Straight Shooter

Carving his own path

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

rick_levinsonRick Levinson, the owner of RLPhoto in Burlington, already had an ongoing love affair with Vermont when he moved here in 1998 to pursue his passions: photography and snowboarding.

Rick Levinson’s 30-some client list reads like a Who’s Who of well-known Vermont corporations, with a sprinkling of international flavor. Through his Burlington business, RLPhoto, Levinson has addressed the commercial photography needs of companies that run the gamut from Ben & Jerry’s Homemade to Vermont Smoke and Cure, Burton Snowboard to Seventh Generation, and Revision Eyewear to Darn Tough Vermont.

According to Levinson, RLPhoto is “pretty much the largest commercial photo studio in northern New England.” He employs a full-time staff of two photographers and a production manager, plus the help of numerous interns a year. In addition, he can access a large network of freelancers such as assistants, videographers, retouchers, and stylists.

A native of Richmond, Virginia, Levinson “kind of discovered Vermont” while studying geology and studio art at Hamilton College in upstate New York. “I’m a snowboarder,” he says, “and a close friend grew up in southern Vermont and had a lot of friends at UVM, so early on during college, we would come over. Through that connection and all of her Vermont friends, I got to know the state and fell for it.”

His interest in photography was sparked by a particular high school professor at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, who motivated him to pursue it further than one class. “My father was a cardiac surgeon, and when he was younger, in the Navy, he also found a passion for photography and had a darkroom at home. Then, as with the hobbies of many doctors, it ended up boxed up in the attic.”

When Levinson caught the bug, he pulled out all his father’s old equipment, turned his mother’s laundry room into a darkroom, and got to work. Hamilton College didn’t offer a photography degree, so along with his major in geology, he opted for studio arts with a concentration in photography.

One of his geology professors was in the U.S. Antarctic research program. Levinson’s goal was to join him as a research assistant there, and in his junior year, he left for Tasmania, home to the Institute for Antarctic and Southern Oceanic Studies, from which many Antarctic expeditions embark. He was delighted to be able to also pursue his photography there.

Unfortunately, his father became ill, and Levinson moved home after only six weeks. “I took some time off from school, and unfortunately, he passed away. When I went back to school I kind of squeezed three semesters into my senior year and finished up. But at that time, pursuing geology further was going to send me right back to school, and I had had such a hard year, with my father dying, I wanted to take some time to see where my photography would take me.”

He moved to Rockport, Maine, home of the renowned Maine Media Workshops for photographers, filmmakers, and media artists, where he worked in the darkroom for a summer. He moved to Burlington in 1998.

The timing was good, he says. “At that time, there was no digital — it was all analog photography, which demanded more of a need of an assistant on set. I moved to town when an assistant had just moved away, and was able to pick up a bunch of work with just about every photographer in town.” This provided Levinson with experience in different types of photography.

Alex Crothers, one of his close friends from college, had opened Higher Ground in Winooski. Levinson worked at Crothers’s home office, “booking, promotion, flyers, all that stuff, and at the bar at night, taking photographs. That began my love for photographing live music, and I’ve been the house photographer there ever since.

“Alex and Kevin Statesir there, they’ve been amazing at bringing great live music to the state, and I’ve been fortunate enough to document it. Also, at all the other concerts they do outside the state — down at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Arts, Alex produces music for them, and all over New England. And I document all of it.”

Not long after Levinson moved to town, while he was picking up work as an assistant and developing a growing portfolio of his own work, a lot of his friends were working for the band Phish. “One of my first jobs was taking pictures of their product so they could put them on their website.”

Business was just starting to pick up for digital photography as companies began to realize the value of the Internet. “So everything from a lawyer to a product company — even the local maple syrup producer needed pictures of the bottles. Everybody needed content for their websites, and pictures are easier than words,” says Levinson.

Phish was also the source of his first big job: an album cover for Round Room, the band’s ninth official studio album, released in 2002. “It was a neat collaboration with local artist and sculptor Lars Fisk. The sculpture of his that I photographed is at the Fleming Museum: a red barn that’s been turned into a ball.”

It’s natural that Levinson the avid snowboarder found work for Burton Snowboards early on. “We worked with them for 15 years and produced their product and advertising photography,” he says. “They’re really the foundation of my professional career — 15 years of growing and trying to keep up with them. About two years ago, they built this studio in-house, and now all their creative is done there. I’m still very close with them.”

Levinson’s work with Burton was also the link to Tina Rousseau, now his wife and mother of their two daughters, Ruby, 6, and Sadie, 8. They married in 2004. For 14 years, Tina was with JDK Design (now the Solidarity of Unbridled Labour), which handled Burton’s creative work.

Although Levinson no longer does photography for Burton, he continues to work on projects for Solidarity of Unbridled Labour. “I’m from New York — came from the photography industry there — and the first time I saw his studio, I thought, ‘Oh, great! A real studio!’” says Audrie Poole, the design firm’s art buyer. “He definitely made the experience great for me. He’s one of our go-to photographers here locally.”

Tina left the firm during a downsizing three years ago, says Levinson, and now juggles a mix of “small freelance projects, some design, some part-time work like receptionist at my kids’ school, and kind of running our house. I work way too much.”

Burton’s pulling its photography in-house meant a bit of a scramble for Levinson, whose space on Sears Lane in Burlington had grown to 7,500 square feet to accommodate the work. “We’ve had to work hard to fill that void,” he says, “to maintain existing clients but also constantly networking to let people know we’re here.”

It’s paid off.

RLPhoto performs work from the likes of cycling and snow apparel maker Giro in California, luggage manufacturer High Sierra, and Bogner, the German ski apparel company whose U.S. headquarters is in Williston. A solid list of Vermont clients has also helped keep things on track.

“Rick goes above and beyond,” says Lauren Douglas, visual and direct marketing manager at Lake Champlain Chocolates, who has worked with Levinson since he began doing the company’s photography eight years ago. “He shoots all our images for our website and catalogs — you can even find them in press releases and a few images in our stores.”

Levinson appreciates the versatility required for a company like his to operate in a small state like Vermont. “The neat thing about photography is all the paths you can take.”

Collaborating with the arts is a passion and one of those paths for Levinson, who created a gallery space at his studio. “It has taken many shapes over our time here, but currently we have guest curators who come and put art shows on. For a few years we did a community art competition called Creative Comp.” It’s at the S.P.A.C.E. (Supportive Places for Artists and the Creative Economy) Gallery on Pine Street. He has served on the board of the South End Art and Business Association and continues to work with SEABA and Burlington City Arts.

“I also realized that I’m way too addicted to snowboarding” he says. “My family and nature and snowboarding and music are what I’m most passionate about.”

The entire family snowboards every chance they have. Levinson says he enjoys experiencing the world through snowboarding. At press time, he was on a trip to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, considered by some to offer the best snowboarding in the world.

He expresses gratitude for what he calls Vermont’s “creative wellspring” and praises the talent he has found here in Burlington. “It’s that amazing network that I’ve been able to interact with that I attribute as the real reason for our success.

“To be successful with commercial photography in an area like this, you really need to be willing to do anything that’s asked of you. If we were in a larger market, I’d be food or fashion or lifestyle, and up here you say yes to anything. It’s fun and makes for a really creative portfolio and career.” •