impetuous twenty-year-old-Morgan would roll her eyes at thirty-year-old only-slightly-more-wise-Morgan and have no interest in heeding her advice. Regrettably.

Nevertheless, I’d advise myself not to be afraid to ask questions and to not act as if she already knew everything under the sun. I’d also warn myself that somewhere in your mid-twenties, for fear of failure, you’re going to try to put road blocks in the way of doing the one thing you’ve always wanted to do: which is be a photographer. I’d encourage myself to push through the self-doubt that will disguise itself in all sorts of insidious forms, including but not limited to a year in the wrong graduate program, and I’d really try to drill into my own head that the overwhelming pragmatism you inherited from your dad, for better or for worse, will try to inhibit you, and that you shouldn’t permit it to. Just be a photographer, even if it seems irrational at moments. Or often. Because it’s who you are and it’s the means through which you relate to the world around you.

Photo by Rebecca Stumpf

Morgan Rachel Levy is a freelance photographer currently living in Denver, Colorado. Originally from Philadelphia, she received her B.F.A in photography from Tisch School of the Arts at N.Y.U and lived and worked in New York for many years. In recent years her editorial work has been featured in U.S. and international publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Esquire, and the Guardian. Her fine art work has been included in numerous exhibitions including a solo show at the Gulf & Western Gallery, group exhibitions at 
the New York Photo Festival, the Invisible Dog Art Center, Winkleman Gallery, and the Colorado Photographic Arts Center. Her work was selected for AI-AP 31 as well at Review CENTER Santa Fe. She is the recipient of the 2015 Lucie Foundation Emerging Artist Scholarship.

See more of Morgan’s work, here.

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