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Pepper Levain was born in Düsseldorf, Germany and spent her youth there as well as in New Zealand and Northern Ireland. Aged 23 she moved to Brighton, UK to study Performance Art and to create experimental stage performances. After four years, back in Germany she went to film and art school in Cologne (KHM) to start writing on a psychedelic essay film.
During a long research journey she created a large portfolio of polaroids and 35mm shots mainly taken within the art and LGBTQIA community – so far in New York, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Paris, London and Berlin – and has not stopped photographing since.
While being an observer and documenter she also creates very own characters to film and photograph. The work’s content opens not only a contemporary dialogue relating to subjects such as gay movement and the meaning of queerness, gender and beauty.
It offers a visual landscape that instead of victimizing a subculture, captures a strength and proof of self empowerment of a highly diverse scene, that may be applied to being a symbolical statement for freedom of self expression and an act of social emancipation at all. Pepper currently lives in Berlin where she works as sound artist and photographer as well as author for several magazines.
In your free time, what kind of pictures do you like to shoot and which ones do you avoid?
Photography is my heart and also part of my job so I guess my free time and my work time merge into one. I shoot people that inspire me; my friends, muses, people I see and connect with. I also admit I take about 50 photos of my two dogs every day too.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I see myself merging my visual work with my sound more. I’m working on my first EP atm and enjoy this autistic work process producing sound with my Cello and laptop, writing, recording voice and distort it. It’s a similar calming workflow like being in the darkroom developing photos. I come from performance art, went over photography to film and always worked with sound. I see it all growing together more and in 5 years I will be still photographing, doing shows and will have produced my next film. Everything is always connected in the end.
Are you a detail oriented person or more of a big picture person?
I’m very impulsive. Although shooting on polaroid a lot and the images per film are limited I don’t hesitate very long to take a shot. Since I only do portraits I guess it’s kind of both – I have my eyes on all the details within the frame but also go with the flow of the moment. I wanna catch this certain something that can be a whole own world within that one pic.
What is your favorite subject to photograph?
People that have a unique aura and people that are brave. I’m obvioulsy drawn to rather eccentric personas with a certain confidence or own energy. I love drags and the looks I spot in the clubs. I was always moved by the big runway shows like McQueen, Galliano and Gareth Pugh and the wildest roots of such imagery and energy you find in queer nightlife.
It’s stopping time for a moment and worshipping this one specific frame. Catching this moment that easily gets lost in the fast motion of every day pace. It’s always just a fragment of a bigger piece or truth. There’s magic to it.
What inspires you?
Characters that stand up, speak up and do their thing. I just watched old Madonna interviews and felt inspired by her again. She’s fun, smart and embodies independence. She really set the ground for many that came after her. Strong women always inspire me and when they are witty on top I’m in love.
Among your works, which one is your favorite? Why?
I love the one of Tarren. It represents an effortless power that cannot be posed. It’s pure, vulnerable and powerful at same time. Also the one of iconic Ryan Burke in front of the East River NY. In one pic the strings of the head piece go right over the skyline of Manhattan in the background. Like a puppeteer in control of the city. Very symbolic.
How do you connect with your subjects? What aids you in getting what you want out of a photo?
I approach people and tell them what I want. I also want them to feel good; ideally have drinks, food, a chat before starting. Mostly I just want them as they are but as soon as they have a cam in their face it’s easily gone. So I may distract them with some tasks or things, conversations or music to then find the moment where they forget the camera. Alternatively we go into the other extreme and find the most absurd poses which is fun. It really depends who it is and you need a sense for what fits the person and moment. A queen is different handling than a young model on their second shoot or something. The best way to photograph someone is to get a connection and enjoy the time together.
You’ve shot with some very interesting people, can you list some of your favorite shoots and why, tell us a little about how they went down?
I shot with very many people and think every encounter is interesting. I’m very grateful for the time in NY so far where I was invited to shoot with established fashion models like Shaun Ross, Melanie Gaydos and Zombie Boy for example. I guess I shot the most extravagant people of New York’s queer nightlife scene too. However, I am just as much grateful for having met the girls on Melrose Ave in LA. I heard before coming to the city that this street was a district where many trans girls were doing sex work. I wanted to meet them and hear about their stories or just hang out. When arriving I walked into a 7/11 where I literally run into one of the girls working on the street there. She looked and me and was like „Hi! Welcome“. So that’s often how it goes it just feels like a family and like we’ve know each other already somehow. Sometimes people are of course not into it and that’s fine. I seriously dislike people taking photos of me. It can make you feel vulnerable. So I feel honored so many people wanted to have their picture taken by me so far.
Where can we find you online?
www.pepperlevain.com and insta @pepperlevain