“I come from a place of acceptance and celebration. I don’t aim to tell anyone’s story, and I don’t aim to view any group through a lens of other.”
Photographer and director Danielle Levitt’s body of work includes editorials in the world’s top magazines and enviable advertising campaigns for corporate clients. Despite the breadth of her projects, everything she does is filtered through her unique worldview giving her work a powerful cohesiveness. The purest expression of this—no surprise—is found in Levitt’s intimate personal work, which explores the evolving landscape of contemporary American youth culture.
Her images of American youth movements—BMX riders, thrash core punks, beauty queens, high school footballers, Wyoming rodeo riders, teenage werewolves—inspires us to think differently about culture, place and identity. Here, we’ve studied and selected some of our favorites and chatted with Danielle about intention and process.
RUINS: We love the sense of place we get from your work. It’s like your subjects are part of the fabric of their surroundings. What drives you into these less-explored pockets of Americana?
LEVITT: I love passionate people, and I think that young people are less inhibited or refined—they can appropriate culture in a way that feels exploratory and fun. When you see someone who has found a sense of self and a family that is powerful because, on a very basic level, we all know what it’s like to be confused and seeking. So when you see a person or a group of people for whom that has been somewhat alleviated, that is very special. Also trends change, and morph, and go away. It’s important to record these things.
How do you approach your work tonally?
I come from a place of acceptance and celebration. I don’t aim to tell anyone’s story and I don’t aim to view any group through a lens of “other.” I offer a platform to people who I think are owning themselves and give them a chance to say how that feels for them and what family looks like, what cool is to them, and what is important.
Do you find the quality of light changes dramatically from one city to the next? How does this affect the images?
Ha, yes it definitely does. My work is about photographing people in their environments so my subjects don’t ever look divorced from the atmosphere. Of course, if I’m photographing goths in southern California, then the sunny warm light is an interesting contrast to what is expected. There’s always an intention to it.
How do you find your subjects in such far flung locales? How has the internet changed the way you work?
I have an amazing team who support me. With the advent of Instagram also, I am able to find these kids that before we’re not as easily accessed. Before I just traveled around, and spoke to everyone. I’m not shy, so if I see someone on the street, I’ll approach them. I also like to remain in contact with young people I’ve worked a lot with so they end up putting me in touch with or onto different young people or trends. Everyone sees people on the street who are different, or hears “crazy” or “inspiring” stories—this is just my job so I go after those leads.