Builder Levy: Photographer

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Builder Levy,  Toby Moore, Old House Branch Mine, Eastern Coal Company, Pike County, Kentucky, 1970. Courtesy Arnika Dawson Gallery

Over the 50 years that Builder Levy has been photographing, the genre of street photography has gone from being novel to ubiquitous. While the evolution of technology has coincided with the outsourcing of technical skills, Levy continues to shoot film and produce fastidious gold-toned gelatin silver prints. 

A survey of Levy’s work at Arnika Dawkins through November 22 provides an overview of his work that also suggests his values, as seen in his choice of subject matter. Raised in New York in a socially progressive home, Levy has had a lifelong interest in issues of social justice. Influenced by Paul Strand and Helen Levitt, who mentored him, he has consistently sought to represent hard-luck people in troubled times. 

He photographed the Civil Rights struggle and anti-Vietnam protests in the 1960s, and street scenes throughout New York CIty, especially in the poverty-ravaged Brooklyn of the 1960s, ’70s and '80s. In 1968, Levy made his first trip to Appalachian coal-mining country to document the lives of the miners and their families, which he has continued to track over the decades. A selection of those images was published in 2013 as Appalachia USA: Photographs, 1968-2009. Iconic among them is Toby Moore, Old House Branch Mine, Eastern Coal Company, Pike County, Kentucky (1970). In the vein of Walker Evans’s Allie Mae Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama and Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (both 1936), it features a black miner staring directly at the camera, headlamp askew, with a look of tired resignation.  

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Builder Levy, Church and Tipple, 1970. Courtesy Arnika Dawson Gallery

Church and Tipple, shot in West Virginia in 1970, has a Becher-like quality—a dilapidated church building, dingy with soot from the coal-moving tipple behind it, occupies nearly the entire frame, so that two young children standing in front are easily overlooked, their lives literally lived in the shadow of the coal industry. 

Several of Levy’s interests converge in Harlem Peace March (No Vietnamese…) NYC, 1967, which shows two young boys in the foreground and a man holding a sign that says “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger.” In another work from his Civil Rights series, a black woman with a forlorn expression stares past the camera. Titled Martin Luther King Funeral—Woman with Umbrella (1968), its poignancy lies in its understated quality, a magnitude of grief belied by stunned silence.