From Assistant to Photographer: Katie Levine Launches Her Fashion Career
July 2, 2018
Katie Levine’s photography career started to take off after PAPER magazine’s chief creative officer Drew Elliott saw her portraits of Lucky Blue Smith on Instagram. Levine was hired by V magazine to shoot video of Smith, but also got a chance to shoot some portraits “because he and I got along so well,” she says.
Levine honed her style shooting portraits of friends, neighbors and aspiring actors, models and musicians, and she says, “I treat every job like my dream job.” Here, Chance the Rapper.
Katie Levine’s big break as a professional photographer came last year after Lucky Blue Smith, a model with more than 3 million Instagram followers, posted a portrait by Levine on his Instagram feed. V magazine had hired Levine in September 2016 to shoot some video of Smith, but she got a chance to shoot portraits, too, “because he and I got along so well,” she says.
PAPER magazine’s chief creative officer, Drew Elliott, saw the portrait Smith posted. Elliott remembers it as “what I consider the best photograph of him ever taken, by a photographer I had never heard of.” He invited Levine for a meeting and put her right to work shooting fashion stories and celebrity portraits for PAPER. Levine’s “vibe and approach” puts subjects at ease, says Elliott, and her style “is fresh, modern, and always has a hint of action. At PAPER we call this ‘in the middle of things’ photography, and Katie is moving this forward.”
Elliott, who is also the creative consultant for VH1’s reality TV series America’s Next Top Model, also hired Levine this past February to appear on the show and photograph some aspiring models. And he hired her to photograph some of RuPaul’s drag queen legends.
Behind Levine’s sudden emergence is a lot of dogged work. “I wouldn’t say I’m the most talented person, but I definitely think I work a lot harder than most people,” says Levine.
While studying photography at Columbia College Chicago in 2012, she met a former Vogue magazine intern at a music festival. The connection led Levine to her own editorial internship at Vogue in 2013. “I really didn’t know much about fashion, but it was my foot in the door,” she says. Within days, though, she was ostracized at Vogue for mispronouncing Manolo Blahnik’s name.
“I didn’t know my shit,” she says. “So I went on Style.com and wrote down every designer’s name for five hours a day, six days in a row, and never mispronounced a name again.”
After the internship, Levine returned to Chicago to complete her degree. Then through her Vogue connections, she landed an internship at Annie Leibovitz’s studio. That turned into a job as a production assistant driving equipment vans around New York City. What Levine really wanted was to be a photo assistant, so she tried to outwork everyone else to get noticed. One of Leibovitz’s assistants told her, “You lift until your face is blue,” and offered her an internship on the photo team.
She observed everything on set and recorded it in her journal after work. She diagrammed the lighting set-ups, and sketched equipment she wasn’t familiar with. “I looked up all Annie’s equipment, got all of the manuals, and I read them. There was no way I wasn’t going to know something,” Levine says. (To view a gallery of images from Levine’s notebooks, see “Katie Levine on the Importance of Taking Careful Notes While Assisting.“)
After a year with Leibovitz, she began assisting other photographers, taking notes on their lighting and techniques, too. Levine also spent three months as a studio manager for a high-profile celebrity photographer, and got fired. “I realized you can’t get along with everybody. People have different styles. But I learned a lot about running a studio,” she says.
Meanwhile, she was constantly honing her own style by shooting portraits at her Staten Island apartment of friends, neighbors and acquaintances. She also called modeling agencies, offering to do test shoots with models. “I was reaching out, being super friendly, taking any opportunity [and treating] every job like my dream job,” she explains. “I always try to just make genuine connections with people, and treat them like family. I want people to come into my home for a portrait session and feel good. I’m more concerned with how I’m treating people than the hustle of it all.”
But she hustles, too. She built her brand and portfolio on Instagram (@katie_levine_). “My following [about 9,000] might not be substantial, but I’m concerned about quality. I don’t buy followers. It’s totally organic,” she says. She started by following people whose music and work she liked, commented often, and read everything she could find about Instagram strategy for photographers. “You learn certain timing techniques, certain posting techniques, certain hashtags,” she says. She now spends about 15 hours each week managing her feed. “If you start to get a fan base, you have to talk to them all the time,” she says. “The friendlier you are with Instagram, the better it is for you.”
Levine started getting private portrait commissions from some of her followers, including aspiring actors, models and musicians. She also got work from retailers such as Richmond Hood. The culture magazine V, for whom she photographed Lucky Blue Smith, also found her on Instagram.
Since the assignments from PAPER and other clients started coming in, Levine has been more selective about shooting private portraits. She wants to photograph people not just because they want a portrait, but because they want a portrait “taken by Katie Levine,” she says. “If I’m going to take a private portrait, it’s going to be something that’s worth my time, and usually somebody I respect as well.”
She’s been honing her brand in other ways, too. For instance, in anticipation of her guest appearance on America’s Next Top Model, she re-designed her website, and edited her Instagram down to a few hundred images. Most are portraits of actors and musicians, models, and Instagram influencers—talented people with whom she identifies, who have a lot of followers, and can therefore bring more attention to Levine’s feed.
One of her challenges has been learning the skills she needs to run her business. “I’m reading a lot about how to get shit done, and a lot of entrepreneur books to get motivated,” she says. Levine also keeps a written business plan, which she updates every six months. “I ask myself: What have I accomplished? What are my new goals? I write down [new] goals, then marketing and business strategies, people I want to reach out to, budgeting and expenses, and travel [plans] to places I can do more outreach.”
Her parting advice to aspiring photographers, she says, is “write down what you learn. Take it all in. Open your eyes, not your mouth, and recognize you have this opportunity to learn from people who have more experience than you. And just shoot all the time, read all the time, be on Instagram, but also be genuine.”