Interview: Jonathan Levitt On the "Echo Mask"
Inspired by natural history, mythology, and a primordial view of the natural world as a place alive and enchanted, photographer Jonathan Levitt went looking for the endangered and haunted places - natural landscapes still enlivened by intact habitats and the corresponding wild animals. The photographs he made, primarily in the Maritime Northeast between Newfoundland and Maine, and around the mangrove islands and hardwood hammocks of the subtropical Southeast, are featured in new book, Echo Mask. The images, Gannets soaring around their nests at Cape St. Mary’s, a humpback whale dives in the rain near Grand Manan Island at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, wading bird rookeries in the cypress swamps near Chokoloskee in Florida, are presented in a sequence meant to evoke elements of animistic art and fossils of classical poetry from oral cultures - particularly synesthesia, transmogrification, onomatopoeia, and a non-linear sense of time. Levitt's academic background in anthropology and history of food heavily informs his photographic work, and the title Echo Mask refers to the Echo Transformation mask worn by members of Northwestern tribes during winter enactments of myth. They danced as Echo, the forest dwelling being who mimics animals, birds and other creatures, including human beings.
What were the first photographs you remember having a big impact on you as a kid? What images do you remember the most from your childhood?
Jonathan Levitt: Probably pictures in magazines at the barbershop, Sports Illustrated, Car and Driver, People, Playboy. The images I remember were mostly from comic books and film, like Wolverine, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Punisher. There was a live action Snow White movie from a stage show with great creepy costumes, we rented it over and over at video store and finally bought it. Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Wars, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies from 80s and 90s... Conan the Destroyer, Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, mafia mobster movies, particularly Goodfellas, Heat, The Silence of the Lambs.
Can you remember the moment when you sensed that photography was going to be a big part of what you wanted to spend your life doing?
I’ve always done art stuff. Right now taking pictures and making books is satisfying, but I would be happy drawing, painting, making sculptures, it doesn’t have to be photography.
What makes an image successful for you? What are a few things you look for while you are shooting, do you find that changes when you are editing? Have you taken anything you noticed or learned from assembling the book that you are going to incorporate in future work?
Lots of images are successful but for m,e a great image is something that happens only very rarely. Usually there is something in the picture that I did not plan, something accidental, some element of chaos. It’s why I shoot film, and it’s why I like old and battered cameras. There are higher chances of chaos.
I try not to take a lot of pictures. A lot of things that I've tried in the past didn't work, so now I know. I usually spend more time figuring out what I’m going to photograph and how. Taking the picture is the easy part. For Echo Mask I photographed animals and birds in significant eco-systems. I would like to keep doing that, to learn more and look more closely.
Did you always envision these photographs as a book? Are the photographs from a long span of time or has this been a more recent project?
Yes. For now I am thinking of books as the ultimate place for my work to be seen. I like to work on photography the way a filmmaker might work on a film, or like a writer writing a book. Not as much like a painter. All of these pictures are meant to be sequenced and seen together like sentences in a short story. Almost all of these photographs are from 2017-2019.
What was the hardest part of the process of putting together the book?
It’s difficult to decide when a book is done, it can seem arbitrary. I would have been happy to work on these pictures for another few years.
What kind of affect has photography had on you as a person? Has the practice changed who you are at all, has it revealed or strengthened aspects of your personality/self?
Photography gives me good excuse to go deeper into wild or strange places and to stay there as long as possible. I’m Probably more likely to keep crepuscular hours and to stay out in nasty weather.
You have a culinary degree and a master's in gastronomy. Can you draw connections between the creative process involved in cooking and that in photography? Do the two interests balances themselves out pretty well?
Yes, many connections. The best food is usually very simple. It's the same with photography. I think the best pictures are simple and timeless.
Jonathan Levitt's new book, Echo Mask, is available via Charcoal Press.