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Interview with Kim Levin, Kim Levin Photography

I am happy to be interviewing Kim Levin, Kim Levin Photography.  Kim has been photographing dogs and working as an animal welfare activist for many years.  Please read my interview below also containing some of Kim’s work. 

KATHERINE CARVER: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

KIM LEVIN: I bought my first camera when I was twelve-years-old with babysitting money I had earned. My favorite subjects back then were my friends and my dogs ironically.  I also loved taking landscape images.  In college (I graduated from the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University), I took several photography courses, however, I graduated with a BA in advertising.

I was working in the advertising business in New York for about seven years and continued to take photography courses at the International Center of Photography.  At about the five year mark in the ad business, I realized that I wanted to pursue a different path.  I had always had a passion for dogs and animal welfare so I started a personal project called Create A Home.  I went to the National ASPCA and took portraits of the dogs there, and created posters to help raise awareness about animal adoption.  This was back in 1996 when there weren’t a lot of animal photographers.  In fact, it was a relatively new niche and I felt that it was one that I could excel at.

In 1996, I began my pet portrait business, Bark & Smile Pet Portraits, and by 1998, I left my full-time job in advertising to pursue my photography.  I also had my first book, Why We Love Dogs  (Andrews McMeel), coming out that fall of 1998 and so it seemed like the timing was right.  I was also young (I was twenty-eight-years-old when my first book came out) and I didn’t have the commitments that I now have that would have held me back.

While in advertising, I learned a lot about brand management working for blue chip clients like Nabisco and Avon so I figured what better brand to manage than my own.  After several years of my photography business I changed the name of my business to Kim Levin Photography because at that point I had many books published under my name and I felt that my name had more equity in it than Bark & Smile.

KATHERINE CARVER: Did you study photography formally, or are you self-taught?

KIM LEVIN: Essentially I am self-taught.  As mentioned above, I did take several photography courses in college and right afterwards, but I have never had formal training.

KATHERINE CARVER: How do you balance your personal work and your commercial work?  Does one feed the other?  Or does the commercial work support your passion?

KIM LEVIN: I never tend to think of it as two separate entities.  For the first ten years of my business, I concentrated on the publishing end of things primarily because that was an area that had momentum.  I would finish one book and I would already be on the next big idea by the time that book came out.  My last gift book came out in 2010  – it’s called Dogplay, the Canine Guide to Being Happy, and I have to admit I was kind of stumped on what to work on next.  I had published 18 dog and cat gift books by this point and I wanted to re-group and really figure out what personal project would excite me.

I always continue to try to build my commercial work but what has worked best for me, is to find a project that I care about or have passion about and then the work tends to follow.

One of the new projects I do have coming out developed out of a personal loss.  Two years ago, we lost our beloved dog Charlie.  It was heartbreaking for me because he was my first dog as an adult and even though I now have two children, I felt his loss deeply.  A friend and colleague of mine (who I collaborated on Dogma with in 2002) had also lost her dog within the same few weeks.  We subsequently created a new sympathy book and card line called Saying Goodbye (licensed by Sharper Cards) which is coming out this year.

KATHERINE CARVER: What was the impetus that inspired you to begin shooting dogs (and other animals)?  Did you always intend for it to be published in book form?

KIM LEVIN: Initially, I just wanted to take dog pictures.  I worked hard to develop my own style and created a niche business that combined doing commissioned assignments with licensing and publishing on the side.  I figured out pretty quickly that if I wanted to make my living as a pet portrait artist, I would have to find a way to showcase my work.  So the books and products evolved from there.  My first book came out prior to any of my other licensed work (cards, journals, calendars), however, that was not my original intention.  But it sort of laid the groundwork for everything that came thereafter.

KATHERINE CARVER: Can you discuss your personal and ongoing involvement as an animal welfare activist?

KIM LEVIN: This too has evolved over the years.  After I started the first project I mentioned called Create A Home, I worked on the National ASPCA’s annual calendar for four years.   At this point, I was already living in New Jersey and I wanted to help with my local shelter so I started a calendar program with the Monmouth County SPCA which ran for four years as well.  That program raised over $100,000.00 for the shelter and it helped create the lasting partnership I have had with them over the years.  Last summer, I was proud to have photographed their very first advertising campaign. Print and outdoor ads ran through Monmouth County, New Jersey.

I have always felt that each and every animal photographer in this country can make a tremendous difference through their photography and affiliate themselves with their local shelters promoting animal adoption.  I know many who do and it is this grassroots effort that will make a difference for the millions of homeless animals in the United States.


KATHERINE CARVER: Where do you teach photography?

KIM LEVIN: I  have been teaching adult education photography courses at Brookdale Community College (located in New Jersey) for three years now.

KATHERINE CARVER: Where do you show your work?

KIM LEVIN: I have my work displayed at various locations (local vet hospitals, numerous New Jersey shelters, local coffee shops and the various libraries in my area).  The Monmouth County SPCA also has prints from the four years of calendars that I photographed gracing the walls of their new facility.

KATHERINE CARVER: What gear to you use?  Are there any favorite lenses you keep on your camera most often?

KIM LEVIN: My main camera is a Nikon D200.  I use my 18-70mm wide-angle lens most often, but I recently purchased an 80-200mm telephoto lens that I love.  I don’t have as much a need to use it though.  I also use a Photoflex Light when I am shooting indoors.

KATHERINE CARVER: Looking back on your accomplishments, what are you the most proud of?

KIM LEVIN: That’s a tough one to answer!  There are several books I have tackled over the years that when I finished I said, “that was really hard to shoot!”  The first one I can think of was called Working Dogs. Tales from Animal Planet’s K9-5 World  (Discover Books/Random House).  I was hired by the Discovery to travel for two months across the county and photograph working dogs. I had to book all of my own travel and traverse the country in two months. I was a fish out of water but I had the opportunity to photograph the eighth generation Lassie and the Governor Jessie Ventura and his dog for the book.

The next difficult book I completed was my book entitled, Frenemies. Lessons from Cats and Dogs about Getting Along (Stewart Tabori and Chang).  Each shoot was with a cat and dog together and you can only imagine some of the scenes I encountered.  About a third of all the shoots I did, didn’t work out but I was happy with how the final book turned out.

PhoDOGraphy. How to Take Great Dog Pictures (Amphoto Books) was particularly challenging for a different reason.  I had five months to write the book which was essentially a “how to” book about dog portraiture. The photography was the easy part because most of it had been photographed, however, writing about how you take a certain picture was challenging.  I woke up every morning at 6:00 am to work on the book for five months because my children were 4 and 2 years old at the time and I couldn’t work on it during the day or night!

The last accomplishment I will always remember was photographing the rescue dogs at Ground Zero in 2001.  I was given an assignment from Bark Magazine to cover the rescue effort and it was inspiring to see the unbelievable work the dogs and their handlers did.  It was a time I will never forget.

KATHERINE CARVER: What are you working on now?

KIM LEVIN: I have been working hard on my Molly & Fig™ card and magnet line.  I am also in the process of determining my next bigger book project.  As I stated earlier, I have waited some time to find a project I will be inspired by.  I am also looking forward to the Saying Goodbye book to come out from Sharper Cards this fall.  The book will be a gift to their vet network throughout United States and Canada.

KATHERINE CARVER: What photographer(s) inspire your work?

KIM LEVIN: I love Mary Ellen Mark.  She is the consummate photo-documentarian.  From the dog photography world, Elliot Erwitt has always been a big inspiration as well as William Wegman.

To see more of Kim Levin’s work, please visit her website.

All images are courtesy of Kim Levin.

You can read additional interviews here.

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