Skateboard Art & Photography by Peter Levitan

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Skateboard Art & Photography

I have been a collector of skateboards, as in skateboard art, for my house and advertising agency, for years.

The reasons for collecting are simple. Skateboard art and graphics have been at the forefront of ‘cool’ design and youth culture since the 1970’s. Skateboards also represent low cost / high value art. There are few types of 3D art that can be bought for $30 to $60. Plus, online retailers offer hundreds of choices. The cost value equation is insane given the huge range of skateboard deck options.

Frankly, while the low cost is a key factor, it is the wide range of graphics and cultural significance that nailed it for me. These decks are simply too cool to not (easily!!!) hang on your walls.

I am now putting my global portrait photography on skateboards (see the women above). Like why not? Plus, this is part of a personal quest to find very unique ways to show my work. I am a bit, understatement, bored with photo prints in frames shown in quiet white-walled galleries and the 72 million images posted to Instagram and Facebook this morning. See my take on the use of projectors as an alternative to the same old same old at the Brooklyn Museum Gary Winogrand show here.

Jean-Michel Basquiat Skateboards

A few months ago I stumbled on The Skateroom, a website that sells high-end editioned skateboards by a wide range of artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ai Weiwei, Warhol, JR and Jeremyville to fund charitable programs. These are not low-cost decks at pricing ranging from fairly expensive at $300 up to $2,500 for sets.

The pricing is irrelevant. There are very few ways that you can get a Robert Rauschenberg on your wall for $200. I mean, really. Go buy the art and fund the good cause. I put a link to The Skateroom below.

From the Skateroom website:

The Skateroom project unites art buyers, artists, galleries, museums, foundations, retailers, and non-profits around the world in a new economic model — « Art for Social Impact ».

Our “5:25” business model is simple: we unleash human creativity and the fruits of artistic labor to donate 5% of the turnover or 25% of the profit from every sale– whichever number is greater. Through our community’s support, we have so far raised over $500,000 to fund 26 social skate projects dedicated to empowering at-risk youth around the world.

By placing works of art on responsibly made skateboards, The Skateroom connects people to the reality that Art for Social Impact is something achievable right now

The Skateroom exists to bring art into your life while bringing brighter possibilities to the lives of all.

This Got Me Thinking About Producing My Photographs As Skateboard Art

I recently created the three decks from photo portraits that I took in Selma, Alabama and Venice Beach.

I picked these portraits of three women from my white sheet street series because the women, and especially their hair, fit perfectly in the skateboard “frame”.

I’ll do more. Right now, I am thinking how I could use skateboards as background for the portraits of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus that I am going to shoot in India in January. I am trying to imagine a series that includes Varanasi’s Hindu Sadhus .

 Here are a couple of links:

 The Skateroom 

 Sean Cliver’s “Disposable: A History of Skateboard Art”  

Over the years, I’ve bought boards from Warehouse Skateboards. Surf (LOL) around and find your next piece of art.

OK. Back To Skateboard Art Ala Sotheby’s - Do I Hear $800,000 Anyone?

Damien Hirst “Spin” Set Of Three

Damien Hirst “Spin” Set Of Three

While I am sure that you probably do not care if people classify skateboards are ‘art’ or not, according to the auction house Sothebys… skateboards, at least those produced by the skater brand Supreme are. In January 2019 Sotheby’s held an auction of a historical set of Supreme’s boards under the title: 20 years Of Supreme.

The auction included artist collaborations, featuring George Condo, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, KAWS, Marilyn Minter, Nate Lowman, and Takashi Murakami, among others.

Good or bad, you decide, the collection went for the low estimate of $800,000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marijuana Books Circa 2015 by Peter Levitan


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Potlandia and Jointlandia Marijuana Books

Portlandia and Jointlandia, my two marijuana, or more twenty-first century, cannabis books, document a brief moment in time in the history of the medical and legal marijuana industry. These two books were shot in Portland, Oregon in early 2015. This was a time of rapid growth in the sales of cannabis and related products.

 Why Marijuana Books?

I was an early investor in two dispensaries in Portland Oregon’s marijuana landscape. As you might imagine, Portland was ground zero for pot sales. News alert: Oregonians like to get stoned… (LOL). For some historical background, from 1999 through 2005 (well pre-legalization), the ratio of Oregonians using cannabis outpaced the United States population by 32 - 45%.

When we opened our stores in 2014, the products were classified as ‘medicine’. At that time, to gain access to a store all you needed was a card signed off by a friendly doctor. There were many doctors who made a living freely handing out cards that got you into the front door of the growing world of ‘medical’ marijuana. Marijuana sales became fully legal in late 2015.

As I studied and travelled through this brand new business universe, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to document what was surely to become an industry dominated by and eventually morphed by big business. The industry was going to transform from mom & pop ex-hippie type entrepreneurs to branded Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola (they are now working on CBD drinks); Altria’s (think Marlboro) investment in the Toronto based marijuana company Cronos Group and Constellation brands, owner of Corona and other beers, investment in Canopy Growth.

A visual metaphor I used was the move from Carhartt overalls to Armani suits.

To all involved, the industry was about to experience radical shifts in marketing, branding and distribution. Frankly, I did not see anyone documenting this early stage in marijuana’s fast-moving growth curve. I set out to document what was soon to be a fleeting moment.

The Books: Potlandia and Jointlandia

I shot , designed and produced two books. One was a look at products before skilled designers entered the market and the seconded recorded the often strange storefronts.

 Jointlandia: A Studio-Based Look At Marijuana Products

Jointlandia is a 29-page look at the products that were sold in Portland’s marijuana dispensaries. As a 30-year marketing executive, the shoot-from-the-hip, amateurish branding and packaging fascinated me.

My photographs range from a series on a joint rolling expert (including his rolling a giant joint) to ‘art’ joints to product packaging. I also included low to high tech ingestion devices including rolling paper branding (the Bob Marley brand had recently been launched) and early vaporizers.

I spent some bucks acquiring the products, though some were gifts from the industry. The funny part was that I had eventually accumulated so much stuff that I invited my ‘pot head’ friend Tom over to my house to take a large bag away – a sort of party-gift-party-on-bro bag.

 My System

I photographed Jointlandia in a simple in-home studio. I shot the series with a Fujifilm X100S and TCL-X100 tele-conversion lens.

I placed the products on a black velvet cloth and used diffused north light. It was that easy. Note, I started my life as a studio photographer with large view cameras, tripods and strobes. Yikes, nice to get past those days.

Potlandia: Marijuana Dispensaries

While traveling to purchase the products, I photographed the facades and locations of 53 dispensaries. In those ‘green rush’ days, it seemed like a new shop opened every week. The state regulators were not yet ready to control this burgeoning, somewhat amateurish, Wild West marketplace.

Given the Portland community’s desire to keep things weird and earthy, I was fascinated by many of the wacky amateur-hour storefronts. There were shops that looked like they were designed by very stoned Cheech & Chong duo from Up In Smoke. Business names ranged from Stone Age Pharmacy to Cannaissuer to Cannbliss and Game Of Thrones sounding KALEAFA.

My System

For photo geeks…

I used the Fujifilm X100S to shoot the series. Stores were located by using the Weedmaps marijuana information / dispensary finder phone app.

Some stores were in high-traffic locations downtown and some were so far off the beaten path in family neighborhoods that I had to assume the retailer had no clue that location was going to be a critical element in driving retail sales. At that time, there were dispensaries down the block from, get this, family homes. The Oregon legislature was just waking up. Crazy

Making The Books

The images were shot RAW and then edited in Lightroom.

Both books were published via Blurb in 2015 and are 7×7 in / 18×18 cm square with glossy soft-covers. Glossy, unfortunately, was my only cover option at that time.

Jointlandia included this descriptor:

Joints, blunts, spliffs, cones, doobies, reefer... whatever you call them, pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes are now for sale in shops across the western states. We have entered the new world of professionally rolled, artisanal, branded and beautifully packaged joints. Welcome to “Jointlandia” a photographic journey through and overview of the world of branded and pre-rolled joints.

Potlandia used this:

Picture a city where marijuana flowers, hash and edibles are sold on every block. Does this sound like a hippie’s dream? We are not there yet, but with over 100 licensed medical marijuana dispensaries, Portland is starting to look a lot like Potlandia. Let’s remember these days. Once everything is legal, we will surely lose the ‘mom & pop’ feel of these early-stage stores to big buck designs from corporations that are reading the smoke signals. Imagine McWeed and their sign ‘Over 50,000,000 Joints Sold’.

Go ahead and buy one or two books. Here is a link for Potlandia and one for Jointlandia.

Me = Brain Dead: Ed Ruscha and 26 Gas Stations

Ed Ruscha C/O NPR

Ed Ruscha C/O NPR

After I had started the project, I went to Los Angeles to spend time at Printed Matter’s L.A.’s Art Book Fair. This large, multi-room fair is an exceptional look at both high-end art photography books and a wide range of zines and personal projects. There is also an Art Book Fair in New York. I highly recommend a trip to one of these fairs - both are mucho visually stimulating.

While at the fair, I was reminded of Ed Ruscha’s 1960’s seminal, at the time groundbreaking, photography series’ 26 Gas Stations; Every Building On Sunset Strip and Some Los Angeles Apartments.

Frankly, despite having gone to the San Francisco Art Institute, collecting fine-art photography and paying attention to the art world (I thought), I completely missed the fact that I was building on a well-known photography genre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are You A Street Photographer? by Peter Levitan

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I am trying to decide if I am a street photographer.

The two images above are from my recent trip to Venice Beach, L.A. to shoot my The People series. They were shot on the sandy beach. They are still street photographs.

My concept of street photography is based on growing up with images from Cartier Bresson, Fan Ho, Joel Meyerowitz, more recently with Vivian Maier and the truly awful Bruce Gilden (how about fame built on running up to strangers and sticking a flash in their face. Sound like a fun day out on the streets?)

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A Question…

Are my isolated, composed street-portraits street photography? Is using a portable studio street photography? Do street photographs have to be candid? I don’t hunt for or ‘catch’ the great shot – I make it with my subject. OK?

I am not sure if I really care all that much about the definition itself. But - Big But… the sheer ubiquity of the term street photography - Google has 6,300,000,000 results for “street photography”, there dozens of street photography articles and books - means that many people seem to care. So, lets go.

A few photography websites use the Wikipedia definition as a starting point. Here you go:

Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places. Although there is a difference between street and candid photography, it is usually subtle with most street photography being candid in nature and some candid photography  being classifiable as street photography. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment.

Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.

Just for the hell of it, here is my rather abbreviated definition.

Simply put, street photography is made in public spaces - any public space (well, maybe outside). The images may or not include people. Street photographs do not have to be candid (and appear to live in a gotcha moment). There can be photographer to subject interaction.

The People

My portrait series The People is street photography. It is a very controlled system but is street nonetheless.

I shoot on the street – examples are L.A.’s Venice Beach; in front of a Selma Alabama Walmart; hanging out in Shanghai China’s People’s Park and San Miguel de Allende Mexico side streets.

I ask my subjects to stand in front of a portable white background.

My subjects are chosen at random - well, I actually choose them.

I interact with the subjects.

More Street Photography Definitions

Here are a couple of additional definitions. Just food for thought.

"I only know how to approach a place by walking, for what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner."

Alex Webb

 “I think this is the most controversial point I will bring up in this article. I personally don’t think that street photography has to be candid. I think that the best street photographs are the candid ones– but I don’t think that it needs to be a necessary element.

I think in street photography there are now lots of sub-genres as well.

I feel that we have candid street photography (what I might classify as “classic street photography”- think Henri Cartier-Bresson), street portraits (focused mostly on portraits of people on the street, instead of the environment– either with or without permission like Diane Arbus or Bruce Gilden), urban landscapes with or without people in them (think Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, Joel Sternfeld, etc), still life street photography (think Martin Parr or William Eggleston), or socio-documentary street photography (think Bruce Davidson).

Erik Kim

What Is Staged Street Photography?

“The definition of staged street photography may differ depending on who you speak to. The hardened street photographer may suggest any kind of manipulation (including editing) of reality is staged and not authentic. Whereas the more relaxed street photographer may see it as a scene that is played out with ‘actors’, the positioning is set up and then the image is sold as a completely off-the-cuff street photograph. Personally speaking, I learn more towards the latter definition of the term.”

Phoblographer

Gary Winogrand, Color Photography and The Projectors by Peter Levitan

Gary Winogrand ‘Color’ Brooklyn Museum May 2019

Gary Winogrand ‘Color’ Brooklyn Museum May 2019

Ah, The Projectors. Nice To Get Past Photography Show Installation Sameness.

I am heading to New York in a couple of weeks and am excited to see the new Gary Winogrand show at the Brooklyn Museum. I stress new because the show includes a series of rarely seen color work.

And, since I show my work on LCD projectors (and soon video monitors), I am looking forward to seeing the installation, which includes a large room full of ceiling-mounted LCD projectors.

Using projectors is a rather smart idea for this show given that projectors and Kodachrome (Gary’s film) are like peanut butter and jelly. I am expecting a big “WOW”.

That the Gods of photography at the Brooklyn Museum have gotten past showing even more matted and framed prints is a nice thing. Much of the time, the sameness of photography exhibitions aims the work squarely at boring. Sure, a ‘framed’ show shows the work, and framed isolation is a direct way for the viewer to see the photographs up close and personal. However, too many shows follow the same been-there-done-that pattern.

Photo Show = white room + eye-level prints + black frames + quiet.

No, not every photo show uses this format. But, it is like, um, easily 90% of the installations. A current New York photography show that will demonstrate the art of sameness is the concurrent Mapplethorpe show at the Guggenheim. I do realize that since the work is old and was printed by Maplethorpe, or under his direction, prints-in-black-frames is the way to go this time. That said, beyond the power of the work, how it is presented is kinda… meh. I can understand that the tried and true works for older photography.

Why repeat this format for fresh photographs?

Alex Martinis Roe “To Become Two” at ar/ge kunst

Alex Martinis Roe “To Become Two” at ar/ge kunst

For comparison, shows of video work, which by nature, are often shown on TV’s and TV monitors (old and new) have always strived to add an element of 3D surprise. Peruse how galleries show the video work of Nam June Paik and Alex Martinis Roe to see what I mean.

I see no reason why today’s photographers cannot go kinetic as well. Possibly, it is because the majority of photographers do not think hard about the exhibition experience – an end game -  or are so wrapped up in Instagram that once an image is shot and posted, it is time to move on.

Thanks to The Phoblographer for the review of the Winogrand show.

Also a big thank you to the curators – who are too often way behind the scenes:

Garry Winogrand: Color is curated by Drew Sawyer, Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator of Photography, Brooklyn Museum, with Michael Almereyda and Susan Kismari.

Which Is It? Photography, Visual Anthropology or Ethnography? by Peter Levitan

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Which Is It? Does It Matter?

I have been on definition kick. I recently wrote about the definition of “photographer.

Photographer is a term that has been diluted. Diluted by the ubiquity of digital cameras and mostly by the zillions of mobile smartphone users who took, get this, 1.2 trillion photographs in 2017. According to the statistical website statista, 85% of all photographs were taken with smartphones, 10.3% by digital cameras and 4.7% by tablets. “Traditional camera” usage and sales are in the dumpster. Why buy a sophisticated digital camera when you already have one in your pocket? I’ll talk about the declining health of the digital camera market in a later post.

What Do I Call What I Am Doing?

If you go beyond this photography blog and deeper into my website (for example my Selma, Alabama work), you will see that I have been travelling to make portraits of people in different locations. My goal is simple, if a bit grandiose, and egomaniacal.

Make more photographic portraits of more people across more continents that ever done.

Getting past egomaniacal, I started this series in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, my current hometown (I am a three-year full-time expat). I went out on the streets and local towns with a portable white sheet background and two assistants. The goal was two-fold. First, do a survey of my neighbors and community (check out the dedicated series website, La Gente). Second, I plan on mating these initial Mexican images with portraits of people that I make around the world. After Mexico I shot in Selma, Alabama and L.A.

The master point of the series is that we humans are more similar than not - that the current state of nationalism, anti-immigrant and general fear of the other is bullshit and harmful to mankind.

We are more similar than not.

Is using a camera to show cultural similarities (or differences) plain old photography or is this anthropology?

After I made 150 plus portraits of Mexicans, I asked a very serious anthropologist friend if my work was photography or anthropology. I was, after all, attempting to record people from every continent to show our global kinship – i.e. kids, parents, hipsters, worshipers, street merchants, business people and on. My goal isn’t to make art, though some of the portraits might wind up as art – another term that requires some definition.

My bottom line goal is to survey. To meet people. To travel. To share the portraits. To open some eyes.

The word anthropology conjures up an image of Margret Meade (and, OK, for some of you, the apparel retailer Anthropologie). I’ll stick with the original. Here is a description from Meade’s Wikipedia page for those of you who were not around in the 1960’s and 70’s when she was becoming famous.

Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901 – November 15, 1978) was an American cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. She earned her bachelor's degree at Barnard College in New York and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. Mead served as President of The American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1975.

Mead was a communicator of anthropology in modern American and Western culture and was often controversial as an academic. Her reports detailing the attitudes towards sex in South Pacific and Southeast Asian traditional cultures influenced the 1960s sexual revolution. She was a proponent of broadening sexual conventions within a context of traditional Western religious life.

The deal is that Meade, with her time in exotic Samoa and controversial writing, was my generation’s face of anthropology.

What Is Anthropology?

Here are a couple definitions of anthropology and related terms. I believe that it is important to at least understand the terms as they relate to today’s street photography, journalism, documentary work and portraiture. Of course, we can go a bit overboard here. However, many serious photographers clearly act as anthropological “observers’. After you read the definitions, it is not hard to think of many photographers, think Bruce Davidson, Catalina Martin-Chico and Platon, as being some form of anthropologist, especially visual anthropologists.

Visual Anthropology or Ethnography?

To keep things simple and consistent, I’ll use Wikipedia definitions again.

Anthropology

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. 

Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology is a branch of anthropology focused on the study of cultural variation among humans. It is in contrast to social anthropology, which perceives cultural variation as a subset of the anthropological constant.

Cultural anthropology has a rich methodology, including participant observation (often called fieldwork because it requires the anthropologist spending an extended period of time at the research location), interviews, and surveys.

Visual Anthropology

Visual anthropology is a subfield of social anthropology that is concerned, in part, with the study and production of ethnographic photography, film and, since the mid-1990s.

Ethnography

Ethnography is the systematic study of people and cultures. It is designed to explore phenomena where the researcher observes society from the point of view of the subject of the study.

Back To Me

“Peter, are you a photographer?”

After thinking hard about this question, my current answer is… I am a visual anthropologist or, maybe better, visual ethnographer — I think that I can say this because I am very focussed on my The People series. Photographer is too broad and amorphous. Anthropologist is too academic.

So, after all of this navel-gazing, it might not matter for now what the hell I call myself (certainly not that important until I make my 1,000 plus portraits).

Then I can go back to really being egomaniacal.

By the way, I just went to Amazon to buy John Collier’s 1967 “Visual Anthropology: Photography As A Research Method”. John taught photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and somehow I didn’t attend his class despite his methodology being where my head is at today. I’ll write a review of the book sometime.