Photo: Don Stahl
I’ve lived in or near New York City for virtually my entire life. One of the challenges of living in a city as fiercely romanticized and idealized as New York is finding that little bit of the city that hasn’t been defined to death already—it’s so easy to fall into the trap of saying, “This cupcake shop is really cool because Lou Reed used to shoot up around the corner!” And yet the city is always rapidly changing, so the dynamic you may have craved from even just ten or fifteen years ago might already be long gone, even as it shapes your current expectations.
One of the many things I love about “Levenbutt,” Jeremy Levenbach’s whimsical series of Instagram city scenes—in which he appears naked, with his back to the camera—is that it captures a New York I can really relate to, whether it’s the Astor Place cube or the familiar facade of Pearl Paint on Canal Street or the bizarre, monolithic blue Ikea premises in Red Hook. (You have no idea how strong the instinct is to use the word “selfie” above—but clearly, it would be quite strange if any of them were selfies!)
I’ve known Jeremy for nearly a decade; for most of that time he has been the booker for the city’s best latenight standup showcase (when Aziz Ansari and his Human Giant collaborators were hosting it, it was called Crash Test; when Leo Allen took it over around 2008, it became Whiplash; there was also a transitional show called Cavalcade). As a regular attendee in the intimate Upright Citizens Brigade Theater most Monday nights for several years, I got to know Jeremy a little bit, and he remains one of my favorite people in New York, invariably good-natured and contributing to the city in a singular way—actually, multiple singular ways, if that makes any sense.
A little bit after we became Facebook friends, Jeremy started posting these occasional pics of himself standing naked, facing away from the camera, in some familiar NYC location. He would tag these images “Levenbutt,” and they’ve enhanced my Facebook feed for the last several years.
For me the Levenbutt pictures work precisely because they’re not sexualized; they’re absurd and deadpan. Naturally they also acquire a good deal of their impact from what one might call stunt value: “Did that guy really go into that intersection and stand there?” etc. It’s always more interesting to watch people doing something you would never do.
The other day there was a good piece about Jeremy’s “Levenbutt” project in Joanna Goddard’s blog Cup of Jo, complete with an interview that is far more thorough than anything I could muster—I recommend checking it out if this post intrigues. Here’s my favorite bit from that post, something that photographers the world over would probably instantly understand—Jeremy’s comments on how his own mental attitude affects the, ah, visual appearance of his cheeks: “The average time is about 20 to 40 seconds while I’m standing there naked. That’s when you feel really vulnerable. I do one of those 100-yard stares. I’ve noticed if I’m tense, my butt cheeks do a weird thing. I need to relax and everything kind of loosens up.”
Jeremy was kind enough to take a little time to discuss the Levenbutt project for DM.
The main thing I was curious about was whether Jeremy had in some cases used any unseen clothing on his frontal side—he insisted that well, “naked” means “naked”: “Yes, 100% naked. Generally my clothes are thrown just out of frame or stashed behind objects.”
I was especially taken with the picture in which he is standing next to the beekeeper, and asked him if he had gotten stung that day. He replied,
Nope, the beekeeper was someone I met briefly at Smorgasburg. She’s Dutch and was totally into the idea. We (photog Christian Torres) met Marleen in Queens at a public city garden that she had taken conservatorship over. I was expecting/dreading getting stung, but I didn’t get a single angry bee. Marleen said, in her accent, “My bees must like you!”
One of my favorite pics is the one of Jeremy standing in the middle of oncoming traffic. I mistakenly identified it as one of the avenues on the East Side, but two-way North-South thoroughfares without an island in the middle aren’t very common in Manhattan. It turns out it was 42nd Street near 2nd Avenue. I was glad to hear that it’s one of Jeremy’s favorites as well:
That shot was taken from the Tudor City overpass. It was the idea of my photographer, Benjamin Joseph Mistak. We planned on (and shot) at the Flatiron building, and Ben suggested we do a shot from the “place where all those people take Manhattanhenge photos.”
Photos where I’m far away from my photographer are always the scariest (and Ben was really far away up on the walkway) because to anyone who walks by, I’m not some weirdo taking a dumb art photo, I’m some lunatic that is just standing around (in the middle of traffic, in this case) naked.
There’s a black SUV in the lane that I’m standing in, it got to that shaft of light (maybe 20-30 ft from me) , before I ran back to the sidewalk. We also did that shot twice, because the first time I was standing in the middle of the street, legs on straddling the traffic lines, it looked cool, but the yellow lines were too similar in tone to my body.
Jeremy’s role as NYC’s top alt-comic impresario gives him access to some of the most successful touring comedians, a few of whom have been incorporated into the project. We’ve included a picture that includes Zach Galifianakis here, but Aziz Ansari, Bob Odenkirk, and Pete Holmes have also been roped in. Not one to stick rigorously to the core idea just because that’s what a big fancy artiste might do, Jeremy has also included whimsical artworks that are consistent with the Levenbutt project, as for instance this lovely drawing of Levenbutt perched on a giant Valkyrie by Matteo Lane or this funny appropriation of the New Yorker’s Cartoon Caption Contest.
Jeremy’s a little worried that Instagram is going to shut down his account, but so far they’ve been a good sport about it. Here’s a little gallery of Levenbutt highlights, but you should check out the original feed for yourself, there are tons of great ones I didn’t include.
Photo: Benjamin Joseph Mistak
Photo: Benjamin Joseph Mistak
Photo: Christian Torres
More excellent Levenbutt pics after the jump…...