JJ Levine – Formal Agenda

We sat down with Canadian photographer JJ Levine. Levine is a 27-year-old artist whose work explores themes of identity, representation and sexuality. 

JJ Levine, Cam, 2012

What is your favourite colour?

Purple, mustard, turquoise, black.

What are you listening to?

Lately I’ve been listening to Frank Ocean, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Grimes, Kendrick Lamar, X-TG, Solange, and Rae Spoon.

Who is your favourite painter? 

I have been deeply moved and inspired by a painter in my life named Harry Herbert. His self-portraits are stunning.  I also love the work of another queer Montreal painter by the name of Jenna Charlie Meyers.

And who is your favourite photographer? 

I just saw an amazing retrospective of Rineka Dijkstra at the Guggenheim in New York. I also love the work of American photographer Collier Schorr.

What in life excites you?

Colours, textures, and human connections.  Also cruising and sex.

Where do you get your inspiration?

My beautiful friends inspire me always.  Also I love the performance and video work of Johnny Forever and Morgan M. Page.

JJ Levine, J’avlyn, 2012

Why did you decide to become an artist?

Because it’s so lucrative. Just kidding! I didn’t decide to become an artist. I decided to go to art school so I could learn technique and apply it to work I was already interested in making. I express my ideas and emotions through visual art, so it makes sense for my life to revolve around that. I finished school many years ago, and have kept making new work since.

I was going to say that I’ve been lucky to be offered a lot of shows and opportunities to exhibit my work lately, but I think more than luck, it’s a combination of hard work, and making art that people seem to be excited about.

When did you begin to consider yourself an artist?

I began pursuing a career as an artist several years ago.  I’ve always made art, though, so I definitely can’t pinpoint a moment when I became an artist.

I know that other people started recognizing me as such when I started showing my work in galleries, but I was an artist way before that when I would spend hours sewing paper and gluing fabric to envelopes to send intricate mail-art to faraway friends, and screen printing patches and designing posters for radical queer organizing that was happening in Montreal in the early 2000s.

How long have you been a photographer?

When I was a little kid my mom gave me a point-and-shoot film camera, and I would shoot entire rolls of film of really boring still lives that I would arrange.  One of my memories of my mom, before she passed away, was gently expressing that maybe I should stick to photographing people,  instead of just different configurations of my dance shoes on my bed! I guess that advice really stuck!  Many years later, in my early teens, I was given my first 35mm manual camera for my birthday by two of my siblings, so maybe that’s when it really began.

I started photographing my friends, siblings, and lovers with a medium-format film camera and studio lighting in 2006, when I first had access to professional photography equipment while I was doing my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts at Concordia University, here in Montréal. So what started as a small project in my first photography class has become a huge and ongoing body of work, which I call Queer Portraits.

JJ Levine, Jesse, 2012

Every detail of your work is carefully planned, can you explain the process? 

My process happens long before I begin shooting.  It starts with observing the living spaces that I  hang out in over time, and making mental notes of beautiful moments that I want to recreate.

Each shoot takes about four hours.  I normally bring all my studio equipment to the person’s house and begin the set-up.  Usually we hang out for a bit first, or eat a meal, then I start moving all their furniture around and I recently started using a digital camera to take test shots. Once I feel good about the way that I’ve arranged everything within the frame, I ask the person to show me their wardrobe.

I try to find something they feel comfortable and confident in, while taking into account the way in which the colours and patterns of their garments interact with the space and the mise en scene that I have staged. I only shoot one roll of film, which is ten exposures, and I normally have at least one that I feel good about.

The locations you shoot are all very ornate and compliment the sitter perfectly. How does the set come together?

I photograph my friends in their homes. I am drawn to apartments with vibrant walls and furniture, and decor that I can relate to on an aesthetic level. First I decide which wall I want to use based the colour it’s painted or its wallpaper or structural traits, then I decorate the space with items that already exist around the apartment.

 A lot of your work is very sexually charged, what is the reason for this?

Sex and sexuality are important aspects of my life; therefore, making sexually charged images is a form of self-representatation. In many ways desire is what connects queer people to one another, and for me celebrating radical sex through images feels like an honest way of portraying my reality.

Some of your work is very provocative. How do you and your subjects prepare?

In all of my work, my friends are incredibly generous with me as models. Some of them ask to be nude or semi-nude in their portraits and sometimes I ask that of them. Regardless of how clothed a person is, being photographed is a very vulnerable experience. While shooting, my subject’s comfort level is paramount to me. Part of the reason I spend so much time with my subjects for each shoot is to ensure that they feel at ease while sitting for me.

You’ve stated that photography is your preferred medium because it feels very intuitive, I see a painterly quality in your images, are you interested in painting at all?

I am interested in painting as a viewer, but I don’t connect with it the way that I connect with photography and video.

JJ Levine, Ali, 2012

You’ve said that you are not a voyeur in your work but an active participant. Can you elaborate on this?

Although my work is not collaborative, in many ways I work closely with the people who appear in my images. I photograph my community, as opposed to capturing a world that I am unfamiliar with.

I am not so much fascinated by the ‘other’ as I am interested in an introspective exploration. I’m so often off-put by the power disparities with which so much photography is imbued.

I believe that portrait artists have the responsibility of representation, and representing a marginalized community of which you are not a part can be a dangerous endeavor.

You always photograph people you know, why is this?

The element of trust that exists between me and my subjects is critical to my project.  I am not interested in photographing strangers, as I want to be connected to the people that I take pictures of. I am not only expressing my own identity, but also that of my friends and lovers.

Your own gender plays a large part in your work; do you have any interest in separating the two? How do you feel when people focus solely on this, as opposed to engaging with your art? 

My work is inextricably linked to my identity. And although my goal is not to pigeonhole myself, I feel that it’s important to drawn attention to the author-subject position in the images that I make when speaking about them.

I don’t want to dwell on your own gender, however its something you seem to readily explore in your work. Can you elaborate on this?

Yes, my queer and trans identity come up over and over again in my work.  I identify as transmasculine, genderqueer, and sometimes as femme. Most of my work addresses ideas of gender malleability.

JJ Levine, Rae Spoon, 2012

I see a lot of Cindy Sherman’s film stills as well the staged aspect of Jeff Wall, is there a photographer you really identify your work with? 

I definitely admire both of them for very different reasons, but I wouldn’t necessarily say I identify with either.

I love Cindy Sherman‘s Untitled Film Stills and seeing them all together at the MoMa last spring was overwhelming! The way she uses costume and makeup in all of her projects is inspiring. I am very interested in ideas of masquerade and “passing” in my own photography, and these concepts are obviously prominent in Sherman’s work. Her career was born out of a second-wave feminist art historical context. I think there are parallels between that moment and this one, but I am working in a radical queer context which maybe only exists as a tribute to that politicized past.

Jeff Wall‘s elaborately staged grand sets and use of colour photography are of interest to me as well. However, I am most impressed by the technical aspects of his work. Also he’s probably the most successful Canadian art photographer, so his career is obviously inspiring in that way.

JJ Levine, Girlfriends, 2012

How, if at all, has your own process evolved through the course of your career? 

From the way that I shoot to the end product, my work has evolved so much since I began photographing. The most obvious shift has been my attention to detail. I think this makes my images more polished or refined, perhaps at the expense of the intimacy that is associated with spontaneity.

I am currently working towards reconciling those potentially conflicting desires and outcomes.  Despite these shifts, my Queer Portraits series, which I have been working on since 2006, has maintained a consistent aesthetic throughout, to the extent that I wouldn’t hesitate to show images from five years ago alongside images that I made last month.

JJ Levine, Laurence, 2012

Is you family supportive of your art and your lifestyle?

Yes, I have photographed all four of my siblings for my Queer Portraits series, as well as two of them for Switch.

My siblings were the first subjects that I revisited when starting to re-photograph people years after their initial portrait was taken. As well, my father has always been extremely encouraging and supportive of my art practice and comes to many of my shows.

My step-mother is involved in the art world as well, and has been generous with giving me feedback over the years. Having several older queer siblings definitely paved the way for me in terms of coming out/ not having to.

JJ Levine, Pamela, 2012

How self-critical of your work are you?

I’m a perfectionist, so a lot of self-critique happens while I’m shooting and also when I’m printing in the darkroom. I take my time honing every last detail that will appear within the frame before I even begin to load my film.

After a shoot, sometimes I know immediately if the image turned out, and other times I’m not sure until I get my negatives processed. The 24 hours it takes in between dropping off my film and going to pick it up is always suspenseful. Once I see a contact sheet or scans of my negs, I know immediately if my photograph turned out the way I imagined it.

I really like my projects, and when an image resonates with me, I never second-guess that.

How do you spend your free time?

When I’m not working on my art practice, I spend a lot of time hanging out, cooking, eating, and fucking. I travel a lot too.

Living in Montreal means I have time to hang out way more than would be possible in other cities. I am usually in the excellent company of my siblings, roommates, cats, friends, and boyfriends.

JJ Levine, James Butler, 2012

With so many photographers working today, how do you set your self apart from other photographers?

I shoot on medium-format film and print using an enlarger in a colour darkroom. This automatically sets me apart from many image-makers today. Also I celebrate and honour a group of people who might normally only be represented as outsiders.

What’s the most exciting thing to happen to you in the last 10 years? 

I was offered a big feature in a fine art photography magazine called Ciel Variable, published here in Quebec in 2011. Dayna McLeod, a Canadian artist whose work I had been interested in for years, wrote an analytical essay as the text that accompanied my images.

So many doors have opened for me in the art world internationally, from exhibitions to publications, because of this amazing opportunity for exposure.

JJ Levine, Thorne Sisters, 2012

-Megan Conery

All images ©  JJ Levine.