This event and workshop seems like a deconstructed and democratized media venture blended with a salon-like photo club. Did you feel prepped for this environment having worked in magazines?
Yeah. I mean, essentially I am a content-driven person, so I am a sponge for information. This is really about getting a broad spectrum of people interested and feeling that they could find something in workshops. It kind of mirrored an editorial staff. Levi’s set certain criteria of things I had to make my way through — we did food photography, sports photography; you know, not necessarily areas of expertise that I’d come across before with editorial, but it was easy to find my way. You just follow the dots and you know enough people to ask the questions. And that came up with someone called Art Brewer who happened to be in town, who is a world- renowned surf photographer. It is a broad, mass appeal they wanted and that was a great challenge as I feel magazines are often limited.
Was it difficult to get people to engage? What were your fears about getting this kind of a massive event off the ground?
Nothing scared me at all. Obviously I was lucky in that it was the second time that Levi’s had done this so there was a certain amount of online goodwill toward the venture since they started it (with a design-focused event) in San Francisco. To take part in a second iteration, some of the battle is already done. I suppose the initial fear would be that, as most people in New York are very savvy and brand-aware, there would be some kind of sense of suspicion or cynicism toward a brand sponsoring a studio. But it didn’t take much to convince people that it was a genuine, altruistic, community-based venture. One of the other things that has been fantastic is that Levi’s has aligned themselves with four nonprofits who benefit from any sales. There is a small commercial element in the store area and any money that is raised and through other ventures — we’re doing a big portrait event here on Thursday where people have to pay for their portraits — will raise funds for the nonprofits.
Cynicism does sound appropriate to New Yorkers, but there does seem to be some precedent for this type of endeavor — Nike has done similar projects — where big brands are trying to get down into a more street-level scale and be interactive. Is there a great benefit, do you think, in these brands going to the people?
I can’t speak for the brand. I’ve been involved with both Nike and Levi’s and I hope there will be more like this going forward, and I do think there is a need to genuinely engage with the public, who feel the generosity of the brand, if you like. There is a need for human interaction. People have used this as a social club. I have people come up to me, grieving that it is coming to an end on Saturday. As much as there are so many online communities that we know about, I don’t want to be too comparative, but obviously there is still a need for interaction. The amazing thing here is this incredible group of people here who are the workshop staff, teaching all different walks of life how to take pictures — we’ve worked our way through school kids with the Five Boroughs Foundation of Photography camera club, which teaches kids with no art programs — we had 40 of them here the other day and one of the staff was teaching them how to use a $40, 000 Leica camera in a studio environment they would never have access to. As much as you can teach yourself things, you can’t replace human interaction with something as hands-on as taking pictures. There have also been all sorts of masters here — we had Bruce Davidson in conversation doing a master class on Thursday night, and we live-streamed it on the Web and had thousands and thousands of people asking questions online.
Levi’s whole brand concept seems to be about empowerment with “Go Forth,” and they really seek to have a reputation for craftsmanship — all of which seems to fit snugly with this sort of project. How was it for you working with a brand like that that could open an opportunity like that to broadcast simultaneously to thousands of people?
I think it was amazing. I was reading the questions out to Bruce and it seemed like such a brilliant way to do things, to have a hub where there is a genuine master class going on. Levi’s was very conscious that it not be just people who can make it to 18 Wooster. We have a very active Web site — we’re blogging, we’re posting, we’ve made quite a few films that have been seen by a lot of people.
Seeing through the prism of your experience, what have you learned from this about media moving forward? Is this a new template for organizing democratic creative projects?
I would like to think this is the way things would go. Obviously there is an enormous amount of funding that you need to have a free photo workshop for 10 weeks. That’s not something a magazine could take on unless it had a commercial partner. But I think the live experience has been amazing — I literally think of it like making a magazine but it’s not down to printing, it’s about experiencing it.
Lessons learned, are you all eager to do it all over again?
Yep. As I say, I have a decade working in magazines and have enjoyed it immensely and I think this is a natural progression and I think everyone benefits from it. Not to say that Levi’s isn’t considering their brand message and what they get out of it, but as an employer they’ve been extraordinarily free — once they know you’re on the right direction they let you get on with it.
Do you feel a great hurrah coming on with this party on Saturday?
Yeah! I mean, it’s not without regret. One could keep on programming forever. With the genuine goodwill created by this atmosphere here more and more people are coming forward, volunteering their efforts — hey, I could do a panel session; I could work with kids; here’s another charity we could be working with — but it’s obviously finite (and, I think, necessarily so). And Levi’s is moving on to their planning for next year.