Diana Levine's New York photography career is a name-dropper's dream

March 1, 2011

Imagine you're a recent college graduate living in one of the greatest cities in the world. Your job is to take fabulous photos of big-time celebrities while you travel to exciting places, honing skills that are lighting the career path you chose when you were still in school.

It might seem like a sweet fantasy, but that's real life for Diana Rose Levine '07. And anyone who knows her also understands that she works hard for each success and shares her talent and enthusiasm at every opportunity.

Much of her job involves photographing popular musicians, bands and public personalities. Her work has taken her to Miami, Los Angeles, London, Chicago, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Detroit and beyond. She's been up-close and personal with dozens of pop-culture notables, including Alicia Keys, Elvis Costello, John Legend, Kim Kardashian, Usher, Vampire Weekend, Keri Hilson, Billy Corgan, Wyclef Jean, Kylie Minogue, Paramore and Jason Derulo. Among her corporate clients are AOL, MTV, Boston magazine, Converse, Bumble and bumble, Gawker, and several record labels.

"It's a blast getting to work with such talented and inspiring people," she says. "Freelancing gives me the freedom to shoot so many different projects, to be somewhere new every day, to meet so many different people, and to travel to places I wouldn't have otherwise been able to see. It's definitely a challenge, but one that excites me every day."

Although her college search led her to visit several campuses, Levine, who grew up outside of Boston, applied to Clark only. "I wanted to be part of a school that made 'making the world a better place' a top priority," she says. "I also wanted to go to a small school with a close-knit campus feel, and wanted to be within driving distance of my family."

Levine seems to thrive on challenges, and while at Clark she actively sought them out or simply created her own.

Diana Levine with some of her celebrity subjects (from top left) Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian, Usher, Elvis Costello AND John Legend.

Diana Levine with some of her celebrity subjects (from top left) Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian, Usher, Elvis Costello AND John Legend.

By the end of her first year, she had decided to double-major in studio art (photography) and psychology, with a concentration in Mandarin Chinese language. Levine credits a close high school friend, Celeste Lam, for fostering her interest in Mandarin.

"She gave me weekly quizzes, flashcards, and taught me all about the language, culture and pronunciation," Levine says. "I had been learning Chinese from her for three years before I started officially studying it at Clark — I was excited to take what I had learned one-on-one from her and see what it was like to study it in a classroom."

As a Clark sophomore in 2004, Levine founded STIR magazine, the University's first student-run lifestyle, culture and art-photography publication.

"I so badly wanted to be doing photo shoots for publication. I was never really satisfied just shooting for class, I always wanted there to be a purpose to my shoots, so I created a magazine that would showcase and feature work by Clark students and, eventually, the [Colleges of the Worcester] Consortium students. It was one of the most exciting things I've ever been part of — from our first meeting in my apartment with a few friends, to weekly meetings of 20 to 30 people, all so excited to be writing, shooting, editing, modeling and designing."

From the beginning, Levine set the bar high at STIR, gathering a team of talented fellow students who helped her produce a provocative full-color magazine. She notes the support she received from her friends, the Student Council and faculty mentors, as well as guidance from George Gendron, founding director of Clark's Innovation & Entrepreneurship program. Thanks to Levine's clearly set vision and standards, STIR continues to thrive at Clark.

"I really thank Clark for allowing me to grow this project, something that helped me learn so much about being a photographer, not to mention running a staff, designing a publication, selling advertising and raising money, dealing with printers and community groups," Levine says. "STIR was a gateway to my first job as the designer and staff photographer at Boston magazine, so it was an incredibly important part of my college education."

Levine spent a semester of her junior year studying at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts' Photography & Imaging program. She describes her studies at the Tisch School as an invaluable complement to her Clark experience. "I needed the balance of both schools to get me where I am today. At Clark, I took advantage of the small school size, amazing connections with professors and freedom to work on personal projects, while at NYU I learned about the technical and business side of photography. I can't imagine where I'd be without the hands-on experience NYU gave me through internships like Jane magazine and Condé Nast."

An anecdote illustrating Levine's self-determination is told by photography instructor Frank Armstrong, who recounts Levine visiting him and fellow instructor Stephen DiRado during her senior year. She was back at Clark after her time at the Tisch School and had been busy catching up with coursework, assisting at STIR and throwing herself back into university life. Near tears, she expressed how frazzled she was feeling, and her empathetic teachers offered advice and reassurances. Levine collected herself and, as she stepped out of the room, poked her head back in the doorway to announce, "Oh, I forgot to tell you — I've started another magazine."

Delighted by her ambition, but not surprised, Armstrong and DiRado listened as she told them about her creation: Point+Shoot, a gallery style online and print publication showcasing the art photography of students from around the region.

"Diana came to class with at least three times the amount of work to show than the other students," DiRado says. "She was really showing them up. The other students had to rise to Diana's level and some of them were resentful. 'She's just showing off,' they'd say. I'd say to them, 'What are you all bitchin' about? You're all going to be working for her some time in your life, so be nice!' Every step of the way, there was never a hint of Diana taking anything for granted. She took the heat, tried to learn everything she could and worked through it."

Upon graduating from Clark in 2007, Levine shot her first freelance assignment for Boston magazine, photographing New England's best beaches. "I had to pinch myself: I get paid to travel with my boyfriend, and take photos of beaches? Not a bad gig." (Her longtime boyfriend, Matt Workman, is a freelance cinematographer, and the two often work together.)

Levine landed a full-time position at the magazine, then after a year in Boston it was off to the Big Apple to start her own freelance photography business.

"It was hard. I started out in magazines, so I had these well established brands to legitimize my work. People trust that," she says. "When I left those magazines, I lost that automatic trust. I had to transition from having a legitimate brand to going on my own from scratch. It takes time. Doing magazine work, you have a boss; when you're on your own you're responsible for every inch. In freelance, there are no guarantees."

In her typical fashion, Levine wasted no time establishing contacts, cultivating relationships, following a business plan and, most importantly, doing the kind of quality photography that got her noticed on the big stage.

"I love living in New York City," she says. "I love that, no matter who you are or where you come from, you're not alone. I love that there are no limits here to what you can dream. I love the feeling that everyone here is working toward something."

For Levine, the work has been steady and varied. Recently, she photographed Kim Kardashian for the celebrity's 3D avatar iPhone app. She also worked for the reunited boy band New Kids on the Block, traveling with them to document a cruise trip from Miami to the Bahamas. For the clothing retailer H&M, Levine photographed products and stills of MTV news reporter SuChin Pak and celebrity stylist Nole Marin for a commercial campaign that ran on MTV during the 2010 Video Music Awards. Ten of Levine's own New York City photos were included in an exhibit installed by HBO as part of its launch of the TV show "How to Make It in America."

Levine frequently goes on assignment for AOL's "Day in the Life" project, spending a full day with an individual artist or band and photographing everything that happens in their day: radio and TV interviews, sound checks, meals, hotels, traveling, meeting fans, etc. Her AOL gigs have included days spent with performers Keith Urban, Hanson, Linkin Park, Clay Aiken, Ludacris, David Archuleta, and many others, accompanying them to the "Today Show," "The View," BET, MTV, backstage at concerts, and other venues. She also shoots a video documentary of each "Day in the Life" piece.

A photo session with Elvis Costello ranks among Levine's favorite jobs. "My dad is a huge fan, so I've been listening to his music since I was a little girl. The best part of that shoot was hearing my dad's reaction on the phone after I sent him the photos."

Asked to pick a dream celebrity assignment, Levine names the Diana after whom she was named. "My mom's from Motown," she says. "I grew up listening to Diana Ross." She also adds the girl band The Spice Girls to her wish list. "I know it's silly, but I was such a big fan in middle school that it would be a dream come true. And I'm not ashamed to say it."

Friends often comment on her "glamorous" New York life and career, but it is by no means perfect, Levine acknowledges. The hours can be long, the schedule erratic, and the shoots take place any time day or night in all types of weather.

"You can't make plans to go out with your friends on Saturday night. It's definitely not 9-to-5, go-home-relax; it's 24-7, and you have to be really flexible. Your whole family has to be understanding about it, too. … That's why it's so great that Matt and I both do this; it would be really hard to have a relationship if you're not totally understanding about the lifestyle. I wanted this so bad; I am living my dream, but everything comes in baby steps."

In December, Levine found herself in an unfamiliar situation: in front of the camera. She was profiled in a TV commercial for singer Britney Spears' new "Radiance" perfume, featured for having had a "radiant year."

Levine says that "almost everyone I shoot, famous or not, inspires me." She points to Clark as being a cornerstone of that inspiration, citing the influence of DiRado and Armstrong and other Visual & Performing Arts Department professors, including Valerie Claff and Elli Crocker. She also values the lessons she learned from psychology professors Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Nicholas Thompson, Jaan Valsiner and James Córdova, whose class she took with Ali Fedotowsky '06, who would go on to star in TV's "The Bachelorette." And she notes the support and friendship of fellow photography program students Rachel Loischild '05, Jesaca [Qiao-Juan] Lin '08, and Bridget Kane '07.

Levine recalls how she eagerly enrolled in every one of the courses in Chinese taught by Clark instructor Minxia Li, adding how she enjoyed "having a big dinner at Li Laoshi's home, where she taught her students how to cook delicious Chinese food while practicing our language skills." She attended photography critiques at DiRado's home every week, "where we had access to his collection of photo books and prints. I always felt supported and excited about what I was learning at Clark, particularly due to the incredible professors."

Living and learning in Worcester also made an impression on Levine. She and her STIR magazine team made extra efforts to look for story ideas beyond campus, featuring articles about people and places in the city and at the many nearby colleges. The STIR enterprise relied heavily on ad sales to local businesses.

"I still remember being so excited about the first ad we sold — a full-page menu for Uncle Sam's Pizza, which I always ran on the inside back cover," Levine recalls. "Looking back on it, it really touches me that a small business would purchase an ad in a magazine that didn't even exist yet, but it was because of the generosity of Worcester businesses that I was able to start STIR at all."

To this day, Worcester outshines New York in at least one important aspect, according to Levine. "The thing I miss most about Worcester is the No. 37 from the menu at Dalat. I'm still looking for that exact meal in New York City."

Before arriving at Worcester and Clark, Levine's professional vision was already coming into focus. While growing up she constantly snapped photos of her family and friends, documenting her life and the people in it. "For my 25th birthday, my sister and Mom found an old video I created back in middle school, which was a time capsule of life in the '90s. It was a compilation of footage of my family, of popular bands and music, movies, TV shows, magazines, actors and actresses that we admired," she says. "I didn't even remember putting this together, so it was a great surprise, and funny that now, as an adult, my job is to photograph and document the popular bands, musicians and personalities of today's culture."

These days, beside her busy work life, Levine is raising money and awareness to battle Parkinson's disease through the Michael J. Fox Foundation. She recently appeared in a public service announcement for the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. "My mom, who is one of my biggest inspirations, has Parkinson's, and raising money to find a cure is a huge part of our family," she says.

Perhaps at the root of this exceptional Clark graduate's career is the late Jimmy Bittker, her grandfather and a photographer. "When he passed away, I was given a lot of his camera equipment, a lot of which I still use to this day," Levine says. "He was certainly an inspiration, and I do hope that, somewhere, he knows where my life has taken me."

Levine maintains a lively online presence, with a blog, Twitter account, and professional portfolio. To sample her work, visit dianalevine.com.

This story was originally published in CLARK Magazine, spring 2011.

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