An arborist, a physicist, a lepidopterist, a luthier: When Larry Marc Levine looks at ordinary people doing their jobs, he sees artists. And with “CreativitY: With a Capital Why?” his exhibit at Sandy Spring Museum, the Rockville photographer celebrates them.
“Everyone has a story,” said Levine. “And what I love doing is capturing the photograph that tells the story I want to tell.”
The story he tells in “CreativitY” never varies, whether he has trained his lens on a cookie baker, an ophthalmologist or a member of the Hubble Telescope team at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Levine said he thinks photography should honor the people in the photograph, and inspire the people who see it.
“Truly, what I wanted to do was to bring people’s attention to the fact that everyone has creativity,” said Levine, whose photographs are accompanied by statements by the subjects that tell their thoughts on art and creativity. Some are long, some succinct — each is as varied and interesting as the subject themselves. The camera becomes a mirror, showing artist, art and inspiration in more than 30 portraits hung around the museum.
“It’s ‘CreativitY with a capital WHY?’ because I wanted people to be able to see themselves in the exhibit,” he said. “I wanted to be inclusive, to bring about understanding — it’s the ‘Why?’ behind it.”
Levine has always been interested in the “Why?” Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, he was interested in photography even during college, earning an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Connecticut and a master’s in education from the University of Massachusetts.
“I didn’t want to be a classroom teacher,” he said. “I wanted to learn how people learn, to get a feel for how they process information.”
When Levine saw an ad for an audio-visual information specialist at Metro in Washington, D.C., he decided to apply. “I went for the job interview, and the guy who interviewed me was fabulous,” he said. “He had been a former Army-Air Force helicopter pilot, and was extremely exact, but he had this incredible creative streak.”
Levine got the job, doing underground and aerial photography and serving as Metro’s photo archivist until his 2017 retirement. “The thing I really liked most was working with people,” he said. “I’m a very curious person; I love to learn things and I really enjoyed photography, meeting people.”
One of Levine’s most profound experiences, he said, was meeting a bus mechanic 15 years after he’d photographed the man for Metro. “The bus mechanic approached me at a party and said, ‘That photograph was the first time my family really understood what I did for a living,’” Levine recalled. “I just wanted to know what he did and how he did it.”
That desire is evident as ever in “CreativitY,” a project Levine decided to start after retirement. “You can afford to fail at things when you retire; you can just try stuff,” he said. He took drawing and painting classes, even joining a Jewish-Muslim artists’ group, but ultimately decided to continue with photography
“I had always liked doing pictures; I’ve had pictures published around the world and stuff exhibited at VisArts and Strathmore over the years. But I worked for Metro for almost 36 years, but owned none of the pictures because I worked for a corporation. I wanted to create a cohesive body of work that was as good as, if not better than, anything I’d done previously — but my own ideas.”
Levine’s ideas started off with things he loved — like musical instruments — and getting to know the people behind the art. On a visit to Asheville, North Carolina, he and his wife, Sandy, watched a glass artist working behind a barrier that protected observers from the high temperatures involved in glassblowing. “I told him, ‘I’m really interested in what you’re doing, but I have to get behind that barrier to take the right picture of you,’” Levine said. In that moment, he realized that getting “behind the barrier” was the key to capturing artists at work.
When Levine thought of people he’d like to photograph, he found the list growing exponentially. So he applied for a grant from the county “because I realized, if I went to a (museum) and they said ‘yes,’ I’d have to have some pictures!”
The museum that said ‘yes,’ as it turned out, was Sandy Spring Museum, a place close to Levine and Sandy’s hearts. “What I decided would make this exhibit different was that I would get a quotation from every person I photographed,” he said. “Because getting inside someone’s head is interesting.
“I wanted to concentrate on people,” he said, “because regardless of what you think of the political situation right now, people are what make this country great.” And rather than stick with just the people he already knew, Levine decided to expand his reach. He started with a break dancer and a graffiti artist, because he knew nothing about the genres; moved on to an artist whose first language was American Sign Language (ASL), and mined his Jewish-Muslim art group for leads about fabric painters and fiber artists.
“In some ways this is about me, but in most ways it’s about them,” he explained, noting that a few artists said they found further inspiration in the photographs Levine took. “I realized that artists have a way of respecting each other, so truly. it didn’t matter [what] age, background, country of origin, language.”
Levine took a class in ASL, found a master jeweler who introduced him to a master violin maker, went online to find a henna artist, took pictures at the Wings of Fancy butterfly exhibit at Brookside Gardens — and even fulfilled a childhood dream. “I love the space program,” he said. “When I was a kid, I wanted to work at NASA; it didn’t work out.”
But when he decided to take pictures at NASA, Levine made it work, contacting the public relations office, corresponding with Dr. Olivia Lupie, Hubble instrument systems manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, who responded to his inquiry, and waiting about a year and a quarter without giving up hope. “I got into NASA,” he said, his eyes lighting up with excitement. “The Hubble Space Telescope team — oh my God, it was one of the best days ever!”
Photographing the scientists on the Hubble team was an opportunity for Levine to show the people “behind the scenes, who do incredible work but never get recognition.
“Not that people are looking for recognition,” he added, “but everyone wants to be appreciated.”
The “CreativitY” exhibit offers all these artists a chance to be appreciated, with their work and philosophy captured in their own words and Levine’s pictures. Thirty disparate creators of art are linked by their creativity and the book that Levine has created to accompany it.
“I love what I do,” the photographer said. “These people are tied together, and I guess I’m the common thread here.”
“CreativitY with a Capital WHY,” an exhibit by photographer Larry Marc Levine, runs through Nov. 24 at the Sandy Spring Museum, 17901 Bentley Road, Sandy Spring. Hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. Call 301-774-0022 or visit www.sandyspringmuseum.org.