Exploring The Big Neg with Fine Art Photographer David Leventi

David Leventi: Palais Garnier, Paris, France, 2009

David Leventi: Palais Garnier, Paris, France, 2009

Background and Biography

David Leventi grew up in the suburb of Chappaqua, NY (45 minutes north of New York City). As the son of two architects, his work is influenced by the built environments and organizations seen in the field of design. He told us that it is largely due to his upbringing that, “I compartmentalize and organize the world around me into a grid, and that comes across into my photographs.”  

After receiving his first film camera (a Leica), conflict photography is what sparked his interest in taking photos. It was later he then became fascinated by Henri Cartier-Bresson and his concept of “The Decisive Moment.” You may be asking how he transitioned from conflict photography and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s street style photography into shooting large format film. According to Leventi, this was due to his internship with Robert Polidori, a renowned architectural photographer. It was Polidori who encouraged him to “explore the big neg.”  

Working for Polidori first as an intern, then as an archivist, and later on as his first assistant, Leventi became “obsessed” with large format photography and the detail he could pull out of it. It was then he fully transitioned from 35mm film photography into 4×5 and 8×10. He has not looked back and now shoots large format film exclusively.

Photographic style and overarching goals

“The thing I love the most is taking the picture. After taking the picture, I love putting together projects. After putting together projects, I like to see those projects brought to fruition on a gallery wall.”

David Leventi: Curtain, Kungliga Operan, Stockholm, Sweden, 2008

David Leventi: Curtain, Kungliga Operan, Stockholm, Sweden, 2008

His love of large format, aside from the incredible detail it captures, is due to the control he has. As he says, “it’s the ‘taste’, and that it’s slow and deliberate. You’re putting yourself there with the camera, getting the tripod out and saying, ‘I’m here, I’m taking a picture.’ It’s the furthest thing from being inconspicuous.”

When he is photographing something, he begins by focusing on beauty: “I love pulling people in with beauty, but that’s just a catch. You’re not saying anything if it’s just beautiful …There has to be an underlying something more… I like there to be a sense of irony there.” He aims to grab the viewer’s attention with beauty, then allowing the large format display of his work to further pull them in to see past the obvious and see a perception of irony or “perhaps a bit of darkness”.

David’s “Opera House” and “Prison House” projects heavily play into this. After completing his Opera House project, he wanted to “flip” the whole concept yet still shoot something architecturally similar. After discussing the decadent draping of opera curtains, he goes on to discuss some of the architectural similarities between the opera houses and the prisons he’s photographed. 

 “There are people in boxes in both.”

David Leventi: Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba, 2018

David Leventi: Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba, 2018

Challenges as a film photographer in the Digital Age

He starts by saying he should embrace this as “the workflow is quicker.” There is less necessity for targeted thought about shooting, and a greater emphasis on shooting more. When shooting film, there is a finite number of photos, while with digital there isn’t a real end, but a new memory card. With film, for Leventi, there is a “hard stop.” It requires deliberateness of composition, precision focus on the intended result, and the specific variations he is looking to capture. 

“Is more better or is more bad? Is less better? How many frames do you take of a subject?” 

Leventi frequently uses his phone as his digital camera and as a digital sketchbook of ideas and concepts. He has even adapted and accepted a digital process through the scanning and archival of his negatives, he also acknowledges the cost-saving aspect of digital photography, and that the price of film keeps increasing which is prohibitive. Leventi predicts film will eventually become more exclusive and considered “more of a craft”. 

Fundamentally, this is also why he prefers film in a digital world. He appreciates how hands-on film photography is and having a tangible product at the end.

”It’s like building furniture with your bare hands or working on a motorcycle. It’s about the craft behind the whole process. With large format, you’re not manipulating tiny dials and buttons, it’s a heavy process with heavy lenses, [and] big pieces of cloth. […] Everything in digital is micro in comparison and at the end, it’s just 1’s and 0’s.” 

When did image theft first become an issue and how did he hear about Pixsy?

“It’s always been a problem.”

For Leventi, like many photographers, it takes so much energy and time to pursue an infringement of his work. He recalls one of the first image thefts he encountered being a website taking the entirety of his Opera House series and putting them onto a free wallpaper website. 

He felt this deviation from the true intent behind his project cheapened his work. With a bit of exasperation, he explained how “They typed ‘Opera’ in large bubbly letters across my photos.” At the time, he thought there was no one to call and no way to “shut this down”. 

It was later while chatting with a fellow industry member and artist representative while working on completing a book project, he mentioned how someone had recently taken one of his images and used it. When she asked if he was going to do anything about it, he told her, “No, it’s too much time and effort. I’m a one, at most two, person operation. I would rather spend the time making the art.” It was at this point during the conversation he was directed towards Pixsy, and informed on how he could focus on creating his work while allowing licensing and IP industry professionals to handle the rest.

“The best thing in the world is taking an amazing picture, nothing beats that feeling, and that’s what I want to concentrate on.”

Overall, Leventi has a more optimistic thought process behind unauthorized image usage. He acknowledges that many people do ask for permission. After discussing a well known editorial organization who used his imagery without permission recently, he posed an interesting question, “Is it that we no longer have an education around image rights?” He feels many organizations take images because they don’t think they’ll “get caught” and thus, in their eyes, it’s worth the risk. Ultimately, he approaches the pursual of image theft with the concept of, “It depends on how much of a business you run.”

 Leventi’s general optimism becomes more apparent when he discusses individuals and small organizations, and his stance leans towards providing them the benefit of the doubt. When asked how he feels about image theft in general, he expressed more agitation surrounding the common misconceptions of image rights rather than the theft itself. 

 “I don’t entirely know how I feel, but I am [becoming] desensitized to the whole thing because it’s happened so much.” 

During our discussion, he goes so far as to question if he should even have a website but acknowledges while the situation is frustrating, it would be counterproductive not to.

He combats his frustrations with an overall outlook that when an image is taken without permission from his website, that it’s in no way an accurate representation of his projects. He takes everything back to his love of “the big neg,” and that those who choose to take imagery without permission are essentially doing themselves and their business a disservice. It is a pale comparison to his work’s intended goal – a large format, tangible print, on a gallery wall where the full details can be properly displayed. Leventi states that “when you steal things off my website, you’re taking [subpar] images” and ultimately it isn’t an accurate portrayal of the imagery. 

He believes we are so overloaded with imagery, and this is a huge contributing factor to image theft.

“For me, image theft is two things: You’re taking my work because you want to promote me, which in a way can be flattering, or those who take my images to try and monetize them. It becomes like clickbait, [they’re] taking the work because it’s beautiful and [they] need the content to satisfy [themselves].” 

When we asked, taking into consideration his work is essentially exclusive to galleries and physical prints, if the image theft culminated any specific feelings, he reiterated his points on the type of photographer he is. If he were shooting exponentially more digital, and his goals were smaller format and editorial usage (“If it was my bread and butter”), he explained it would elicit a more heated reaction and he would be more keen to address every usage.

In his eyes, many infringements are not a monetization of his work, or born of ill will or the desire to do something iniquitous, but is often an individual’s way of saying, “Hi, I love your work,” and adding it to their “Diary of Life.” When it’s a personal use of his imagery, he considers it “a compliment in a very roundabout way.”

It’s when there is the monetization of his work for a business or organization’s benefit where the line is drawn. Like any other business, he feels that services rendered should be paid for. “I don’t want to pay [for some services] either, but I do, and so they should pay me.”

David Leventi: Florent, 69 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, New York

David Leventi: Florent, 69 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, New York

Where has he displayed his work in the past?

His photographs have been widely published in TIME, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, FT Weekend Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, among others. In 2007, Leventi was selected by Photo District News as one of their Top 30 Emerging Photographers. His work has been included in the 2008 Communication Arts Photography Annual and in the 2008, 2012 and 2013 editions of American Photography. Leventi is the recipient of two Graphis Gold awards, has been a two-time Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50 Finalist and was a participant at Review Santa Fe in 2010. He is represented by Rick Wester Fine Art in New York, Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans, Bau-Xi Photo in Toronto, and Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta. Leventi currently lives and works in Brooklyn.

Solo Exhibitions

"New York," Rick Wester Fine Art, New York, NY 2020

"Social Spaces," Bau-Xi Photo, Toronto, Canada 2020

"Length x Width x Height," Rick Wester Fine Art, New York, NY 2020

"Romania Revisited," Bau-Xi Photo, Toronto, Canada 2019

"Opera," Wunderkammer Visionnaire, Milan, Italy 2017

“Viewpoints,” Bau-Xi Photo, Toronto, Canada 2017

“Opera,” Spazio Damiani, Bologna, Italy 2016

“Operas and Prisons,” Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA 2015

“Opera,” Bau-Xi Photo, Toronto, Canada 2015

“Opera,” Rick Wester Fine Art, New York, NY 2015

“Palazzi,” Bau-Xi Photo, Toronto, Canada 2013

“Opera,” Galería Patricia Acal (PHotoEspaña 2013), Madrid, Spain 2013

“Bjoerling’s Larynx,” Gallery Stratford, Stratford, Canada 2012

“Interiors,” Bau-Xi Photo, Toronto, Canada 2012

“Portraits of Theaters,” Open Arts Festival “Chereshnevy Les,” Petrovsky Passage, Moscow, Russia 2012

"Opera Houses," Weitman Gallery, St. Louis, MO 2011

"Opera Houses," Bau-Xi Photo, Toronto, Canada 2011

"Opera," Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, OR 2010

"Opera Houses," Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA 2010
Group Exhibitions

"Art in the Time of Empathy," Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, LA 2020

"Art.Now.2017," Hearst Galleries, Hearst Tower, New York, NY 2017

"1% Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality," East Wing Gallery, Dubai, UAE 2015

The Association of International Photography Art Dealers (Rick Wester Fine Art), New York, NY 2015

“Breaking Ground,” Andrews Gallery, College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA 2014

“The Landscape Architecture Legacy of Dan Kiley,” Boston Architectural College, Boston, MA 2013

Toronto International Art Fair (Bau-Xi Photo), Toronto, Canada 2013

“Senza Pericolo! Costruzioni e Sicurezza,” Triennale di Milano, Milan, Italy 2013

ArtHamptons (Jackson Fine Art), Bridgehampton, NY 2012

Toronto International Art Fair (Bau-Xi Photo), Toronto, Canada 2011

”The Collector’s Guide to New Art Photography Vol. 2,” Chelsea Art Museum, New York, NY 2011

Art Miami (Arthur Roger Gallery), Miami, FL 2010

Toronto International Art Fair (Bau-Xi Photo), Toronto, Canada 2010

"IMAGE.ARCHITECTURE.NOW," The Julius Shulman Institute, Burbank, CA 2010

"Red," The Center for Fine Art Photography, Fort Collins, CO 2010

"EXPOSED: Critical Mass 2009," Photographic Center Northwest, Seattle, WA 2010

Paris Photo (Bonni Benrubi Gallery), Carrousel du Louvre, Paris, France 2009

“Live from New York...,” Bonni Benrubi Gallery, New York, NY 2009

The Association of International Photography Art Dealers (Bonni Benrubi Gallery), New York, NY 2009

“The Brooklynites,” powerHouse Gallery, Brooklyn, NY 2007

Des Lee Gallery, St. Louis, MO 2001
Collections

Fidelity Investments

Sir Elton John Collection

The Cleveland Museum of Art

Cleveland Clinic

Credit Suisse

See more of David’s work:

https://www.davidleventi.com/

https://www.artsy.net/artist/david-leventi

https://twitter.com/davidleventi

https://www.instagram.com/davidleventi/

https://www.jacksonfineart.com/artists/david-leventi/