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Through the Lens: Randal Levenson ’59

Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
Artist and photographer Randal Levenson '59 has built a career in telling the stories of characters he has met during his adventures crisscrossing North America.
Artist and photographer Randal Levenson was born in 1946 on an Army Air Corps base in Wichita Falls, Texas. His father described it as “a place where you could stand knee-deep in mud and still have dust blowing in your face.” While his time in Texas was brief, it was the kind of unvarnished scene that Randal returned to time and again in his work, whether chasing carnivals across small-town America or capturing gypsy life off the beaten path in Mexico. “I always had an appreciation for road trips and adventure,” he recalls. “I was interested in people and subcultures.”
Randal’s family moved to Framingham, Massachusetts, when he was an infant, and in 1957, his parents enrolled him at Fay in the hopes that it would provide him with academic challenge. Randal recalls Fay in the late 1950s as a place insulated from the tumult of the outside world. He enjoyed his classes and shooting on the rifle range, and each summer he taught archery and riflery at the summer camp. After Fay, Randal went to St. Mark’s School, where he started photography as a hobby, and then to Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, where he learned the technical craft of photography.
A trip to Alaska to fight forest fires in the summer of 1969 set Randal on the path to serious photography. He encountered the work of large-format photographer Barry McWayne and was inspired to buy a 5x7 view camera. There was a connection between the artist and the instrument. Like something out of the 19th century, Randal’s large-format camera sat atop a tripod with a dark cloth over the back. Sitting for a photo could be a ten-minute process, so taking a portrait was a genuine collaborative effort between the photographer and the subject.
In 1971, Randal drove from Canada to the Fryeburg Fair in Maine to photograph the 4-H cattleman and carnival folk. When he returned home and developed the film, he realized that the carnies were far more interesting. He started following sideshows and picked up work along the way as an “inside talker,” narrating the show for the audience. He lived and traveled with the carnival, and many of the performers, like Emmet The Turtle Man and Willie “Popeye” Ingram, allowed him to take their portraits. While others saw the performers’ deformities, Randal’s talent was in showing their humanity. “You couldn’t steal a picture because if they moved a half-inch, it would be out of focus, so you needed their full cooperation,” he explains. “I never saw what people looked like. I saw the nobility within.” Randal spent almost ten years following carnivals off and on. His final outing was the Tennessee State Fair in 1981, followed by the publication of In Search of the Monkey Girl (Aperture, 1982), which documented his ten years following carnivals and featured writing by Spalding Gray.
Randal taught photography at the University of Ottawa and lectured at Harvard and Brown University. When his wife, noted art restoration expert Rustin Levenson, was hired to work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Randal worked as a printer for photographers including Richard Avedon and Robert Frank. However, he was always thinking ahead to the next adventure, like photographing loggers in the hollers of Chattanooga. “I don’t have a problem walking in anywhere and getting a picture. My kids call it Jedi mind control,” jokes Randal. “If I knew how I did it, I probably wouldn’t be able to. There are certain places that I probably shouldn’t have walked into.”       
Over his career, Randal’s work has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the United States and Canada. These days, he and his wife split their time between Miami in the winters and a cottage on Lake Erie. He is currently working on a retrospective portfolio of his work, which evokes memories of the characters he has encountered and his adventures crisscrossing North America. “Sometimes it isn’t pretty what you are photographing, but you try to tell the truth with the camera. Not everyone’s truth is pretty. Still, it’s human.”

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