Alain Levitt

“For a long time, I felt like I had failed as a photographer.”

Last year, Alain Levitt started sharing his archive of photography on a dedicated Instagram account. As a photographer in New York in the aughts, Levitt had turned his back on photography by the time the decade was out. In the intervening years, Levitt’s photographs gathered dust, whilst film photography was supplanted by the rise of social media. From the perspective of 2022, it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that, since its launch twelve years ago, Instagram has changed our relationship to photography. In its early days, the photo-sharing app was characterised by a limited choice of filters and corresponding borders to boot; the more vintage an Instagram post looked and seemed, the better it was. But what happens when photographs – real 35mm photographs – taken in the years just before Instagram’s launch reach an age where they become ‘vintage’ themselves? For something to be deemed ‘vintage’, it has to be at least twenty years old; one particularly striking photograph shared by Levitt on Instagram is of the New York blackout of 2003. 

Having moved to New York in the early aughts, Levitt started photographing and documenting the people and the scene(s) around him. The city’s nightlife and streetlife, bodegas and bars, its residents – native and adopted, making it, or faking it, are captured with an energy and nonchalance that Instagram users could never. Looking at Levitt’s photographs is a who’s who of New York life, and a glance at the Instagram comments on his posts confirms as much. Director Spike Jonze is photographed simultaneously taking Levitt’s picture – does he have Jonze’s photograph of him, one commenter asks? There are shots of Chloë Sevigny, Kim Gordon, Cat Power (under a table) and Mischa Barton, as well as photographs in which the Levitt’s subjects see themselves, an old flatmate or someone who was once a familiar face around town. Recognisable faces from New York’s skate scene also appear frequently – from the late Harold Hunter, photographer Tino Razo, Fucking Awesome’s Jason Dill, filmmaker William Strobeck and artist Mark Gonzales.

Levitt’s photographs may be from an era before Instagram, but they’re as relevant as ever. Last year, Vice profiled Levitt’s photography – linking a previous feature that he had contributed to on the site. A banner at the top of the page warns: “FYI. This story is over 5 years old.” The feature is, in fact, from 2007, but it’s a curious moment when photography that was made and shared on the internet in its infancy is now old enough to be vintage. Coincidentally, the newest social media app, TikTok, recently declared the return of “Indie Sleaze”, a catch-all for the fashions and music of the aughts. Enough time has passed for the early 00’s to seem cool again (or just cool, for those too young to have been there the first time round), and Levitt’s work is (re)finding itself. Indeed, a photograph of the late artist, Dash Snow, that was taken by Levitt appears on a t-shirt for Supreme’s upcoming S/S 2022 collection. And in February this year, a book launch party for Levitt’s collaboration with Spotz Club took place at Public Access – an East Village gallery founded by Leo Fitzpatrick of Kids fame. Time passes, places change and people seemingly move on, but as Levitt’s photography shows, the energy of youth is timeless. 

NR: What was it like revisiting these photographs for the first time?

AL: It wasn’t easy. For a long time, I felt like I had failed as a photographer. I took pictures every day but never got much work and certainly was never able to make it into a career. I wasn’t thinking of these pictures as what they were, documents of a beautiful moment in time, but as validation of my own inadequacies. Thankfully I got over it.

NR: And what led you to revisit these in the first place?

AL: Just prior to the pandemic a friend needed early aughts images for a potential project. I didn’t go too deep, but what I found brought back not just memories but how I felt back then. That really surprised me.

“What I thought was going to be painful ended up being more like finding the fountain of youth. After that, it was on.”

NR: Apparently ‘Indie Sleaze’ has returned; what does it feel like to see the return of this aesthetic of the aughts?

AL: I love it. For a year in high school, I dressed in nothing but thrift store bought disco era clothing. Bell bottoms, tight striped shirts with giant lapels, etc. I completely romanticized that era. I can only hope this is coming from a similar place. Luckily, I was taking the pictures. I cringe when I think of my style back then.

NR: Do you think the New York you captured on camera still exists? If not, at what point did it become “the past”?

AL: It definitely does. This city is alive right now. Everybody’s an artist, everyone’s working on a project. It’s vibrant. The energy is so similar to when I arrived in 2000. I’m very inspired by it but just a little too tired to want to participate. 

NR: You’ve been sharing your photographs on Instagram, what’s it like seeing people share their stories and memories of them?

AL: It’s beautiful. I can put up an image and have twenty people comment with completely different memories. I have the picture, but collectively we tell the story. 

NR: If your photographs from the aughts could be characterised as celebrating one thing, what would that be?

AL: Youth for sure. We were young enough to not give a fuck. Young enough to think that anything was possible and not deal with the repercussions of our actions. And young enough to feel like we were special.

“It was a beautiful delusional time. Real life came after.”

NR: Has sharing your work made you want to pick up a camera again?

AL: It did! I stopped carrying a camera right after my first daughter was born in 2012. I still shot photos but mostly of my kids and like almost everybody, they were taken on a phone. After going through my archive, and getting some much-welcomed attention, I realized how much more weight I give to my images when shoot them on film. It’s silly but I care more about them; they mean more to me. So out came all of my cameras from storage and I kind of felt like it was time to finish what I had started. I don’t go out much at night these days but when I walk around, I always have at least one on me. It feels right.

NR: Did you keep in touch with the people in your photographs? And has sharing your photography rekindled any lost friendships (for you, or for others in the comment section!)

AL: Luckily, I have. My wife and I have owned a restaurant on the Lower East Side for the last fourteen years. Because of it we’ve stayed connected with many of the people from my images. But it’s been sporadic. Someone comes into town and then you won’t see them again for years, sometimes. When I started posting photos on IG, it was like everybody was visiting at once; we were a group again. Sharing memories and stories from what was the most magical time in many of our lives, it was like a hipster high school reunion. No offence, everyone.