I recently returned from a second trip to Cuba, where once again, I learned as much about myself as I did about the country and its amazingly resilient, creative, loving people. My personal objective this trip was to work on my portrait skills—an area in which I admit to little prior confidence.
This trip, led by the inestimable guide and consummate photographer Lorne Resnick, was instructive, inspirational, and rewarding, for some of the images I brought home (which I’ve just posted here on the site) are aesthetically among my best, but truly tell the story of a remarkable people.
Working alongside Lorne was a lesson in photographic technique that is as much about interpersonal communication and trust as it is about shutter speed and focal length. Finding the best subject—children are wonderful simply because they’re unguarded and open to new adventures—is what Lorne calls “casting.” But to create a portrait beyond the flashed “thumbs up” or “V” sign when a subject spots a camera, we developed a teamwork system. One of us would take a simple snapshot of someone—who often flashed a hand sign or mugged for the camera—and while that photographer showed the image to the subject, the rest of us would hang back shooting, capturing the subject completely un-posed, reacting to their own picture.
We’d then show the subject the new shots…and an emotional connection was inevitably made. I quickly realized that when we change our subjects’ perception of our photographic purpose—when they realize we’re not just trying to steal a random image to show the folks back home, but that we’re interested in them as people of essence—magic happens.
When I first began my photographic and creative odyssey, I was once in Borneo shooting “interesting” faces in a marketplace with a 300mm zoom lens. But I discovered a certain feeling of personal discomfort at grabbing random portraits. I came to realize that I wasn’t really connecting with anyone and that I was, in fact, behaving like a photo-thief, simply stealing what I could.
I now know that photography isn’t about an amazing angle or perfect focus; it’s about the connection. On this trip with Lorne, I worked hard to make lasting connections with the people kind enough to open themselves up to my lens. I believe the results—both in terms of my photography and in terms of making new connections and friendships—are well worth the effort.
You’ll see a number of portraits of Cuban dancers from this past trip on my gallery pages. As Annie Leibovitz once said, “All dancers are a photographer’s dream. They communicate with their bodies and they are trained to be completely responsive to a collaborative situation.” I fell in love with each of these dancers, as you can tell by these pictures. Our connection is genuine, and something I treasure.
I hope you enjoy meeting my new friends through these new portraits as much as I enjoyed earning my connections with them.
2016 is heading into the home stretch! While I’m working to get my latest travel photos posted here and on my various licensing platforms, I thought I’d take a deep breath and share my thoughts about my recent globe-trotting.
There’s no doubt that this past year has been the most creatively rewarding and exciting period of my life’s photographic journey. Traveling with master photographers like Art Wolf, Lorne Resnick, Frans Lanting, and Tom Mangelsen has been an ongoing lesson in more than mere camera technique.
Through the adventures implicit in any exotic travel—including a wrenched back, a blown knee, and countless sore muscles earned at every elevation and in every climate the planet has to offer—I’ve come to understand the value of patience (wild animals don’t pose on cue), making “connections” with subjects, and the “perfection” of imperfection when capturing images that create what I like to call my “nailed it” moments.
I’ve learned to shift my focus from the technology behind my work to the greater challenge of being “at one” with myself, exploring my creative center and establishing a true connection with my subjects. Whether I’m shooting a portrait, a wild animal, or catching a landscape at the crack of dawn, it’s that personal connection that creates the genuine magic of a compelling image.
This is not to say that I’ve mastered anything beyond what I like to think is an uncanny ability to navigate through TSA checkpoints at this point. I still l have much to learn about “taking pictures,” and I’m dedicated to the hard work finding the greater self-awareness that will take my work to the next level. The photos I post here are, in the main, those that have spoken to me and have taught me something about the world and about myself. The journey to find these images has certainly been challenging…but it’s also been exciting beyond description.
In pursuit of the elusive goal of photographic mastery, just this year my photographic adventures have included travel to the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, Cozumel, New Orleans, Easter Island, Tahiti-Moorea, New Zealand, Iceland, Romania, Cuba, Coos Bay (thank you Black Market Gourmet for a terrific show!), Brazil, Costa Rica, Patagonia, Australia, China, Japan, and finally to New York City.
When pressed to name my “favorite” stops throughout the year, I’d have to say that Iguaçu Falls in Brazil, Patagonia, New Zealand, and Alaska were photographic standouts for me. Yes, I know that’s a lot of “favorites,” but each truly holds a special place in my mind’s eye as well as in my lens.
Moving forward, I’m firming up plans to head to Majorca, Amsterdam, Oregon, Alaska, Glacier Bay, New Zealand, Jackson Hole, and then once again to Romania, followed by another rockin’ “Blues Cruise” navigating the Caribbean. Throughout it all, I’ll be searching for that creative “high” that comes with every click of my shutter.
The next chapter of my photographic adventures promises to be exciting. I hope you’ll take the journey with me...and be sure to check out my new 2017 calendar!
by Robert Levy, MD
There may be no more intense learning environment than what I experienced in medical school. That’s where I was exposed to the rigors of serious research in all its forms, two of which presented potential career paths in either theoretical or practical realms.
There are some academics who engage in research and learning simply for its own sake, and whose work may ultimately have direct impact on the course of human progress. I’ve always been in awe of Nobel Prize-winning theoreticians who come up with true “outside the box” concepts unaware of their ultimate human value, exemplified by Newton and Einstein. Personally, I’ve never had the inclination or the temperament to dedicate myself to something so esoteric that it might never be understood by anyone outside of a narrow field of interest.
While in med school, I got involved in the study of membrane physiology. I actually came up with a “membrane pore theory” so arcane that I feared I was the only one who could appreciate it or conceive of how it might ever be applied to patient outcomes. But that experience taught me something about myself: that I was an “outside the box” student interested in finding novel ways to solve patient problems.
Like most of my generation, much of my worldview was turned on its ear with the political events of the late 1960s. The assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy was a personal turning point for me. Here I was, researching amphibian neuromuscular junctions and preparing my findings for perhaps a handful of people on the planet who would actually care about them; the Kennedy assassination made me realize I might not actually be one of those who cared. In what was a true epiphany, I knew that my calling was to do something that mattered.
Eventually, over the course of my career as a physician, I answered that calling by creating alternative health care delivery systems that positively impacted large numbers of patients, and by teaching others how to adapt to new protocols of care. Those teaching moments led to better patient outcomes and truly became the cornerstones of my decades of personal and career fulfillment.
“Doctor” is a Latin word meaning “teacher,” so I suppose I’m not really straying far from my earlier career instincts when I get such positive feedback from those who enjoy my photographs today.
I’m a lifelong learner. Each picture I take teaches me something, and that alone energizes me. But when my images convey to others my own sense of discovery and my growing awareness of the world around us, my joy expands beyond the power of words.
I hope my photos continue bring my own sense of wonder to all who see them. Let us always be learning, let us always be excited by this amazing life we share!
by Robert Levy, M.D.
The tagline on this website mentions the number of days I’m away from home each year seeking “your ultimate image,” and at the rate I’ve been going lately, that tagline is no exaggeration.
Since the New Year, I’ve been on photo shoots in New York City, Costa Rica, Iguazu Falls, Patagonia, Easter Island, French Polynesia, New Zealand, Australia, China, and Japan. That was an incredible whirlwind trip with a National Geographic photo team, which I followed with a quick trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. From there I went to New Orleans for their Jazz Fest, and then returned home to prepare for what proved to be a very successful show at Coos Bay Oregon’s Black Market Gourmet. It was great to see old friends and very gratifying to see the strong sales and the positive response to my work.
I’ve also been working hard to make the Print Store on these pages accessible and engaging for everyone wanting a custom, signed print of my work. We’ve now got a fabulous large format printer, which allows me to custom-print on 17” wide paper of any length, which makes for rather dramatic panoramic images. Of course, all prints are on high quality paper ideal for professional mounting and framing. I’m also producing a wide range of images on custom-printed/signed greeting cards, as well as spectacular full-format 18-month calendars available in a selection of themes.
Yes, I’ve been busy!
As this is being posted, I’m in the Galapagos Islands on a Visionary Wild photo expedition in the company of renowned nature and wildlife photographers Tom Mangelsen, Franz Lanting, and Art Wolfe, whose collaborative approach to adventure imagery continues to push me toward even greater technical and aesthetic heights.
Accompanying me on this trip is Jennifer Aldrich, herself a brilliantly talented photographer...and I’m not saying this just because she’s my daughter! Jennifer has the gift of a “natural eye” for subject-lighting-composition, and I’ve never seen anything she’s shot alongside me that didn’t surpass my own work. This trip to the Galapagos will undoubtedly produce some magical work from her.
Looking forward a bit, this summer I’ll be returning to Alaska to (hopefully) get those “nailed it” shots of the bears during their salmon fishing season. And then, if all goes as planned, I’ll be in New Zealand in the Fall with Visionary Wild and National Geographic photographers Michael Melford and Justin Black. And if I survive that (I’m told we’re shooting from helicopters with the doors off!), I hope to make it back to Africa with a return trip to Cuba planned for December.
As I think about this great adventure, I realize that traveling and working alongside gifted fellow photographers has truly centered my life. I hope you’ll return to these pages regularly as I continue to share my work here (and on those sites where it can be licensed for commercial use) and to share the excitement I feel behind the lens on every day of my life journey.
I’d write more...but I’ve got a camera in my hand and it’s time to shoot!
by Robert Levy, MD
I’m now fully recovered from both the cold I recently caught while traveling throughout Cuba and from the exhilaration of having visited a country and a people literally standing on the brink of enormous cultural, social, and economic change.
If you want to feel loved, go to Cuba. The Cuban people may have their “issues” with the U.S. Government and the hardships they’ve been forced to endure as a result of international political conflict, but when it comes to person-to-person interaction, Americans are welcomed everywhere. The individual Cuban may have very little in the way of material comforts, but they’re eager to share what little they have.
One of the objectives of this trip—led by the enormously gracious and generous Lorne Resnick, who is a skilled photographer, a seasoned traveler, and a compassionate human being—was, of course to practice my craft and to record compelling photographic imagery. The other purpose was to experience sights, sounds, aromas, and passions of Cuba itself. I managed to succeed at both.
First, some brief “tourist” impressions...
Now, for some “photographer” impressions...
by Robert Levy, MD
Since I’ve embarked on my second career as a professional photographer and as an inveterate globetrotter--always in search of the perfect combination of subject, timing, lighting, composition, and color--my obsession has been to capture imagery that surprises the eye. When my clients, friends, and exhibitors ask about how I achieve certain in-camera and production effects, they’re always surprised to learn that I’m red-green color blind.
What? is the usual reaction, because being color blind is presumed to be some sort of handicap for one purveying their skills as a visual artist. In my work, however, if being red-green deficient is a handicap, perhaps it’s actually an advantage; I’ll let those who see my photographs be the judge.
Red-green color blindness (deuteranopia in medical parlance) is the most common form of color perception deficiency, and is found in 6% of the male species...of which I’m a proud member. It’s caused by a recessive gene that affects the development of retinal cones, which send signals to the optic nerve. I’m not at all sure what its impact is upon my work, but there are research studies indicating that some degree of color blindness may actually increase the ability to distinguish certain hues.
I'm aware that what others see in a gorgeous pink sky, I don’t find particularly remarkable. Perhaps that leads me to seek other aspects of visual excitement, which might explain why I’m always looking for that “something different” in my compositions. When other people look at iconic, familiar vistas, landmarks, or objects, they share a common response to a common perspective...which I often do not. I frequently see a unique perspective, unusual hues, or that “certain special thing” that can only be captured at a single moment in time. Those are indeed rare images, but those are the pictures I’m after.
I may not take thousands of pictures, but when I shoot, I aim for that unique perspective captured at an indelible, fleeting instant. I’ve spent weeks in Alaska and in Africa humping my gear over glaciers and through jungles, only to shoot perhaps three pictures in an entire day and then to return home with but a handful of pictures. But a shot of a salmon leaping into the mouth of a bear, or a portrait of a leopard staring into my lens truly captures that “nailed it” moment every photographer dreams about.
As a shooter, my color blindness creates no limitations. Once in the lab, or when editing for color, I may well be limited in finding that “perfect pink sky,” but to me, there are no colors that ever need to be excluded or edited out. I love them all, even the ones I see only in my mind.
by Robert Levy, MD
Before I picked up a camera, I was what you might call an “empirical” person. My life as a physician revolved around pure science: lab reports, diagnostics, treatment protocols, and patient outcomes. Medicine was—as it should be for any doctor—truly my passion.
And then I picked up my first camera and began clicking away. I discovered something I’d denied myself during my career dealing with illness and disease in a constant fight against time: an appreciation of my own feelings, of my own subjective responses to the world around me, and of the value of time.
Time was no longer my enemy, but a friend. In the world of photography, capturing the right image is a function of moments of time, and discovering those moments is at the core of my photographic passion.
Life is fleeting, and so are its moments. The value of any moment, I’ve discovered, is the feeling that accompanies a moment. What is it about a moment that demands it be captured as an image? When the vision in the image of that moment moves you, when it arouses a feeling, when you are touched.
Finding those moments and those images is what my life is about. In search of them, I’ve set out on a journey that in the past many months has taken me to the remote jungles and savannahs of Rwanda, to the glistening cities of Europe, to the frozen landscapes of Iceland, to the mountains and waterways of Asia, and to the highways and landmarks throughout America.
In my travels, I’m constantly transported to different times and cultures. It’s an exciting journey that allows me to meet remarkable people and enjoy life-changing experiences along the way.
My search is for those compelling images that will stir your soul, that will let you feel the joy and awe I feel when I manage to “nail it” with the perfect picture captured at the perfect moment.
The journey is never-ending. Come with me and share the excitement!