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Best of 2010 - Nancy LeVine


In a brand-new showcase for her work, photographer Nancy LeVine teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-winner David Horsey to create five “photo films” chronicling small slices of Americana. Trusting luck and with the notion that every stranger has a story to tell, they took to the road between Los Angeles and the Grand Canyon, shooting, sketching and recording as they went. Returning back home, they blended still photos, interviews, narration, cartoons and music. Presented on MSNBC.com and sponsored by the History Channel, the finished series Escape into America received more than a million Web views-making it a tremendous success.

Nancy LeVine, Seattle, WA

Web site: www.browneyesgallery.com

Project: MSNBC.com series Escape into America based on a pilot presented by the photographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and columnist David Horsey.

© Nancy LeVine
All images in this article © Nancy LeVine

ASMP: How long have you been in business?
NL:
About 28 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
NL:
I’m not exactly sure, about 15 years in New York City and about 3 years in Seattle.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
NL:
In my New York City days, I shot fashion and celebrity photography. Now, it’s people photography — environmental portraits, capturing moments, advertising — for a variety of companies and non-profits. And working as a photographic storyteller for multimedia. I have one published book called A Dog’s Book of Truths and a second book project nearing completion.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
NL:
In New York when I shot fashion, I worked with film and strobes in studio and with available light on location, as well as larger productions. I felt thoroughly trained with all that experience. Now, I have taken all that knowledge and shoot digitally, only with available light (and a scrim or reflector when necessary) and look to capture authentic moments for my clients. I try to keep my presence unobtrusive. I use only fast lenses, mostly the 50mm f/1.2 and the 85mm f/1.8. I recently purchased a 35mm f/1.4 lens.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
NL:
I would say my Canon 5D with a 50mm f/1.2mm lens and 85mm f/1.8 lens.

ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
NL:
It seems a lot of work I see these days has a very produced feeling. I am the opposite. I’m not sure I would say unique, but my goal is always to express something authentic in tone.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: How long have you been exploring multimedia and what kind of learning or preparation for this have you pursued?
NL:
I have been exploring multimedia for about a year. I took a workshop at ICP called Multimedia Storytelling. I learned a great deal in this workshop including the program Soundslides and an introduction to Final Cut. I thought creating photo films was a fantastic extension for my photographic work. I love creating bodies of work and before they were relegated to books or were just part of my collection of work. This was a new way to showcase an in-depth essay. Also, this was not something that just anyone who has a camera and calls themselves a photographer could do. It requires a deep understanding of how to create a body of work and an ability to make a large group of good images to showcase the story.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: How did you come to be connected with your collaborator, David Horsey, and with MSNBC?
NL:
I first met David in 2007 when he was a subject in a photographic series I was shooting about nationally recognized artists in the Seattle area. We became friends and, two years later, we teamed up to create what became the pilot for the series. The MSNBC.com connection came through him after he began collaborating on special projects with them.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Describe the pilot episode that helped you sell the series idea to MSNBC.com. How did you finance this and what kind of “how to” roadmap did you use to produce it?
NL:
Initially, the pilot was simply intended to be a vehicle to introduce David Horsey to new readers after his job expanded to include all the Hearst newspapers and Web sites across the United States. But, in the process of shooting the piece during a two-day road trip in central Washington State, it morphed into an expression of our philosophy that every stranger one meets has a story to tell. We began to think this idea could be the guiding principle for a full-fledged project in which we would take off on road trips, trusting in serendipity to lead us to interesting people and places and uniquely American stories that we could tell in words and images

While meeting with MSNBC.com editors about another project, David showed them the pilot and pitched the series concept. They liked it enough to bring in the head of their advertising team and start the ball rolling.

The costs of the pilot were minimal — just minor travel expenses. David and I did all the production. We generally followed the process I had used to produce other photo films using Soundslides. The difference in the series was that David wrote and narrated the script and we found music to back up my images.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Who did MSNBC find to sponsor the series? Can you provide any details about the sponsorship arrangement?
NL:
The sponsor was the History Channel. They wanted to promote a new series on American history and were looking for complimentary editorial content around which ads could be placed. The pairing with our proposed series of American tales was, apparently, just what they were looking for.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Describe the initial concept for this series and how the tone and style developed from one piece to the next. Did this change at all over time?
NL:
The concept evolved continuously from beginning to end. Initially, we intended to take a series of road trips in different parts of the country to get broad geographic representation. However, it quickly became clear that we had neither the time nor the budget for such extensive travel. We were not able to get on the road until February and were expected to produce five or six four-minute photo films by the beginning of April. In the middle of it all, David had to go to Vancouver to cover the Winter Olympics. Because of these constraints, we chose to do a single road trip that would still take us to diverse settings, starting in Los Angeles and ending up at the Grand Canyon. We also knew we should not risk trusting to luck alone, so we identified two stories we believed to be solid — one, the story of Tai Collins and her work in the LA gang areas, and the other the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. As a result, each piece really does have a unique feel, partly because the subjects were quite diverse — from a synagogue on Venice Beach to the emptiness of Death Valley — and also because some were fairly well pre-planned while others were impromptu.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: How were the subjects and/or locations for the photo films brought to your attention, and what criteria did you use to choose the finalists for the five episodes?
NL:
David had met Tai Collins in Seattle and had talked to her about her work with kids. I had been at the animal sanctuary during a shoot for my book about senior dogs. I had also heard about the “shul on the beach” and it seemed intriguing. Death Valley and the Grand Canyon just seemed like signature American locales in which we figured we might find unusual stories. The main thing that tied them all together was the road we intended to travel. There was no guarantee they would all work out, so we were prepared to do additional stories in the Northwest, if necessary.

ASMP: Were there any particular subjects, locations or people that you wanted to cover, but could not? If so, what prevented this?
NL:
If we had had the time and budget, we would have liked to have traveled to more regions of the country. That’s why we hope this series will continue into the future. There are so many American roads to travel.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Describe the production process. How much time was devoted to script development and planning, and how many days are scheduled for each subject? Did you work from a storyboard or was it more of a freeform process?
NL:
We began knowing only where we were going. In some instances, we knew what the subject would be and David had some rough story lines rattling around in his head, but we were truly trusting to luck. The main pre-planning involved scheduling our time with Tai Collins and with the people at the animal sanctuary. The rest was fluid. All the photography and interviews for the first four photo films took place over eight days. We returned to Los Angeles on a subsequent weekend to shoot the story at the synagogue. As we drove, our technical assistant, Kristian Marson, downloaded photos and sound in the back seat while David drove and we talked over ways to present the stories.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: How big a part did luck, or synchronicity, play in the unfolding of the stories? Please describe an instance of such luck, either good or bad.
NL:
As noted, luck, serendipity and synchronicity played a major part in the project. We truly did not have time to waste or days to dwell on a subject or opportunities to go back for anything we might have missed. Two serendipitous aspects stand out.

First… the night we left Los Angeles and headed toward Death Valley, we drove late and far beyond bigger towns. We ended up staying in a decrepit, cold, creepy motel and spent the night lying awake, thinking we had really taken a wrong turn. However, in the morning, we discovered the snow-covered Sierras looming outside and met a couple of oddball characters at the motel who gave us a prime focus for the storyline we developed for the Death Valley piece.

© Nancy LeVine

Second… We first went to the shul on Venice Beach during our initial trip to Los Angeles on a Saturday. Right away, it was obvious there was a great story to be told. The glitch was that cameras are not allowed in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Nevertheless, they were excited for us to return and encouraged us to come for Purim. Luck was with us because Purim was only a few weeks later. We returned for Purim and the celebration gave us the perfect theme to contrast life inside the shul with the bohemian life on the boardwalk.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Please talk about the collaboration element. How did things work in regard to the combination between photographs and illustrations? How much input and control did you have over the content of each piece?
NL:
David and I shared nearly complete control over the content of the photo films. Other than some very good stylistic and technical suggestions, MSNBC.com left us free to do what we wished. The one thing MSNBC.com editors requested was that David’s cartoons would provide an element of each piece, since that would set them apart from other video presentations and because they are, after all, his main claim to fame. The melding of photographs and illustrations was never a problem. Early on, we decided the cartoons would be used to set up stories and to illustrate elements that could not be captured by my camera. We resisted jumping between cartoons and photographs too much, thinking it would be visually jarring.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Please tell us how the final pieces were assembled. Who did what? What kinds of software and equipment were used?
NL:
Once work in the field was done, I retired to my home office to cull through the thousands of photos I shot. Meanwhile, David developed a working script and came up with his inspirations for how cartoons would be used uniquely for each film. Once I had David’s script in hand, I put together a rough photo sequence to match his narration. After this, there was quite a bit of reworking as we tweaked the script, rearranged photos, recorded the narration and searched for appropriate music. In a couple of instances, we finished a photofilm, looked at it, and then did a major overhaul to tell the story better. We did this with both the Death Valley and the animal sanctuary pieces.

Each of us had particular areas of responsibility. Assembling the photographic elements of the story was mine, of course. David did the writing, narration, interviews and cartoons. Kristian Marson assembled the soundtrack, managed photo files and worked closely with MSNBC.com on technical issues. The fact is, however, that our efforts broadly overlapped. I had a great deal of input into script edits and sound, just as David did with photo choices and sequencing. It was a truly collaborative and congenial effort. The soundtrack was put together using Garage Band and the film was assembled using Final Cut Pro. We all used Macintosh computers. My images were processed in LightRoom.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Tell us about your travels to shoot this series. How many trips did this entail, where did you go and for how long? What kind of crew was involved?
NL:
There were two trips. The first weeklong journey took us from Los Angeles through Death Valley and Las Vegas and on to Kanab, Utah, the Grand Canyon in Arizona and finally back to Las Vegas to fly home. The second jaunt was a weekend trip to LA and Venice Beach. On the longer trip, the crew consisted of me, David and Kristian acting as my assistant. Kristian did not go on the second trip, so my nephew who lives in LA assisted me.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: When on the road and in production, what were the biggest challenges you faced? Were the challenges different for you than for other crew members?
NL:
By far, the biggest challenge we faced was getting the technical specifications right to achieve the highest possible picture quality on the MSNBC.com site. They are geared to running endless hours of streaming video. Picture quality is not a top priority. The initial video versions of our work looked pretty mediocre, so we spent hours learning what was required technically to enhance picture quality for their format. As a result, we ended up doing 95 percent of the production ourselves.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: How were you compensated for your work on this series and did this reflect your initial creative efforts as well as your ongoing photography and production work?
NL:
We negotiated a budget with MSNBC.com from which all expenses were paid and from which I got payment for my work. Compensation was below my normal fees but I thought it was worthwhile because the project brought so many new creative challenges, provided me with the chance to learn new skills and because it was just so much fun going on the road and working with David Horsey. Next time, I think we will be able to work quicker in post-production, since we now have a much better grasp on all the issues and how to solve them.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Do you have a favorite story from the road or a favorite subject you met during the project?
NL:
Perhaps the funniest story came from our first morning at the Grand Canyon. Kristian and I went out early to shoot in the morning light and we found a mule wrangler getting a group of tourists ready to ride down into the canyon. This seemed like a great scene and I wanted David to capture sound for it. I called his room, but there was no answer. As it turns out, he was in the shower, didn’t hear his phone ringing and assumed we were still in our rooms. When we finally connected, I frantically told him to hurry and “come to the rim!” Well, I thought he would understand where to find us, but the canyon rim is, admittedly, a long stretch of ground. He ended up heading the wrong way until I called again and let him know more precisely where he could find us. He ran about half a mile on a slippery, snowy pathway and showed up huffing and puffing as the wrangler was about to depart. Nevertheless, he got in a quick interview that was key to our film and I got some great shots of folks on the mules. As we were leaving Death Valley, we spotted a coyote along the road. We slowed down to get a better look and I expected the coyote and its aged partner to flee. Instead, it approached our car (its partner stayed in the hills) and just stared at us. Some might say it was begging for food — we did not give any — but we just continued to gaze at each other and imagined something more special. This went on for quite awhile.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Are there particular skills you’ve learned from this multimedia project that you’ll find useful to apply in your still photography or future projects?
NL:
Absolutely. Besides gaining a better understanding of Final Cut, I have a fuller perspective on what kind of coverage I need to get wherever we go. David and I have to keep communicating about what we discover in real time so we make sure there is plenty of audio/images to convey what is unfolding. We both work well in this free flowing way.

ASMP: How many “views” did the episodes average on MSNBC.com? What would be considered a successful number of views? Was any particular episode most popular?
NL:
The series drew more than a million views. The MSNBC.com folks considered this a successful number and said it would have been higher if not for the fact that their linking system was being reconstructed at the time. Because of that, once one of the episodes dropped off the front page it was extremely hard to locate. In effect, we achieved the million views with the photo films being easily accessible for only a few hours on each of the five launch days. The views on my website went up tremendously and we got an additional 100,000 page views on David’s site at www.seattlepi.com. There seemed to be no single film that got dramatically more attention than another.

© Nancy LeVine

ASMP: Do you have a favorite location or show from the episodes filmed? Are there any plans in the works to do more shows in this series?
NL:
I loved doing them all. I loved all that we discovered. And yes, we plan on doing more. We have a growing list of ideas for new shows, have plans to go shoot a couple of them and are awaiting word on a new sponsor for the next series.

© Nancy LeVine