Urban Portraits

Photo Essay

By Juliet Lapidos

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
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Born to a Jewish family in New York City, Serge J-F. Levy worked as a photojournalist for 10 years, publishing his work in such magazines as Harper’s, ESPN and Life before turning to the art world. His first major solo exhibition in the United States, In Private, which is showing at Gallery 339 in Philadelphia, is anchored in the traditions of street photography. Levy’s candid photographs of strangers in the urban landscape capture flickers of emotion that burst out of people in moments of intense passion. These flickers make private thoughts visible and hint at broad internal dialogues.

The photographs are primarily aesthetic objects, but they also have a social message, which Levy describes as “the need for empathy, interaction, and acceptance within the great diversity of the human personality.” Levy worries that the public realm is becoming increasingly unfamiliar and uncomfortable as Americans spend more time in the private sanctuaries of house and car. His photographs jolt the viewer out of self-enforced isolation and encourage connection.

Levy’s belief in the importance of identification between strangers derives, at least in part, from his personal history. The descendant of a Nazi concentration camp survivor, he says he is constantly reminded of the extreme passivity and indifference with which Europeans responded to the plight of their one-time neighbors. Levy’s artwork has garnered him numerous awards, including the W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts and recognition in contests sponsored by magazines The Photo Review and American Photo. For the duration of his street-photography project, he never left home without a roll of 35 mm film in his pocket and a camera around his neck.


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