The Desert Leaf — September 2016
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Serge J-F. Levy: Where The Desert Meets The Street
Craig Baker

On a short hike through Catalina State Park, photographer Serge Levy stops dead in his tracks and kneels to admire a caterpillar on a tall blade of dry grass. The larva is black and patterned with orange protrusions that look like spikes. I ask if he intends to take a picture, and he laughs. “Things like that I leave … to the professionals,” he says, smiling.

After spending the first 39 years of his life “walking through the canyons of New York City,” Levy moved to Tucson in 2012 to pursue his master’s in fine arts under the tutelage of renowned landscape photographer Frank Gohlke, at the University of Arizona. (Levy insists the modifier “landscape photographer” is “reductive.”)

Levy tried initially to continue with his creative work under the same modality he had employed in New York, but, for a number of reasons, it just wasn’t working out. For one, the people in Tucson tended to react much more aggressively to having a camera pointed at them than the people in New York did, he says. But turning his camera on the natural world to avoid confrontation with his subjects presented other problems. Levy had developed a familiarity with the city and was accustomed to the shapes and forms of his native metropolis and the ways those forms aided in the composition of his photos. Stepping out onto nature trails, he says, more or less “blew that apart.”

Levy graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Vassar College in 1995, though he says he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. His interest in photography led him to take an internship with the Poughkeepsie Journal, and after winning a number of awards while working for that publication, he eventually found his way back to New York City as a stringer (a correspondent not on the regular staff) for the Associated Press and New York Daily News.

Levy says he learned an immense amount about his craft while working as a photojournalist, such as how to compose a shot quickly and how to use his equipment efficiently, but the competition among journalists was intense, and the work—especially in the predigital age—was “taxing.” “I tend not to be the kind of photographer that gravitates to the center of the action,” Levy explains; “I’m very interested in what’s going on in the periphery.”

From there, Levy spent the next two decades freelancing for various magazines, shooting the occasional ad, and in 2011 he was invited to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, for a prestigious year-long fellowship.

However, Levy says that it has been his personal art projects that have “kept [him] going”—projects that have been (and are still) in a constant state of evolution. He completed a series of self-portraits in various modes of presentation, as well as documentary style photo essays covering a range of topics, from religion in the U.S. penitentiary system to cockfighting in Mexico. During that period in Levy’s life, he had a camera with him at all times—day and night—and took to capturing impromptu moments as they revealed themselves to him on the streets of New York. And though street photography need not be practiced in an urban setting, per se, it is this unscripted methodology, he says, that precisely defines street photography as a genre.

“Just by definition, so many people want to believe that street photography necessarily happens where there is pavement,” explains Levy, “but that’s never been my definition.” Rather, he defines it as “a momentary reaction to stimuli—to something that is happening”—what Henri Cartier- Bresson called the “decisive moment.” Levy adds that to avoid crossing the threshold between street photography and documentary photography, a street photographer has to venture out (to the best of his or her ability) as a tabula rasa, that is to say, without a particular agenda. Thus it is easy to see how the diverse landscapes and people of New York City provided endless inspiration and subject matter for his work.

So Levy’s move to Tucson was a bit of a culture shock. Levy admits that he “couldn’t imagine a more diametric opposite” to his city of origin than the landscape of the Sonoran Desert. Nevertheless, he says that both environments resonate with a similar “emotional tambour” of vague hostility. And since his efforts on Tucson’s streets were not so warmly received, Levy’s relocation to the West meant that his unique style of street photography would find a new incarnation in the Arizona desert.

His work is deliberately saturated with tension, and though his subjects are frequently the same as those studied by landscape and nature photographers, Levy’s photographs tend to buck against the classic conventions of those genres.

“If I see a really pretty sunset, I will not make that image,” he says, “but if there’s an added component to that—if there’s something to dilute or complicate that sunset, if that sunset can be used as an adjunctive thing—then I’ll definitely make that picture. But I find that if I start investing myself in that other type of photography, it detracts me from being in the emotional space of making the type of work that I feel is most resonant for me.”

As for what that entails, Levy says he prefers to work in the medium of emotion and to create images that “hopefully almost defy language.” That, after all, is why he says he’s “in the business of visuals.”

There is a common perception among the public that art is supposed to make the viewer feel good, says Levy, but he’s not satisfied limiting himself to purely positive spheres of experience. “I think art is really at its best when it’s stirring,” he explains, adding that it could be stirring up pleasure or anxiety. “I hope my work invites people to have an experience, to have a reflection, to have a response that is their own. … I hope it’s stirring.”

For more about Serge Levy and his work, visit; Instagram: @hotstonehiking.


Craig Baker is a local freelance writer. Comments for publication should be addressed to