On Living In Memory& The Beauty of Timelessness

Tamar Levine talks about her work, inspirations, and the beauty of timelessness


How long have you been shooting, and what got started you into photography?

I’ve been shooting my whole life; I graduated from college in 2005 so professionally, about 11 years. And what got me in was my parents were both artists, my Dad taught me how to shoot with his Nikon F1 when I was 10 years old.

You mentioned in a previous interview that he was a filmmaker?

He was, yeah. Both him and my Mom are both amazing artists in their own right, but my Dad really got me interested in film at a really, really young age. He used to do avant garde films and then he did a lot of music videos, and then commercials. So I kind of always grew up wanting to be a filmmaker when I was older.

Was photography always a medium that you connected with instantly, or was it film at first?

It was photography in the beginning, and it’s funny because I remember when I was really really young, like 5 years old, and you always get the question, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I would always say a director. And I remember a birthday party I had, I think I was turning six, all I wanted to do was direct, like a play of my friends and my brother, so that was the birthday party.


And growing up, I think the reason I actually got into photography was because… I knew that I wanted to do something in art but I didn’t want to completely follow my parents footsteps? And my Dad was interested in photography as a hobby, so he taught me how use his camera, and compose, and it just came really easily for me. I did high school courses and I was just, I was really hooked at a really young age.

What I love about your work is that you have this really great ability to capture almost moving Polaroids where the story comes out by itself just by looking at it. Is there a certain era that you’ve been drawn to, like the 40’s or 60’s, or anything like that?

There’s not a particular era, but I definitely am drawn to timelessness. I really like when you look at an image and it’s almost, it looks like you’re looking at a memory. That’s kind of my personal preference, when you look at one of my images, I would love it to look like kind of like a distant memory. And I think that’s why a lot of my images look vintage, in a way. I really love just, timelessness. And I love the idea of my photos in 10 years, still looking timeless, and not looking contemporary to now.

And it comes off perfectly. I was looking at some of your photos again this morning and it’s just amazing how you can capture any era, with that timelessness. It does look like you’re looking directly at someone’s memory & it’s perfect.

 Thank You. A lot of my inspiration is drawn from old classic paintings, and I do look at photography as inspiration, but I actually primarily look at really any other type of art. So when I first got started in high school and college, I was studying a lot of paintings. So I think that might be where the kind of old, more classic side of that came from.


Do you have a specific favorite painter that you like to go to when you need inspiration?

Not specific, and I definitely go in phases. I think I have a tendency to be a little obsessive about things, so when I’m into something, I’m really into it (laughs). So I don’t know, I have a lot of favorite painters, I really love Manet. But I think it kind of depends on the phase that I’m in.

You’ve said that you like to go to different mediums to get inspiration, and you’ve dipped your feet into a lot of different waters, from the music videos that you’ve done, to your short films. What has been the most challenging for you?

Anything new is really challenging for me. Like, most recently I directed the visuals for the Puscifer show, and that was challenging just because I had never done that before, basically almost 90 minutes of original content, so that was challenging because it was a new thing. If I feel like something isn’t challenging, than I know there’s a problem and I need to change it up. I think that’s why I’m drawn to doing so many different things. I also find that when I do… My best work, it comes from me being a little fearful of the project. So if I’m not fearful of it and if I don’t feel like it’s going to be really difficult for me to do, then that makes me nervous. Because I’m a little nervous I’m just going to dial it in at that point.

And how did you get involved with Puscifer?

My friend Mat Mitchell (lead guitarist in Puscifer) is in the band, and we were just getting coffee one day, and catching up, and he told me that he had just finished mixing the album, and he was telling me a little bit about the idea for the live show. And I just started casually talking to him about it, and he likes my ideas so he asked me to be involved.

And are these for the shows that are coming up?

Yeah, this is the show that’s touring right now.

Do you have any other bands that you’d like to collaborate with in the future?

No band specifically, I have musicians that I really love. I mean, I think in general I’m drawn to femininity, and I really love shooting women, working with women, and kind of depicting women as kind of the strong female characters that they are. So when I listen to a female that I really love, I’m typically inspired by that. But it’s kind of less for me the person that I’m shooting, and more kind of the narrative that I can come up with, since I’m not a documentary photographer. I love music, and I’m definitely inspired by music but I don’t know if there’s anyone specific that I would want to shoot necessarily.

Do you feel there’s more female musicians and photographers now than in the last decade, when it was more male driven?

Oh yeah, there’s definitely a lot more. I think that there’s still a very very big discrepancy with male professional creatives and women creatives. I think we have a very very long way to go but it is nice to see more female photographers, and musicians, and directors coming up.

To go back to music just briefly, you’ve also worked with Trent Reznor, who has a great deal of visual art in his music, throughout NIN and the rest of his career. How was the experience working with him?

Yeah, I always enjoy working with Trent. He’s obviously a really amazingly… I mean, he’s a genius. So any chance that I have had to work with him, I’ve loved it. And when I was working with him, it was through my ex-husband Rob (Sheridan, longtime collaborator and member of Reznor’s side project, How To Destroy Angels), who obviously worked with him for about 15 or 16 years. I always like working with Rob as well, so it was good.

You also have a photo book, “You Should Smile More”, how did you decide to do that; was it that you waited to collect more of your work, or was it just more kind of instantaneous?

That happened actually because- So this time last year I had a gallery show, and I was looking at all my work over the past decade, the gallery show was kind of an accumulation of a decade worth of photography. So I was looking at all of it and I had never really…  It’s funny, that I had never really thought about my work thematically before, and I didn’t realize how it was all kind of tied together before.


Then, as I was going through my work with the gallery owner, I was seeing this kind of theme. You know, I shoot a lot of women, and I shoot very narrative photography, and so she suggested that I turn it into a book, and that’s why I did that. And the book kind of goes along with the gallery show. It was really fun to make, and it’s really nice to see it kind of altogether in like, a tangible form.

Have you gotten any new ideas from working with the book? Or any other projects that you’d like to pursue?

Well, right now I’m working on a feature film that I’m going to be directing. I do love photography, and I have a couple of photo shoots coming up this month but right now, what I’m really inspired by is video, and so I would say my new projects I’m pursuing are definitely more video based than photography based. Kind of my big thing right now is I wrote a movie with my Mom, and I’m getting it made next year, so I’m going to be directing that.

Do you have any filmmakers that you look up to, or filmmakers in that specific genre?

I really love Jane Campion, she, I would say she’s one of my biggest inspirations, I think because she’s a woman and also because her work is just absolutely beautiful. Most recently, she did “Top of the Lake”, the mini-series, which I thought was just a brilliant show. So I really love her, and I love.. I think, I mean, there’s so many filmmakers, I love Alfred Hitchcock, obviously.

I love Samuel Fuller. He’s directed a couple of my absolutely favorite movies of all-time, if you’re not familiar with his work, I would definitely look him up, he’s brilliant. I would say one of my absolute favorite movies is “2001: A Space Odyssey” and so I’m kind of inspired by all of Kubrick’s work. I’m trying to think what else I’ve been looking at lately….I would say kind of all of Kubrick’s work, I really love.

I was looking at your short film, “Twenty-two date Palm Way”, which was absolutely beautiful; what inspired that specific work?

That specific one, I was kind of thinking a lot at that time about aging and death. My grandmother had passed away a little bit prior to me making that movie, and I was thinking a whole lot about death, but also about aging and kind of how we remember things. Also, about the bizarre things that women do, I mean that everyone does, but especially women do, to look younger.

I don’t remember specifically how I came up with the idea, but I think I just wanted to make kind of like a moving poem, almost. And it was important for me, for it be kind of abstract, and even though it’s kind of narrative, it’s kind of up to the viewer to come up with their own, you know, conclusion of really what it’s about since there’s no dialogue and there’s no direct narrative.

I was looking at your Marilyn series, which was absolutely incredible, how did you meet Melissa?

I met Melissa when I was still at Art Center. I had the idea to do a series on the people that walk around Hollywood Blvd, they dress up as characters and work for tips. So it started out as just a, that was the idea, I don’t remember what class it was for, it was either seventh term or eight term so I was in my last year of college. I started by shooting the guy who plays Elvis, then I shot a guy who played Michael Jackson, and then I met Melissa through both of them.

And when, the second I started shooting her, I just completely changed my project, and I only focused on her. Because she has such an amazing personality, she’s very magnetic, and was just kind of up for anything. So I was really drawn to her, and I started shooting her in 2005. Unfortunately, she recently moved back to Minnesota, but I was shooting her for about 8 or 9 years. Just kind of once or twice a year. 

It came off perfect, because you see these people in so many people’s pictures but no one ever pays attention to the people they’re taking pictures with, so it’s a really nice balance you did with her.

Thank You. It kind of became something that even if I wanted to stop, I couldn’t. I’m hoping at some point she comes back to L.A. Actually just talking about it making me think get back in touch with her.

What are some of your favorite moments to capture? Or any stories that you like to go back to?

I feel I don’t really like going back to the same things, but I do have kind of certain themes that show up a lot. I’m fascinated by our society’s view on beauty, and I’m kind of fascinated by femininity, and kind of the female gaze.


Actually, my film that I just wrote with my Mom that I’m making,  that’s about aging, accepting your life so far and venturing into the fear of the unknown. So I think I’m fascinated with that, and I’m just fascinated by people. And whenever something kind of makes me very curious, I just want to explore it. There are certain things that I just don’t understand, and those are the things that I want to explore.

When you say you’re intrigued with society’s view on beauty, that’s kind of been poignant throughout the decades. For photographers who also want to capture narratives, when they look back on this decade, how do you think they’ll capture that, specifically?

You know, I actually don’t think this decade is that different from previous decades. What people find to be beautiful, that’s always going to change, and I think this decade is definitely… I do see some really cool things happening actually, with people kind of accepting people’s views on beauty, getting a little bit broader.

I feel like last decade was kind of the year of like, boob jobs and plastic surgery? And this year is a little bit more about retouching, and digital beautification. I think that, that definitely. Everything is manipulated, the filters. I mean, there’s so many iPhone apps where people can just make themselves look prettier, at the drop of a hat, and so I feel like, maybe that. Maybe digital beautification will be what we see, looking back.

You mentioned the multiple iPhone apps, and technological advances. With sites like Instagram, you can’t really tell what’s real and what’s fake anymore. Do you think that makes it harder for photographers to establish their work by, ‘this is what I actually saw’, or do you think it helps and adds to the art of it?

I’m not a documentary photographer, so I don’t have the mindset of a documentary photographer. Like, my goal is to never photograph something as it is. I think that it’s actually pretty impossible to photograph something as it actually is. I think that there’s always going to be a point of view, I mean, the photographers point of view. And so I think that, it certainly makes it easier to manipulate images, but we’ve always had that, photographers have always had that, so I think that now it’s just more accessible to the every day camera person, and the every day person that’s not necessarily a photographer can make pretty stunning images just by taking a photo with their iPhone.

And I have a lot of photographer friends who really don’t like that, and think that it’s kind of killing photography, but I like it. I like seeing what people come up with, and I’m really refreshed when I see, when I look at someone’s Instagram page that’s not a photographer, and it’s not just selfies. I get very- I’m really happy about that. And I have some friends who aren’t necessarily photographers who post just, these gorgeous images that they’ve taken with their little phones, and I love it, I love seeing that.

And I guess that’s what gets overlooked, accounts where they’re not professional photographers but they can achieve that goal by, like you said, making their own point of view, accessible.

I think that’s kind of the main thing. I think, for me, I love using the iPhone. And I think everyone’s purpose is different. I mean, I love using the iPhone and when I’m travelling and even if I bring my camera, I tend to just stick to my iPhone. So I love using it.

Do you think a balance can be achieved where film and technological advances kind of mesh into one where each person can swap it out or do you think one is just going to over take the other?

How do you mean? Like iPhone versus camera?

Yeah, like digital overtaking film.

I don’t like going too long without shooting film. If you’re talking about a professional photographer, and a professional filmmaker, I think that there’s always going to be, hopefully, an appreciation for the medium. Even when I was at Art Center which was in the early 2000’s, I was still learning techniques. About the beginning of the camera; we learned how to make a pinhole camera, and how to shoot on a 4×5, and an 8×10, so I definitely have an appreciation for film that I don’t think that is ever going to go away.

Hopefully, any person who decides to be a professional photographer, or filmmaker, will have an appreciation of where the digital comes from, because digital is really a replication of film. But that being said, I don’t think the everyday person will know how to use- I don’t think most people know how to use a film camera, at this point.

What gear do you use most often, like your favorite type of gear to use?

Well, my favorite gear is different from the one that I use most often. I think… I mean, like, if I kind of had all the money in the world and I was allowed to do it, I would only shoot on film, scan it, and manipulate it that way. And I have kind of a large collection  of film cameras that I love using for fun. But most people, most of my clients, they just don’t want to shoot film. They don’t have the budget, and they don’t have the time. So I end up mostly shooting my photography on a 5D Mark III and my film… I don’t shoot my own video, I have a DP that I use. But I love how the Red camera looks, and the Phantom, I mean there’s so many amazing cameras out right now. We used the Black Magic on the video we did for The New Regime, we used the RED camera for the Puscifer stuff.

What advice would you give to photographers who are trying to start now?

I would say: A photographer that’s just starting now especially, there’s so much media out there and I think it’s great, I think that it’s wonderful but it is very difficult to kind of have your work stick out among all the absolutely amazing work that’s out there. And also all the crap that’s out there, there’s a ton of crap. And there’s just so much, I mean, the internet is massive and everyone has an instagram account, and there’s just so much media. So I would say my kind of main advice is just to push yourself to the point where you are being challenged every single second of the day and that you’re coming up with a unique style that’s all your own. That you’re just kind of immersing yourself in, not just new media, but old.

I would say there’s inspiration is everywhere, and just surround yourself with inspiration and really really hone in on a very very unique style. Because that’s really the only thing that’s going to differentiate you from the millions of other people taking photos and videos right now.

And I like to finish interviews where you have a choice to complete the lyric I’m going to give you, or completely go another direction and make it up. The lyric is: “I heard the news today, oh boy…”

Oh shoot… Can I think about it for a second?

Yeah, definitely!

I want to do, like a variation of it. (Pauses) I heard the news today, oh boy… And wanted to hug everyone I saw.


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