Les Levine: The Troubles from a different perspective

14/02/2019 - 12:00

Les Levine tells Richard Fitzpatrick why his pictures from the Troubles emphasise other aspects than a photojournalist would.

When Les Levine landed in Northern Ireland in 1972 he was in a sense coming home. Born in 1935, Levine grew up in Dublin — where he got to know and befriend Jack B Yeats — before emigrating to North America in the late 1950s. 

Les Levine

He lived for a spell in Toronto, Canada before embedding himself in 1960s New York where he became one of the most original and influential members of the city’s conceptual art scene.

Levine then went to Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. It was only a few months after 13 people were killed by the British army in Derry City during Bloody Sunday. He was on a mission.

“At the time, I was trying to convince people about media art,” says Levine. “What I mean by media art is the dissemination of information. 

"It’s not just the idea that you’re using, say, paint and crayons or television sets or anything of that nature. Everybody was telling me that art and media are at the exact opposite ends — that the two should never meet.

“The way I approached the Northern Ireland thing was to get a sense of the experience people were having, and to record that as a way of producing new information. 

Most of the time while I was there you had the British information services, the IRA, the Unionists, and they all had spokespeople who told you first thing in the morning — ‘this is what happened’, ‘this is our view of it’. I never took any notice of that stuff, although I heard it all. I just went around to various places and photographed families and people whose lives were changed by the whole experience.

Levine spent a month between Derry and Belfast, except for occasional days where he made bursts across the border to the south of Ireland to safe-protect his film rolls from confiscation by police.

While in the North, he went to peace marches. He met the likes of John Hume, Bernadette Devlin and Ian Paisley (who refused to be interviewed). 

He makes a distinction about the work he was doing as an artist as opposed to the photojournalists doing their daily beat.

“Photojournalists were responding mainly to press calls,” he says. “If a bomb went off somewhere, they would go and photograph it. I was not involved in that kind of issue. 

"I was more involved in going around talking to people about what was happening in their lives. It’s true my work could be mistaken for journalism. There’s nothing wrong with that. 

"I’m not claiming there’s a hidden secret in here. I’m just saying an artist looking at something is entirely different to somebody from the news looking at something.

“When people produce news, it’s entirely disposable. The reason it’s disposable is because there will be another set of news tomorrow night that will replace the previous day’s set of news. 

"Yesterday’s news is of no interest to today for most people. The difference is that I’m doing something that I hope will last through time. 

"I called it ‘An Artist’s Document of Ulster’ so I’m looking at it through the eyes of art, not through journalism.”

One of the images from Les Levine’s exhibition at IMMA

ARTISTIC PURSUIT

It could be said there was something insensitive in what Levine was about. Here was an artist indulging himself in an artistic pursuit by dropping into a warzone to take photographs of people mired in a bloody conflict.

He clarifies his position: “I don’t see myself as separate to the people,” says Levine. “I see them as appointing me to document their experience. 

"I don’t appear any different than they are. I don’t look like an artist. I don’t say, ‘I’m an artist.’ I don’t have any pretext in terms of what I’m doing. I’m just making this image.”

Levine’s Resurrection (1972–2016) collection is culled from 80 photographs he took while on the ground, collated into 13 photographic works, and each with a provocative, ad-like tagline.

There’s one picture — which asks ‘Would unity join or divide us?’ — of a slew of kids from the Deery family whose mother was shot in the thigh by a bullet during Bloody Sunday. 

Two of the children are holding up a Tricolour. Their sitting room has loudly patterned wallpaper; a picture of Padre Pio looks down from the wall at the unfurled flag.

One of the images from Les Levine’s exhibition at IMMA

CONTACT SHEETS

Perhaps one of the most eye-catching elements of the picture is that it is framed by Levine’s contact sheets — the unenlarged prints photographers sometimes get from their negatives. 

It’s a format he repeats with each of the 13 images. 

The small, black-and-white contact sheets paint a picture of the Troubles — of barricades and bombed-out buildings; murals; political leaders speechifying on top of a parked van; funerals; and lots and lots of women wearing headscarves.

“By putting all the images around the image in the centre two things happen. One, you have a context. This is not just about anything. This is about children in a warzone. 

One of the images from Les Levine’s exhibition at IMMA

"This could relate to Syria, to Iraq, but it happens to be Northern Ireland. The other part is that I wanted to give you two views — the way you look at something from a distance, and the way you have to get very close to it to see what’s happening.

“When I was looking through all the contact sheets I thought to myself, I’ll make a choice of this one and that one, and then I said to myself: ‘Why not show them all? Let the audience see what choices you made. Let the audience see from all of the frames that you picked this one or that one.’

An audience might stand back and see the big picture and then come in close and look at some of the smaller pictures and they might say: ‘I would have chosen that one. I wouldn’t have chosen the one he picked.’ In a way I like that because it makes the audience part of the work — part of the experience.

“If you look at one of the pictures where kids are looking out from behind a kind of awning or bunting. 

"The words are, ‘Are we everything we see?’ What affect does looking at things have on the way we develop as human beings?”

Levine reflect that, when he was that age, art was not considered very important.

“But I think the world is now getting to the point where people realise that art plays a large role in the way we understand who we are. 

"When you see something that moves you as a work of art, you say to yourself, ‘It’s great to be alive.’ It’s wonderful to be able to experience something like that.”

Les Levine’s exhibition Resurrection (1972–2016) will run from February 15 to May 6, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin