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Full Transcript of the Interview with Diana Levine, pro photographer

Recorded in person at Studio Blue in Manhattan, New York
March 6, 2010
Jim Hopkinson, Wired’s Marketing Guy
Diana Levine, photographer

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Hi, this is Jim Hopkinson, Wired’s Marketing Guy, bringing you the marketing trends that matter.


Today I’ll be speaking with New York City-based photographer, Diana Levine, talking all things photography. Stay tuned.

Jim Hopkinson: Hey, everybody, this is Jim; welcome to the Hopkinson Report. I am with here with Diana Levine in New York City. I met Diana at an event during Social Media Week. It turns out we have some things in common. We’re both Boston-based, originally, so welcome, Diana.

Diana Levine: Thank you so much for having me.

JH: So, give us a little of your background, taking us through your upbringing in Boston to being a freelance photographer.

DL: Well, there’s the short story and the long story. The short story is I started in magazines as a designer/photo editor/staff photographer and I left my job a few years ago to become a freelancer fulltime. The long story is I grew up in Boston. The first exposure I had to photography was through my grandfather who was a photographer; and, I just grew up seeing his passion. He had a color darkroom in his basement – a black and white darkroom, and we used to watch his slideshows from everything he shot, and this was before the internet. So, this is real slideshows with slides.

JH: Gather round, kids, [LAUGHTER], we’re having, it’s the Christmas slideshow.

DL: He was just so passionate about it, and I definitely; maybe it’s genetic, maybe it’s contagious. And I just grew up obsessed with taking pictures. Even when I was younger, I had my little 1/10 camera and I would give photo shoots to my friends, even in elementary school. And, I think the most excited I ever got when I was growing up was going to this local pharmacy where we got our photos developed, and getting my little 110 camera photos back. So, I grew up absolutely obsessed with taking pictures. And, so, when I came to going to school, I knew I wanted to do something with people. And so I went to school and got my degree. Actually, I got my degree in three things – in photography, psychology, and Mandarin Chinese.

JH: Now, I can see the psychology. You have someone, you’re taking a picture, and you want to get in their mind. You know, how are you feeling about this; but where did the Mandarin come in?

DL: When I was in high school, my friend was from Taiwan […] and I learned Chinese kind of naturally in high school so when I went to college, I figured I’d go for it, and I studied Mandarin Chinese.

JH: Do you get to use it at all?

DL: I do, I do. It’s a very useful language to know.

JH: Alright, alright; sounds good. So, after you graduated from that you came to New York for a little bit more education?

DL: Yeah, so, actually, I went to Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

JH: In Woosta?

DL: In Woosta. [LAUGHTER] And, I also went to Tisch School of the Arts in the photography program at NYU. And, Clark really shaped my photography in a lot of ways; I had an amazing professor – Stephen DiRado. And then NYU/Tisch really enabled me to understand the business side of photography and I had some really incredible professors there, like Mark Jenkins and Paul Owen.

While I was in school I actually interned for Conde Nast at Jane Magazine in the photography department, which was so much fun, definitely a dream come true. And, immediately after I graduated, I started working at Boston Magazine in Boston as the designer and staff photographer, and a little photo editing. And, I learned so much when I was there; and definitely my experience in art departments definitely shaped how I shoot now as a photographer. And, I left my job there and I became a freelance photographer fulltime in New York City, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

JH: OK. So, you’re working at a major magazine and you decide to go freelance. That’s a pretty big jump for someone to make. What made you make that decision, and what are some of the benefits you’ve had from it?

DL: It was definitely a scary decision, but, it’s so much fun. I think you definitely have to have a certain personality in order to live a freelance life. There are a lot of risks, it’s not the same day to day, but that’s the part that I love. Every day I meet someone new; every day I’m doing a different project and it keeps life very exciting. And, it’s definitely risky and you never know where your next paycheck is coming from, but I think I’ve been lucky so far.

JH: So how do you handle that, you have to be out there putting your name out there all the time. What kinds of things do you do to make your name as a freelancer?

DL: I think that’s actually the part that I was most scared about going into the freelance life is how to market myself, how do I put myself out there. Because, I think that’s not something I naturally would have tended to do, but it is definitely necessary. In terms of how I got my name out there, I started in magazines and that’s where I got a lot of my connections. You shoot one thing; and my main source I would say is word of mouth, like I don’t really do much marketing, per se. I mean, certainly, social networking helps – Facebook, Twitter, blogging is awesome. But, I don’t really do too much more than that in terms of marketing. The best thing is just word of mouth; you do one shoot – someone’s happy with it, they tell someone else, they contact you and, so far, it’s really the best.

JH: Now you’re at a point now where you seem very successful, you shot everyone from 50 Cent to Snoop to Kim Kardashian, and the list goes on and on. Are you at the point now where you’re still pursuing clients or do you have enough that they’re coming to you that you’re beating them away?

DL [LAUGHTER] You know, work is pretty good right now; I don’t really actively pursue clients. I pretty much roll with how it comes, and people approach me and I shoot things.

JH: I’m sure that it’s a lot of hard work, what would you say to someone that is going freelance, because so many people think, “Oh, I’m a good photographer; I can make it on their own.” Or kind of like if they’re a chef, “Oh, I’m a really good cook; I’m going to become a chef.” But, it’s a lot different really being a professional chef or a professional photographer.

DL: You have to have a love not only for the art and for photography, but you have to really be able to   handle the business side of it. It’s not just the hobby, it’s definitely a business. You have to be able to handle the risk; you have to be able to handle the sacrifices. There are definitely a lot of sacrifices when it comes to being an entrepreneur and owning your own business. You can’t go to every party that you want to go to, you have to miss family events sometimes, there are definitely big sacrifices – you’re working 24/7, you never leave the office. If I have my iPhone with me, I’m at work.

JH: So, what’s the difference between an amateur that says, “Hey, I take pretty good pictures,” because right now with millions of digital cameras being sold and they’re getting better and better that the pro-level cameras are now in the hands for not that much money of the average person. So, if someone’s like, “Oh, I could just take those pictures myself;” what do you say to say here’s the benefit of going with someone that’s a professional?

DL: That’s a really interesting question. Actually, I think some photographers it drives them nuts that everyone can get a DSLR and everyone can be a photographer. Actually, I love it. I love that everyone can get a camera. I think that everyone should have a camera. I think that everyone should be a photographer. The only thing think it changes is that you have to be even better; you have to really make yourself different. You have to be special enough that someone’s going to hire you as opposed to getting their friend to do it with their camera. In addition I would say a big part of using a professional photographer is, in the instance that you’re shooting a celebrity, there is no room for error, there is no room for having your camera break down or your lights break down. So a big part of being a professional is knowing how to handle certain situations, knowing how to roll with the punches. You were supposed to have 20 minutes and now you have one minute, and you have to be able to get that shot right now; so, I think a big difference.

JH: And if it’s a special event, obviously, if it’s like a wedding or a big party that you’re having and you have your friend, “Oh, my friend’s got a good camera, he’s going to do it”, and then, “Oh, sorry, fluorescent lights, I didn’t realize it wouldn’t work, I didn’t bring my flash.” Now you don’t have anything to document that.

DL: Yeah, totally.  And, I think a huge part of it is back-up equipment and just knowing how to deal with different situations; knowing how to roll with the punches. And in photography things change very fast, things change very last minute and you have to be able to adapt.

JH: “We’re losing the light, we’re losing the light.” [LAUGHTER] That’s one thing I know from watching those documentaries on shooting the Sports Illustrated, or a beach model, or something on a beach. It’s like, “Howie, We’re losing the light, we’re losing the light” is always the crisis, right?

DL: Right.

JH: OK. So, speaking of celebrities, I’m going to rattle off some of the names that you’ve worked with:

  • Kim Kardashian
  • Alicia Keyes
  • Vampire Weekend
  • Billy Corgan
  • New Kids on the Block
  • Iman
  • Raphael Saadiq
  • 50 Cent
  • New Boys
  • The Clipse
  • Omarion
  • Paris Hilton
  • JoJo
  • DJ AM
  • Harry Connick, Jr.
  • Ashley Simpson and Pete Wentz
  • Steve Aoki
  • Snoop Dog
  • Fabolous
  • Rick Ross
  • The Dream
  • Nina Sky
  • Floyd Mayweather
  • Less Than Jake
  • Buster Rhymes
  • KRS One, and
  • Los Del Rio.

Those are some pretty big names. Who was the first celebrity that you would say you shot, and how did   you get that gig?

DL: The first celebrity I shot, [LAUGHTER] let me take a look at the list.

JH: Is that the proper term, like, shot?

DL: Yeah.

JH: OK. Because, preparing for the podcast I was talking to my intern, I said, “Oh yes, she shot Snoop Dog. She shot 50 Cent.” He’s like, “She shot 50 Cent? Which one?” He was shot like nine times.

DL: That wasn’t me. [LAUGHTER] I would say the first celebrity I worked with was KRS One. This was back in college. My boyfriend is a cinematographer and he shoots music videos, commercials. And in college we both flew out to L.A. to shoot a music video for KRS One and it was directed by Todd Angkasuwan. And, it was a really fun shoot; I shot the press photos for it. So, I would say he was the first big musician.

JH: We just brought him up on Wikipedia, he’s a legend. Like, he’s been around for a long time and I guessed it, I’m like, “Wasn’t he on the Sublime album?” You might know him from REM, the song ‘Radio Song,’ he’s got kind of a rap thing in there, but a huge biography if you check it out. It’s amazing all the stuff that he’s worked on.

DL: He really is incredible; he’s definitely part of history. I think they call him the founder of hip hop, the father of hip hop; and, at one point we worked with him again, maybe a year ago. He actually let me look through all these original prints from his life and it was incredible seeing the raw photos from his experience in hip hop and his experience in his life. So, he was probably the first big person that we worked with, and it was a great person to start with cause he’s so just incredible.

JH: Now, give me some other scoops, the celebrities that you’ve worked with. So, like Kim Kardashian, what was it like working with her?

DL: She was awesome. She’s incredible; she’s so sweet, so hard working. I shot her iPhone application and her Smartphone application. And, it was so much fun. And, the funny thing is I actually don’t have TV, I don’t have cable, so sometimes […]

JH: Like, who are you, again?

DL: [LAUGHTER] So, I’ve never seen her show, sorry. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about her and she’s just incredible. She’s absolutely gorgeous, she’s like a doll in real life, and just so easy to work with; so responsive and a just a sweet, sweet heart.

JH: What about Alicia Keyes?

DL: She’s incredible. Alicia Keyes was one of those days that I had to pinch myself. And, one of those days that I never thought any of this would happen. You know, growing up, if you told me I was going to end up photographing Alicia Keyes, I would have told you that you’re nuts. And, it’s really fun shooting people that I’ve been a fan of for a long time. And, I’ve been listening to Alicia since high school. Not only is she incredibly talented, incredibly beautiful and a humanitarian, she’s just an amazing role model and her energy, her attitude is amazing. She’s just always laughing and just kind. It’s very invigorating; it’s very contagious when someone you’re working with has such an awesome attitude.

It’s the same with Kim Kardashian. It’s like when you’re shooting someone that has a good attitude; that has a great personality it makes a shoot so much more fun, so much easier; really easy to get that personality on film.

JH: And what about someone like New Kids on the Block? They’ve probably been stars, since, fawned over all the way since they were kids; like, “Oh, My God, it’s the New Kids on the Block.” Like, were they obnoxious in person, how are they?

DL: No, the Kids on the […].

JH: You’re going to tell me that they’re amazing too, right?

DL: They were amazing [LAUGHTER]. I tend to like most people, so maybe it isn’t the juiciest piece of information, but they are so funny. And, honestly, they’re older now, but they are still kids and the craziest thing about the New Kids on the Block is their fans are so intense, they have a huge fan base and girls go crazy for them.

JH: How old are those girls now?

DL: Probably the 30s. [LAUGHTER] These are no high schoolers. They’re adult women, but I’m sure they have fans of all ages, but they are so loyal and so loving. And, the funniest thing was when the photos that I shot of New Kids on the Block went live, I didn’t even know the photos had gone live, but within seconds my Twitter account was overrun with messages from New Kids on the Block fans, because they had found out that I had shot them, and I mean literally within seconds I had hundreds of messages.

JL: Wow. What were some of the questions like?

DL: Oh, they were just the nicest people.

JH: Can you get me a piece of his shirt, or something; is there an extra cup with somebody’s drinked coffee out of it that I can have?

DL: [LAUGHTER] No, they were just so supportive and so sweet, and people were like, “I love the photos, Donny’s my favorite; no, Joey’s the best; no, Danny’s my favorite;” like, “What was it like, what were they like?” And I tried to write back to all of them. I hope I wrote back to most of them – but, just the sweetest people.

JH: Now, what about someone that might be a little bit more edgier like Billy Corgan? I think I once saw or heard an interview with him that said, “How do you approach your singing?” And he goes, “It’s very simple, I sing very, very low and then I sing very, very loud.” And, if you think of his songs like, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings,” a lot of the Smashing Pumpkin songs, it is that. It’s like, quiet, then it gets really angry. Is that what he was like in person?

DL: I hate to say another just nice thing, [LAUGHTER], but, he was really nice. I, actually, was expecting him to be really intense, and he’s another person, obviously, I’ve been listening to since I was very young. And so, I definitely was expecting him to be really intense and dark, but he was actually really calm and like actually has a really sweet, calm personality to him.

JH: Why don’t you just tell me like all the people that you hated that were really difficult to work with.


JH: Anyone there?

DL: I’ll keep those a secret.

JH: What about just looks wise. I’ve heard people say and I kind of agree, when you meet a celebrity in person, they’re either far more beautiful or attractive than you thought they’d be, or far worse than you’d thought they’d be. I’ll give the example so you won’t get in trouble. I’ve met Stephanie March who is married to Bobby Flay and she’s in Law and Order, and she was at; the person that does the intro, “Welcome to the Hopkinson Report” is my friend, Naomi, who I was in a band with back in the day, and they actually went to school together, and we’re at a gig and we’re in a bar, and there’s like a hundred people there, and every guy, and every person was like, “Oh my God, look at that girl over there, she’s unbelievable.” And, I was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe that person’s there.” And, it turns out, “But, wait a minute, she’s here to see Naomi, she’s here to see the band?” And, we got to know her and hang out with her, and you could just see like she was just flawless, it’s like that is clearly a movie star, or a TV star.

Give me some examples of people that were far more attractive in person versus someone you might have had a preconceived notion for them.

DL: Totally. I’m actually, probably the worst person to ask this because if you ask any of my friends, I think that everyone’s beautiful, and not that I’m cheesy, but, [LAGUHTER] I’m one of those people that I think everyone, I think the guy in the corner, I think that my mom is the most beautiful person in the world. I tend to think just everyone is beautiful, so, I’m probably the worst person to ask.

JH: Anyone taller?

DL: But, I will give you some juicy bits. Celebrities you’re used to seeing them in a retouched state. You’re used to seeing them lit well, with amazing lighting, amazing makeup, amazing styling. So, when you see a celebrity or an actor, or a musician in a magazine, that isn’t exactly what they look like. So, I definitely will tell you that there’s plenty of people that I’ve shot that they don’t have perfect skin, and they don’t have perfect bodies, which is something that I feel very passionate about talking about because I think growing up, especially women look at magazines and they compare themselves to celebrities that they think look perfect. But, I still think they’re gorgeous when I meet them in real life, but they are real people, they have real skin, they’re humans. But, definitely, I was surprised, Billy Corgan’s really tall.

JH: Really?

DL: Yeah, I was surprised. I had to stand on something to shot him – he’s huge. So that was a surprise, and I’m trying to think who else was a surprise. Kim Kardashian, I was shocked – she looks like retouched in real life. She is just perfect. She was the only one that I really was just wowed by. But, everyone else I’ve photographed; I love unique-looking people, so I kind of think everyone’s beautiful. [LAUGHTER]

JH: Who is someone that you wish you are looking forward to working with but haven’t worked with yet?

DL: Oh, God, I have a few answers.

JH: Go away.

DL: Growing up I would have loved to have shot Michael Jackson; that was definitely my dream. So sadly, that will never happen. So, a few years ago, my answer would have been Michael Jackson. Now, I think the most fun to shoot would be Dianna Ross, because I’m named after her.

JH: I like that. Give me your full name.

DL: My name is Dianna Rose Levine and so Dianna Rose, Dianna Ross. So, I think it would be amazing to work with her. And I also grew up listening to her music. And, also her album cover for the album, Blue, is like one of my favorite album covers ever. It’s the perfect example of how a totally simple photo can be perfect and can be better than a whole huge setup. So, I love her music, I love her album, and named after her, so that would be fun. So, if you ask the little girl in me, I would love to shoot like the Spice Girls. [LAUGHTER]

JH: Alright, let’s keep going with the celeb thing, because I’m sure my listeners are as intrigued as I am about that. Let’s talk about some other projects. You just did the Sweet 16, what was that about on MTV?

DL: Yeah, that was a very interesting experience. My boyfriend, Matt Workman, and I were hired to shoot the introductory video to Justin Combs Sweet 16 party for the MTV Show, “My Super Sweet 16.”

JH: Justin Combs being the son of Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy, P. Diddy, whatever he is.

DL: P. Diddy.

JH: Diddy, OK.

DL: So, we went to Diddy’s mansion house in New Jersey and we were filming the introduction video; it’s supposed to be kind of like a music video where people are going to watch it when they’re at the party, and then he’s going to arrive. And, it’s being directed by Parris for Goreela and it was a really interesting experience – 1) because we didn’t know we were going to be on TV, and actually that day I was shooting for Bumble and Bumble the whole day, which is an amazing hair company. And I had already been on a shoot the whole day so I was tired and sweaty. So, we got to his house and we were ready to shoot it and there’s model releases on the table, so it turns out that we had to be on the show, which was funny because maybe I would have dressed a little differently [LAUGHTER] or thrown on some makeup if I knew I was going to be on national TV.

JH: Your bling quotient was too low?

DL: I had no bling on. [LAUGHTER] So, it was a really fun experience, so we were on the My Super Sweet 16 episode with Justin Combs. And, it was really fun. It was my first experience with reality TV and it was awesome – it was really fun.

JH: What was the house like? Was it like an MTV crib’s house? Was there like a swimming pool in the lobby?

DL: It was large, it was definitely large, and gorgeous, and it was an incredible time.

JH: Was it all white? He’s famous for his white parties in the Hamptons during the summer, right?

DL: I’m trying to remember, I guess the walls were white.

JH: Any live tigers like roaming the halls or anything?

DL: I wish, I wish. I didn’t see any.

JH: Did you have to go over a moat to get there?

DL: I wish I had seen some tigers and moats. [LAUGHTER]

JH: Tell me about the Day in the Life project that you work on.

DL: I shoot a project called a Day in the Life for AOL and it’s an incredible experience. We basically document a day in the life of really popular artists, musicians. We’ve done Ludacris, I’ve done Omarion, the New Boys, The Clipse, New Kids on the Block, and basically we follow them around for an entire day. We’ll go to radio shows, we’ll go to TV appearances – the Today Show, BET. With Ludacris we did the Jimmy Fallon Show; interviews, magazines, lunch, driving around. So, it really gives a really intimate look at what life […]

JH: How cool is that? So, you hang out with Ludacris; you’re having breakfast with Ludacris? Does he just kind of rap his breakfast while he’s brushing his teeth; he’s making up rhymes and things like that?

DL: He’s really smart, really intelligent, really just a calm really nice person. And, we’ve worked with him a lot in other music videos and those kinds of things.

JH: You get to go to the Jimmy Fallon Show, did you say?

DL: Yeah, that was really fun.

JH: And see the background there?

DL: Yeah, totally.

JH: And are you shooting him while he’s on the show?

DL: Sometimes. It depends on where we have clearance for, and I’m also shooting stills and video. So, in the end product is a whole photo gallery and a video with documentary. And, in some cases I get to shoot the performance. And, in the Jimmy Fallon, we weren’t able to shoot it, but I did go see it and it was really fun.

JH: And how was AOL using this?

DL: They use it as a really interactive whole gallery and set for the artist. So it will be, there’s a writer, there’ll be a huge article, it’ll be the gallery, it’ll be the video, and these go viral, especially the video and the photos will go everywhere. If people are a fan of an artist, it’s an awesome experience for them because they really get to see what the artist is like, not just on stage, not just on TV, but driving from place to place and what they like to eat, and that’s definitely good if you’re a fan of the artist.

JH: Do you know if AOL, if it’s sponsored, is there like a corporate sponsorship behind it?

DL: Not that I know of.

JH: Probably just driving content. So, I know when you’re taking photos a lot of it is being relaxed, so on both sides of the coin, when you’re working with celebrities, they’re probably used to it, how do you keep from being nervous and then, when you’re shooting regular individuals, how do you kind of use your rapport to get them to be relaxed?

DL: I think that’s actually one of the biggest parts about being a successful photographer is being able to make people feel comfortable. And, definitely some celebrities and people who are used to having their photo taken, they’re just natural at it. They just go for it and I’m really there to document what they’re doing. And then there are some people who really need a little bit more direction. I think a big part of a photo shoot is figuring out what it’s going to take to make the person you’re photographing feel comfortable, feel safe, feel free to trying new things and not worry that something’s going to look bad; and so definitely a big part of being a photographer is connecting with your subject, making sure they’re comfortable and they feel safe. And, I wouldn’t even say that there’s a big difference between celebrities and someone who isn’t necessarily famous in terms of whether they’re comfortable. Certainly, a lot of celebrities are more used to it, but there’s people who aren’t celebrities who love being on camera, and then there are celebrities who are less comfortable with it, so there isn’t necessarily a divide there.

JH: What’s the first thing you do? You walk up, hey, there’s Ludacris, you’re going to with him all day, what’s kind of the first thing you do?

DL: In the Ludacris situation.

JH: Loved your last album, man, it was off da hook. [LAUGHTER]

DL: I don’t really necessarily see them as any different than anyone else, so that definitely helps. Like I said, I don’t have TV so maybe sometimes that’s actually a good thing.

JH: Well, Diana, this has been really interesting so far. We’re at the 25 minute mark, so here’s what I want to suggest. Let’s turn this into a two-part one, and in the second part, we’re going to talk about:

  • all the equipment that you use
  • the influence of the internet in new media and Facebook on photos, and
  • tips on taking a good photo.

Maybe you have, so many people have blogs and they’ve got Facebook pictures we’ll talk about what makes a good photo; and maybe we’ll make do a test on myself. We’ll take some pictures for my Facebook photo, maybe my new about page on the Hopkinson Report, and is that cool, do you want to stick around for that?

DL: Definitely, sounds great.

JH: This has been the Hopkinson Report podcast. That’s right, it’s a cliffhanger. Hope you liked Part 1 of my interview with Diana Levine, a professional photographer based in New York City. Make sure you go to TheHopkinsonReport.com, or better yet, go to iTunes and subscribe to make sure you get Part 2.

Thanks for listening.

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