SVA graduate Gina LeVay explains how she created an MFA thesis project that led to a book deal and a major exhibition, and became a launch pad for a successful career.
If you’re a photography student with a thesis project looming on the horizon, you could do worse than to follow the example of Gina LeVay. The work that she began as a thesis project for her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York not only earned her a degree but turned into a published book and a major exhibit in New York’s Grand Central Terminal that launched her career as a professional photographer and brought her both media attention and accolades. We asked her how she planned and executed her Sandhogs project photographing excavation workers in New York City, and what she did to put the advantages of being a student to work to establish herself as the successful New York-based photographer she is today.
Photo courtesy of Gina LeVay. You can view a selection of her work in the gallery above. To see more of her work, visit her website.
Aimee Baldridge: What is your educational background?
Gina LeVay: I went to NYU and I was a European Studies and Spanish Literature major. I also took classes in photography at Tisch, and I always did photography on my own. When I graduated, I went to Berlin to do my first photo essay, because my college thesis was on recent German culture and reunification. When I got back, I had that work and I wanted to apply for grants, and I realized that I didn’t have any credentials for photography. So I got my MFA in Photography, Video, and Related Media at SVA’s MFA program. I graduated in 2004. Before being an MFA student, I worked as a photo editor at a magazine for two years. I think that was really fundamental, too, in knowing how to produce shoots, how to produce an idea.
AB: How did you come up with the idea for the Sandhogs project?
Gina LeVay: I started the Sandhogs project in August 2003, after the infamous blackout in New York. I was just starting my last year of the MFA program and thinking about what to do for my thesis, and about the infrastructure of the city, how it works. I thought maybe I could do portraiture with workers who make the city run. At that point, I had no idea about the sandhogs.
A friend of mine works at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is the agency that runs the water system in New York, and he mentioned the sandhogs to me. When I did some research, I was just fascinated by the fact that this enormous feat of engineering was happening 800 feet below New York City and I had no idea about it, especially that these guys were risking their lives to secure something vital to New York City, which was the water supply. So I immediately became set on the idea that that was what I was going to do for my thesis project. It took me from August to the end of December to get access down to the tunnels.
AB: What were the requirements for your thesis?
Gina LeVay: It was just a body of work that you had to defend in the orals committee at the end of the school year. It could be anything as long as there was some photographic element in it. You had to write a five- or ten-page statement on it drawing from historical, theoretical, and critical sources. But my thesis took the form of a website. I defended a website called thesandhogsproject.com, which is not up anymore. It included photos and video that I did during half a year working with the sandhogs. I felt that the website would be the first stage of a public art project.
AB: So from the beginning of the project, the way it would be publicly presented was part of what shaped the project itself?
Gina LeVay: From the inception of it, I always thought big. I thought it could be a public art installation. I wanted to figure out ways through the visual arts that I could spark the public’s imagination and awareness of what was going on.
AB: How long did you work on the project?
Gina LeVay: I started trying to get access in November 2003 and worked on it until November 2009, which is when my book came out. I wasn’t working on it non-stop for the six years, but I would say from January to April when I had to get my thesis ready, I was working on it every day.
When I graduated, I knew I wasn’t done. It wasn’t just a thesis project. I was really blessed with having the access and really fortunate to see this historic process going on in New York City. So I continued to photograph the sandhogs. Starting in December 2004 to 2006, I was going every other month, and then I had the opportunity to do the Grand Central show in January 2006. That was such a whirlwind.
After that, I really didn’t work on it for a year because I was focused on getting my commercial career going and didn’t start again until 2007. I really enjoyed having that hiatus because when I came back I felt that I’d changed as a photographer. I was more at ease when I was down there later on because I didn’t have any thesis to work on or a show. I was just having fun experimenting with exposure and technique, and focusing more on the guys. That was what really fueled my interest—the sandhogs and their personalities and camaraderie.
AB: What did you shoot with?
Gina LeVay: I mostly shot with a Mamiya RZ67 6x7 camera, which is my workhorse. I shot with Fuji 800-speed film, and I’d always push it two stops. The Fujifilm was great, and the RZ—I just beat that up so badly. But it always produced. In the studio I used the Mamiya 645 with a Leaf back. We increased the file 400 to 600 percent, and the results were just great, just unbelievable.
AB: When you were first planning this project as a student, what did you expect of it? Where did you expect it to go?
Gina LeVay: I didn’t know. I knew it wasn’t just a student project. But at the same time I had no expectations for it. I didn’t rush it. I would always get kind of anxious when I would see a story on the news about the water tunnel or the sandhogs. I was a little anxious that people were going to take my idea. But then I realized that I don’t own the idea, but what I do have control over and own is my vision and what I do with it.
When I was a student I never thought of myself as a student. I always tell people that when you’re a student you should always try to take your work seriously. Don’t think, “This is just a student project, a student assignment.” No. This is the real-world stuff. A lot of the stuff I did even before the Sandhogs project, for the MFA program, I used for my commercial portfolio when I graduated. I always thought big.
AB: When you started, did the fact that you were a student help you get any access or resources?
Gina LeVay: Yes, it was harder and it was also easier. It was easier because I wasn’t a reporter trying to do an exposé on why it was taking the city so long to do this project or why it was costing tax payers so much money. They thought, “Oh, it’s a student thing. It won’t be that visible.” But at the same time, because I wasn’t established and didn’t have credentials, that was difficult too. So I drew upon the chair of my department, Charles Traub. He wrote a letter and had a contact at the mayor’s office that I could speak to.
I also had the time as a student to go there. I was able to hang out, because I didn’t have any other priorities than to do my work. So I would just go there and hang out above ground with the sandhogs, not even taking any pictures but just getting to know them. That was really key. At first they thought I was crazy. They asked, “What are you doing here? What’s interesting about us? Do you have a father in construction? Why do you care?”
I got to meet the union leader, and that was probably the most influential thing that happened, because the union leader really believed in what I was trying to do and he had a connection with the commissioner of the DEP. So, I basically went around the gatekeepers of the DEP, who had kept telling me, “No, you’re not allowed.” Once I met the commissioner it was smooth sailing.
AB: Did you get any grants or funding for the project?
Gina LeVay: I got a grant in 2006 from the Visual Arts Foundation. That was put towards the Grand Central show. When I had the opportunity to do that installation, I got a lot of funding for the actual show. I got sponsors via the international labor union and a few other sources. During the actual project, Fujifilm sponsored me by giving me film. And for the show they gave me Fujitrans for the lightboxes in the show.
The formal portraits in the show were shot in a studio. I couldn’t afford a day in the studio with digital capture equipment and a Leaf back, so that was given to me by one of the Splashlight studio owners. I met him at an opening there. We were introduced and started talking, and I told him what I was working on and he thought it was great. They were so supportive of what my idea was and what I wanted to do.
When you’re starting out as an emerging photographer, you’d be surprised at how many people like to feel invested in your ideas or your career and want to help you, as long as you have a passion and belief in what you’re doing.
I was also fortunate that MAC Group was really generous with helping me out with the project.
AB: How did your connection with MAC Group come about?
Gina LeVay: I met [MAC Group rep] Cliff Hausner in 2003 at the Eddie Adams Workshop. The Eddie Adams Workshop was just so influential in my career. Every year since, I’ve been back as a member of the staff helping run the workshop, and not only did I meet MAC Group there and make a wonderful connection that has continued to support me and take an interest in my career, but I also met editors in the field. One of the connections I made nominated me for the PDN 30 award. I think that was really helpful to launch my career. I recommend the workshop for anybody. It’s not just for photojournalism. I applied with portraiture and more conceptual work.
AB: How did the Grand Central show come about?
Gina LeVay: I talked to the union leader one June day, and he said, “Hey Gina, you should probably send some images over to Grand Central, because we’re going to start work on the East Side Access project, which is connecting the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central. We’re going to start breaking ground soon, so maybe you could contact them; they might like it.” So I wrote a letter and included some of my pictures. And the MTA [New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority] said, “This is a great idea, and we could probably waive the rental fee for you. In the main hall, it’s usually $10,000 a day, but we could probably give you half the hall for a week for ten grand.” So I said, “Sure, I can probably raise ten grand somewhere.”
That wasn’t even half the battle, because the whole thing came out to be very expensive, almost $100,000 to do the installation. The people at Grand Central put me in touch with an event manager who could figure out what I needed. There’s so much stuff when you do any kind of art installation—insurance, fire safety, hiring approved vendors to do the installation, press sponsors . . . the whole thing blossomed into a big production. They donated their PR firm, which is the best PR firm in the city, to work on promoting the exhibit. I was all over TV; I was in publications; NPR did something.
I was totally fearless. I think that if someone told me now that in four months I’d have to raise 100 grand and put on a show, I’d say “No, that’s crazy!” But I said “Let’s just do it,” and I was convinced that somehow the money would just come. I look back at it now, and it’s a good reminder to think big and have no fear.
AB: Why do you think Grand Central was so generous with you?
Gina LeVay: I think they were really excited about it. I think they saw no ulterior motive aside from enthusiasm and passion for the work and the sandhogs, and I think they thought it was cool. It also was a topic that they knew New Yorkers would be interested in. So that played a huge part too—the subject matter that I was working with.
AB: When did you decide to make the book?
Gina LeVay: In 2008. I always in the back of my mind thought it would be a book. Marcel Saba at [photo agency] Redux recommended that I contact powerHouse Books. He sent an intro e-mail, and powerHouse immediately jumped on the idea and were very excited about publishing this kind of book.
AB: How did the process of publishing the book work?
Gina LeVay: We talked about what type of book I was envisioning, and I chose to hire an outside designer, Daniel Stark. I also had a photo editor that I wanted to work with, Allison Torrisi, the photo director at Popular Mechanics. She was the first editor who published my work in a magazine, in 2004. I definitely knew that she would be the editor because she was so familiar with the work over the years. The three of us had a creative meeting, and we had to get the hundreds and hundreds of images down to four or five hundred, and then three hundred, and then from there we chose the final eighty-three images that are in the book.
Then I secured a great person to write the introduction, Bonnie Yochelson, a longtime curator at the Museum of the City of New York and also a critic who writes about photography and especially photography in New York. I met her through the MFA program. I had the foreword written by an ex-sandhog who is now a novelist, Tom Kelly.
It took us from the fall of 2008 to the spring of 2009 to choose the design and do the edit, and then it was printed during the summer. powerHouse was great, because they allowed me the freedom to do that.
AB: Did doing the project help you become a professional?
Gina LeVay: Definitely. I got the PDN 30 because of the project. I think it really helped me define for people I was working with the kind of work I would do, the dedication and seriousness I was working with. That really helped to launch my career.
It’s really important to have a long-term project. I’m not saying it has to be six years, but any kind of project you can come back to and not just a one-day shoot. It really helps you define your aesthetics, how you shoot, how you work with people. And people in a hiring position, whether it’s at an ad agency or a magazine or a gallery, they like to see that. They like to see a body of work. It not only shows your style but it also shows your dedication. And I think that’s huge—to know how to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
Having to communicate with people who weren’t in my MFA community was huge. I think a lot of artists don’t know how to talk about their work, and I think the key to success when you work with people outside of your immediate community is to know how to talk about your work so that they understand it.
I also learned how to get beyond the gatekeepers or talk to the gatekeepers at a certain place. I do that all the time. For my Bull Fight show, I needed to get access to the plaza that no women are allowed in. You have to learn how to present yourself to people who really don’t care that you want to do a photo project.
AB: What advice would you give to students who are thinking about projects to work on and how to launch their own careers?
Gina LeVay: Find something that you love to shoot, that you’re intrigued by, that will keep you going back and shooting.
It’s really important when you’re working on a project that involves people to form that relationship without the camera. When I was working with the sandhogs, the first months I was there I wasn’t really photographing, and that was kind of nice. I didn’t show up with a camera. I just wanted to relate to them on a human level. I also became invested in the community. I was invited to picnics.
If you work with people and they’re giving you their time but you don’t have money to pay, you can bring back photos to show your appreciation. Never forget who you meet, and always stay in touch with them. Send them e-mail once or twice a year, saying hey, here’s some new work. People like to keep you on their radar, and I think that’s really important as well.
Always think of yourself as a professional. Have respect for yourself and people will respect you and not just think of you as a student.
Apply to as many grants and competitions as you can with your projects. Even though you might not win or you might not get the grand prize, you can get so much exposure. You never know who’s on that committee. They might think of you down the road for something. I met with a gallerist two years ago about the Sandhogs work and he didn’t think it was the right fit for his gallery, but he did tell me to show my work to the curators of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. That was 2009, and I just got e-mail recently from the curators about being part of their group show.
You have to have patience. Sometimes the immediate goal might not be realized, but it’s all about networking and meeting people and putting your work out there.