Interview: Levi Mandel

Levi Mandel was born in Seattle in ’85, grew up in Tacoma/Seattle, and moved to New York in ’08 where he attended The Cooper Union. Not only has Levi worked with a wide variety of commercial and editorial clients, he’s also released six books. – AB

Levi’s sensibility is one that follows true throughout his body of work––there’s no time for the typical. By applying his ethos as a portrait photographer to his travel stories, he introduces emotion into static landscape, capturing surreality within the ordinary. His unconventional aesthetic is a seductive one and reflects through his commercial and editorial work, capturing the unexpected beauty of the strange juxtapositions found in unaltered life. When he is not on assignment, he is documenting artists and their studios, photographing dog-walkers’ packs, and exploring forgotten cities throughout America.
-Hannah Kuo 

Let me start by saying thanks for doing this, Levi.

Not a problem – I’m always happy to talk about photography.

I know you just did the New Yorker IG takeover and it got me thinking about your images and how the world outside of our circles of artists might respond to our varying styles. But first, in addition to the editorial and travel work you make, it looks like you’ve also spent some time carrying around a point-and-shoot.

Are you specifically referring to the diaries?


All three of those books are indeed 35mm work. However, that’s all mostly 2008-2015ish which is right about when I started focusing not just on finding the right substance within the work but also making technical, more traditional photographs on a digital system. This is about when I graduated from art school as well and started assisting real photographers who I was learning from on and off set. To answer your initial question, I’m not carrying around film cameras anymore but full DSLR’s and lenses. Which is a huge pain in the ass but keeps my work consistent.

I feel you on that. I have an RZ67 I claim to love but never shoot anymore. And there were a lot of us carrying around 35s in school but you were pretty productive.

For years, throughout my entire four years at Cooper at least, I was shooting all the time. Through graffiti, skating, cycling, being young in Brooklyn, I just found myself out more than I am now. You have less responsibility and end up in more trouble, so to speak, so you’re looking at the city with completely fresh eyes.

So you went from Seattle to NY and, for lack of a better phrase, felt kinda unleashed with the camera?

Kind of – I was making work in Seattle as well, but the city was just so different. Once I got to NY, I started looking at what other photographers were making like Ryan McGinley, Tim Barber, you know the “New Contemporary Photographers” who basically opened the door, and realized that there are ways of making good work while keeping things dirty, if that makes sense. Like in Seattle I was learning composition and color, but NY taught me about content.

So then you graduate, start assisting, and that helps change the way you think about pics and how you want to shoot as well?

I think I just started getting bored with the point-and-shoot aesthetic. Like, those years it felt like we were all making something new, which in a way we were, those years the Tumblr-aesthetic really took off and the beautiful-imperfections of shooting on film was all that I cared about. I think that foundation was crucial to who I am and what I make now, but yes, eventually I started to get tired of seeing everyone making the same work, which got me thinking about my own practice.

I never thought much about the effect Tumblr had on me but in hindsight it is big. It had me working a lot harder on establishing mood.

I think a lot of contemporary photographers owe a lot to Tumblr. In fact, I feel bad that the newer, younger kids coming up never really experienced a world pre-Instagram. As cliche as it sounds, having one platform to share photography (before cell-phones were really a thing) really helped push all of us to create new, strong work. And because work would get reblogged and commented on, it was kind of like an art school critique but online.

Totally. That’s how I discovered AB. When we were in school, AB’s Tumblr, among others, was how we discovered other kids at other schools making work like us.

For sure, same here, but for me it was really the Blood Of The Young gang that kicked everything off.

It also seems like that phase of your photography helped lay the foundation for your portraits too. Your portraits are as affectionate of strangers as they are of celebrities. People are people to you. Was it difficult when you first started photographing high-profile folk or did it feel natural?

I’ve always approached shooting portraits the same way, indifferent of who was sitting. I guess you’re right though, street photography taught me to look for the weird, surreal, funny, off-moments in people that I find even more interesting when shooting celebrities. This actually reminds me of something that happened while shooting Shawn Mendes for W Magazine…

Tell me about that.

So I was on assignment for W, shooting Shawn in his hotel room as he got dressed for The Met Gala this year. To be honest, I didn’t really realize how big he actually was going into the shoot, but nevertheless, I approached the shoot the same way I always do, which is- just be yourself, don’t be weird, you know? So the entire time his PR-person was just hovering, like following me around everywhere, telling me not to shoot certain things, to give him space, normal PR stuff but at the same time totally interfering with the way I like to work. So like thirty minutes into the shoot I notice Shawn brushing his teeth in the bathroom, in his beautifully tailored tux with his shoes off. It was the perfect mix of celebrity and civilian. So naturally I walk over to shoot him through the mirror and his PR rep intercepts me like a fucking linebacker and tells me to give him space and to leave him alone. So she leaves and I’m getting ready to walk away when he catches my eye in the mirror and gives me a little wink while waving me into the bathroom, where I shot maybe 3 frames before slinking off under the radar. If I would have put him in front of a white wall like everyone else, the image would have been fine and worked, but like, I’m certain people would rather see Shawn Mendes brushing his teeth like the rest of us.

If I saw this in a mag my guess would’ve been you or a creative director said “hey let’s set up a nice human moment”. It got published in the story right?

Yeah, they loved it. He had a massive crew with him so it was pretty much out of the question to demand too much of his time, so you kind of just work with what you got sometimes.

Maybe that’s that difference in how we perceive something when we see it printed, and the reality of the moment. Good editorial work feels like it wasn’t nearly as rushed as it actually was. Like “oh they must’ve had a huge budget and plenty of time cause this is great”, when in reality it’s the opposite.

Exactly. I guess that’s that street-photography foundation, relying on instinct over preparation.

Let’s talk color. I love color. You love color. Whoever is reading this probably loves color. Some of your images get pretty saturated. I’m particularly drawn to it because my experience with academia was that it shamed all sorts of stuff out of us and among those things was heavy saturation and color inaccuracy. You’re leaning the other way and it really works for you. It seems accuracy in this case would be in the way of the world you’re creating, and without that accuracy these images add up to more than the sum of their parts – especially in groups. Can you tell me a little bit about how you developed your style and taste?

My palette kind of developed organically — I’ve always been drawn to warm tones, there’s something nostalgic and surreal about oranges and yellows and reds and quite frankly, it’s a world I want to live in. At one point not that long ago, maybe a few years ago, I told myself that everything I make is going to live within this “world”, which has made it easy to stay consistent during my post-process. When I can I’m shooting sunrise and sunset to catch the warmest tones from the sun, but in general, I’m pushing my white balance and waiting for the right light so my body of work feels unique and consistent. There is an app that I use religiously called Sunseeker, which through AR and GPS on your phone will show you exactly where the sun will be at any specific time throughout the day (it also works for the moon). So for assignment, I’ll use this to make sure the sun is low and behind me, and if I’m shooting on location or for myself I’ll often revisit something when the light is right.

So you got to a point in which you were ready to settle into a style and you held yourself responsible for staying within a certain amount of consistency?

Yes exactly, editorially at least. Commercially, you probably couldn’t pick my work out of a line-up as everyone wants their light simple and clean (and boring!). I’m just signing with a new agent who happens to get and dig my vision, so our goal this year is to focus on securing commercial work that isn’t too detached from my general aesthetic.

That’s beautiful because I find that a lot of your commercial work sits well with your personal work. There’s a set on your site: Mercedes taillight, Daymond John, rainbow. There’s definitely fluidity to them as a triptych.

Thank you! That’s means a lot – I think about sequencing and the narrative obsessively. Even if images aren’t from the same shoot they should ideally all be able to have a conversation together on a page.

Do you have any books out? I didn’t see any on your site.

Oh yes, I’ve actually published several books. Several are currently available at Printed Matter here in New York. My newest book is called Dirty Dogs and was published by A Love Token, which is a collection of portraits of dogs being bad, taking shits and looking amazing. Big dog packs and whatnot. I’ve also made a few books about places, all of the books are sold out online but here is a link to most of the titles:

Has anything or anyone in particular inspired you color-wise? I want to go back to that because a lot of folks are safe with color. And again, that’s possibly out of being shamed in college. You are not safe with color, rather willfully inaccurate and almost absurd in some images.

Honestly not really! I mean Ryan McGinley will always be a pioneer of using whimsical color in his work and someone I admire greatly, but his tones are like super far-out where I try to keep mine at least in a world that’s recognizable. Like eternal golden-hour.
I did go to a school that encouraged experimentation, which helped me be OK with trying things and breaking rules once you’ve learned to understand them.

Bless that school. You said Cooper right?

That’s right.

Of course when you’re doing anything unorthodox really well, especially this day in this day and age, you get the spectrum of opinions about it. It was interesting during the New Yorker takeover to see the comments from people outside of the artistic community that either loved it or thought you were using IG filters. Like they didn’t get that you’re leaning into something that has been considered taboo in the past, and that that’s what makes it special when it’s done right. Was there a time when it got to you or have you have you always been unaffected by that?

It was interesting to see those comments! And you’re exactly right, people were either like loving the work, or like, “nice Instagram filter”, so I’m like, “show me one filter that looks like my work”. I’ve always been open to constructive criticism, again coming from art school, but no, random Instagram users analyzing my process of creating work doesn’t hurt my feelings. There was actually one user who was like super mad about my colors, and posted some bullshit comment about how I couldn’t cheat real photographers. I obviously ignored him, but like two days later on a different post he apologized and said he sees what I’m doing and is a big fan of the work!

Yo that is hilarious.

I think he even bought a print. I learned a long time ago from a friend about the benefits of PMA and living with positivity. He told me one night, “I like more than I dislike”, and it was such a healthy awakening for me, like focusing on what you like about something/someone/somewhere over what you instinctively don’t like. It’s truly made being alive more enjoyable for me. Oh and by the way I just met with The New Yorker to show them my new portfolio in an official context, and they told me my photo of Big Bird in Central Park was their most-liked photo ever.

That’s fantastic, because they’ve been posting a lot of great work from a lot of great photographers. We’ve all been watching I feel like. Did you already have an in with them or did the takeover become your in?

The New Yorker takeover was for sure a blessing, as you said they’ve been posting fantastic work and I don’t think they’re afraid to take risks or post unseen/untraditional artists.
I did not have an in with them, in fact they were on my list of magazines that had never returned an email from me, and out of the blue one of the photo editors reached out and asked me if I was interested in taking over their IG for a week.

That right there should be a sign to anyone reading this that hasn’t been emailed back to keep doin their thing and remain patient.

Amen to that.

Final question: Any artists or albums you have on heavy rotation this week?

I have been listening to a few albums, $uicideboy$ has a new one called I Want To Die In New Orleans that’s pretty fantastic, also King Krule’s The Ooz is a full listen. Oh and Blood Orange/Dev Hynes’ Negro Swan is a banger.

Well hey man this has been great. I’m glad I finally got to ask you some of this stuff because I really like what you’re doin out here and it’s good to see the images reaching new audiences. So thank you for doing this. Let me know when you drop another book!

Thanks for reaching out! It’s been great.

To view more of Levi’s work please visit his website.