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 Interview with Fred Leavitt
I am very honoured to be talking to you, albeit on the internet, as I admire your work tremendously. I am specially interested in your Artwork, being a digital artist myself. I think that this work is so much more revealing - of yourself, as a person

Hi Carol, My mind is open for your questions, so lets both grab a life line and see if we can find its center.

Fred, you certainly have had an incredibly interesting life. Your distinguished photographic career has taken you all over the world, dealing with many aspects of photography - which we will touch upon later. You have written three books, have work in major museums, including the Vatican collection in Rome, were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and have worked on assignments for numerous national magazines, including National Geographic, Look and Life - to name just a few of your achievements. You, interestingly ,have now turned your energies to using a computer. It is this aspect of your work that I find very revealing, of yourself, as a person. In your artist's statement, you have said that photography, to you, was an art form that had credibility to it - working with the realities of the physical world was of such importance that you were not interested, at that point ,in making ANY alterations to a photograph. The image had to be what you saw through the viewfinder of the camera, in all its rightness. The advent of the computer seems to have questioned your integrity, until the realisation that the physical realities of the world are not the only realities. The artwork on your website, (and what a glorious website it is!) shows an inner reality of great wonder. The series of Biblical images from Genesis are very beautiful and profound. I wonder if you are a religious person - or were the words themselves the inspiration? Were the images formed already in your mind before their execution - or was there a germ of an idea, which grew with the digital process

In answer to your Questions about Seven Days of Creation:

The project began as a challenge in March 2000 from Dr.Carmilita Lim in Sebring Florida. She asked if I could use digital imaging to illustrate The Seven Days of Creation. If she liked the results she would purchase a set as a Christmas present for her husband. I was intrigued by the challenge but not at ease with the subject matter.

I am Jewish, from the tribe of Levit (the religious leaders in the Old Testament), but have had no religious training. I never read or owned a Bible. This is not to say I donít believe in God. My lifeís experience has taught me of His existence, protection and guidance. I have skimmed the tenets of a number of religions but never joined a group. My religion remained a one-on-one kind of thing. Illustrating Bible verses was out of my comfort zone.

I decided to do a test with Day One before committing to the project. Inspired by a cantaloupe, the concept and rendition came together within a week, and I enjoyed the process. Drs.Carmilita and Abraham Lim liked the image so I committed to the project.

Day Two was another matter altogether. I tried and failed a number of times. After weeks of work I would tear up the print and start again. I would read and reread the verse. I just couldnít get it. Reluctantly I dropped it and went on to another Day.

By this time my wife Gail, myself, and our two dogs moved into our motor home and were traveling the country to do an art show circuit and enable me to photograph the various elements I would need to create the images for the project. I built a computer station in the motor home so I could work at night blending and bending my photographs into the digital illustrations for the series.

The concept for Day Three presented itself to me shortly after reading the verse. It took, however, 2 months to finish as I had to wait until we reached the Rocky Mountains to find the waterfall I needed to complete the picture.

When I resumed work on Day Two I was a thousand miles away from my starting point and in a different state of mind. I reread the verse and its meaning came clear to me. When God separated the waters from the waters it would create a greenhouse effect and our atmosphere. The waters above were to become the ocean of fresh water in the clouds that surround our globe. He laid the groundwork for what would become the earthís circulatory system and the rains that make life possible.

Furthermore when he created the firmament that he called heaven and placed it between the waters it meant (to me) that heaven must be between sea level and the clouds. What a thought, Heaven is another dimension of here. We are not alone in our space. With my new understanding of the verse the illustration came together.

In Day Four I took a more literal approach. The concept of day and night on the mountain was in mind as I searched the country for the right landscape and sky elements to use in the image.

From there we traveled the Pacific Coast and I got the whale pictures I needed to do Day Five. The image was mostly pre-conceived taking a literal approach to the verse. Once I shot the whales, Day Five came together with the excitement I felt in creating the first four days.

We drove to Death Valley for wilderness shots then to the state of Washington, in order to get photographs of a rainforest for Day Six.

By the time we reached Arizona in early November 2000 we were on our way back to Sebring. I had all the elements I needed to work on Day Six. The Bible passage tells us that this was the day that God created man and woman, as well as, the beasts and Ďeverything that creepeth upon the earthí. I knew I should represent every major category of animal, to include arachnid, amphibian, reptile, foul, fish mammal and insect.

I brought unto the canvas all the elements I needed and let the image shape itself by adding and subtracting pieces to make the composition work. I decided to stay in the desert outside Benson Arizona to work on it.

Two parts of the verse had me somewhat confused. Later in the Bible it is stated that God made woman from Adams rib, so how is it that He created woman on Day Six? I thought about what seemed like a conflict for quite a while until it dawned on me that God must have first made woman inside man and separated them later.

 Also, the only time the plural for God is used in any of the passages is in Day Six when God said "Let us make man in our image". I asked my wife, who had a strong Christian upbringing and is well versed in the Bible. She gave me a short explanation of the trinity. I didnít think too much about and went ahead putting the image together.

I fell into a work frenzy for five days and nights putting together the fifty-some photographs that make up Day Six. It was then, in the quiet darkness of the Arizona desert about 3 a.m. that an astonishing thing occurred.

 

 
 

I had completed the composition for Day Six and went to add a spotlight effect that would highlight Adam and add some drama to the picture. I have done this many times, but something happened that never happened before. Instead of the single white spotlight I expected three spotlights, a red, blue, and green one appeared in a triangular formation.
How could this happen?
I only programmed in one spotlight. My first reaction was dismay. I couldnít understand it and backed away from the screen to see what it did to my picture.

The three spotlights were exact in their placement. They not only added drama but color and mystery as well. Their position in the image created a cross in the landscape that echoes the cross shape of Adam, Eve, the butterfly and the bird. This was too perfect to be an accident. Then it hit me, three lights, the Trinity, the reason for the plural used in the verse for Day Six. The Trinity was there on the day man was created.

Right away I also realized that the colors of the spotlights were no accident. They are the primary colors, the colors from which all other colors are made, and when combined as colored lights make pure white light.

Chills went up my spine. I was not alone. I looked around the small room knowing that I would not see anyone, yet certain something much bigger then me was there. The Trinity put itself in the picture. I knew my life would never be the same again, I was given a gift, and a responsibility to share it.

When Gail woke up and saw the picture she started crying. "Why did you put the Lamb and the butterfly in the picture? Do you know they are Christian symbols"? Of course I didnít. "And those three lights. They must be the Trinity. How on Earth did you make this picture? I told her that I am not so sure I did, and explained what happened during the night.

The verse in Day Seven states that on the seventh day God ended his work. He then rested and sanctified the day. To me this meant that He completed his work before resting. The image was in my mind before I started it. I returned to the cosmic view of Day One that shows earth as an empty sphere to show it as a completed sphere in Day Seven. The hand and blue light symbolizes Godís sanctification of the day. I placed Adam and Eve at rest in the center of the sphere to show that man and woman were the reason for all that went before them.

When we returned to Sebring I still had two months work ahead of me enlarging, polishing and learning the technology that would make the prints archival. A year had passed before I had a set of mounted prints.

Thanks Fred - that was wonderful.

You answered my question so beautifully. Your account of the making of the Seven Days of Creation and the subsequent revelation was totally moving. (My only regret is that I want to click on those images to see them in detail!) Your journey was in more ways than one. I would love to linger and stay on this subject - but we must move on to your other works - I'm wondering if you feel the same intensity about your other artwork? Your pictures of animals, for instance. (This category seems to sit well with the Seven Days - - from polar bears to elephants - more extensive travel!) Have the other artwork categories, been as equally engrossing as the Seven Days? The digital imaging process does bring an extra dimension in that you can maybe express something more of yourself in an image? Has that question of integrity been resolved now?

I have produced several large bodies of work that have taken a year or longer to complete. Each has been intense and all consuming. However, illustrating The Seven Days of Creation turned out to be more than that. I experienced an epiphany that changed my life.

Producing the Animals was a different kind of experience. I love animals not only for themselves, but their variety, shape, texture and design fascinates me. Each type is so unique, complicated and perfect for their environment. Nature in all its design complexities has me in awe. I see God in it.

When I did the photographs for the book Lies (People Believe) about Animals I placed white seamless paper behind the animals (pre-digital) and photographed them in B/W. I wanted to show them without color or camouflage. The viewer was left with just the shape and texture of the animal in the picture. This made the image more abstract so that the power of an animalís special design could be discovered.

When I got into digital manipulation my imagination would take charge. I would photograph an animal (in the wild and in zoos) and stare at its picture until the animalís design and/or texture triggered a concept and composition in my mind. Each animal in its uniqueness brought forward a picture. The animals stimulated my imagination in the direction of beauty, symmetry and whimsy. My imagination was now redefining reality. This was exicting and energising, if not downright addictive. It was working on the Animal Collection that got me hooked on digital and became the training ground for the Seven Days of Creation.

As a photographer I express myself by what I choose to photograph, in what light, at what moment. And to that I would add my choices of camera, film, lens, shutter speed and F-stop, all of which combine to make a photograph unique. With all the personal choices involved my photographs cannot help but carry a part of me in them. But they speak to our common experiences.

With digital imaging I add more of myself to the picture. I add my fantasies that can challenge ones sense of reality and my imagination that expresses my view of life and beyond.

The question of integrity is not an issue with what is obviously a digital manipulation. The problem is with the digital enhancement or altering of a picture that goes under the pretense of being a strait photograph. For myself I put the issue at rest by separating and clearly labeling my work as to what is a digital image and what is a photograph.

You have described the artworks which are about your discovery of "nature" - and I would like to ask you about "Chicago", the photographs which were commissioned by the Chicago Council on Fine Arts. I was about to say, that this was a very different subject - an "urban" landscape. Then, on your website, you say that on your return to Chicago, you saw the city as "a part of nature, as an ant hill or bee hive would be." An interesting idea. The two years that you spent producing this photographic essay were obviously fascinating - and must have given you much insight into people as well as the city. You have 3 books out and have work in major museums and galleries -all achievements in themselves. Did you originally set out to be successful - and do your commercial projects and artistry go easily hand in hand?

When you are living in a big city for awhile it becomes its own reality. It is a world of man, and man and his affairs become the world. It is easy to forget the power, grandeur and mystery of nature.

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My spirit of adventure pried me away from Chicago at a time that my career was blossoming. I, along with my wife and 8-month son, moved aboard our 35í sailboat and headed down the Mississippi River to points South.

Man shrinks in importance when you are in a small boat on a big ocean looking up at the universe. I turned my attention and camera toward nature, the Wetlands in particular.

It was three years before I returned to Chicago. I saw the city and its inhabitants as a part of nature. It fascinated me and I was compelled to photograph it. I couldnít stop I would roam the city daily with cameras ignoring my career and financial responsibilities.

After about a year of this I was all but broke. I was out of balance and had to get some assignment work going.

I got into corporate and architectural photography. My sense of aesthetics is what I got hired for. I would challenge myself on each assignment to create photographs I would want for my own. I enjoyed it.

When I was not on assignment I would go back to photographing the city and its people. It was a never-ending theater of human drama with an urban backdrop. This went on for five years.

Did I originally set out to be successful?

I got into photography because I loved it. I started out doing magazine work. As a photojournalist I enjoyed witnessing lives, places and events that would not otherwise be available to me. I had reward in the knowledge that my work would bee seen by large numbers of people and could help us understand each other a little more. I am on a somewhat different path now but I never expected to get rich, nor have I.

We each have to define success for ourselves. To make a living at what I love to do, enrich the lives of other people and leave something of value behind to mark my lives passage will do for me. In this regard I always wanted to be successful and will continue to strive.

Thanks for that Fred - an inspiring comment for every aspiring photographer. It's not the material things that are the most important in this life and you have given us some wonderful insight into this question. Your experiences, of personal growth, have surely come from intensive communication with nature and absolute dedication to your work, in its every aspect. Your family too, have experienced travel as not many others do. I think it is remarkable that you all go off into the world of discovery together. A rare family I think! Did you have a favourite place amongst your travels? Is there a plan for the future - involving a new project, or further travel? By the way, your web design projects are something else! You gave the impression that you were a recent user of the computer - but you're a natural! You obviously love the computer and the interactivity of the web.

Carol, Thank you for your kind remarks.

My favorite place has to fall into two catagories. For the beauty of the landscape and mystery it is the North of Napal. For the most hospitible and welcoming people it was Thailand.

As for my plans for the future, I never force the issue. The future has a tendency to reveal itself in the form of opportunities and coincedences. I remain open to them.


FRED LEAVITT GALLERY

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