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Born in northeast Philadelphia in 1946, Diane Levell's childhood took a series of fortuitous turns after her aunt helped her mother relocate to Bucks County and secure a summer tutor, helping Levell gain a scholarship to Buckingham Friends School. There, Levell became a childhood playmate of author Pearl S. Buck's adopted daughter, whom Levell would summer with in Vermont. Levell went on to study architecture and interior design at Endicott College and then pursued a bachelor's degree majoring in fine arts at the University of Delaware in 1970. She first became interested in photography in Delaware, using an art studio to have figure models and her future husband pose for nude black and white photographs that would later be reused in her large-scale gum bichromate prints in the late 1980s.
In her early career, Levell used her visual skills making a living in the fields of interior design, commercial art, reprographics, and graphic design. These highly technical fields gave her an important foundation of skills for chemistry and technical printing that became integral to her success in teaching herself historic alternative photographic processes. Levell began taking classes through the Corcoran Gallery towards her M.F.A. in Photography, which she received from the affiliated George Washington University in 1976 and was the first woman graduate student in the program. She originally pursued ceramics at the Corcoran and GW with an initial impulse to differentiate herself in a fine art field from her commercial art past, but quickly found a new photo-chemical skill set and began forging her own path in alternative process photography.
After reading MoMA (then-Princeton University) photography curator Peter Bunnell's Non-Silver Printing Processes: Four Selections 1886-1927, published in 1973, Levell was inspired to begin re-creating and learning the processes herself. At the time, no faculty taught alternative photographic processes, and Ansel Adams' famed Zone System dominated darkroom photographic education. So, Levell pursued independent projects to master the skills needed for the four historical processes that have been mainstays of her artist career: cyanotype, gum bichromate, photogravure, and Van Dyke Brown printing. Having done photo lithography work and silk screening in her commercial work, she used the printmaking studios to learn etching with the aim of mastering photogravure, using the grain of Kodak Tri-X film to etch the copper plate directly from the photographic negative. Her master's degree work, a body of photogravures, was accompanied by a forty page historical and technical scholarly paper examining the photogravure process.
In 1974, she took an influential year off from her graduate studies with her husband, writer James Levell, to pursue travels in Europe. Instead of settling and buying a house, they took their savings to tour Paris, where Levell was able to see first-hand examples of all the traditional photographic processes she was so fascinated with, encountering exhibitions of other then-living European masters like Henry Moore. Images from these first European travels became the basis for many of her early photogravure pieces. After graduating and being passed up for a tenured faculty position, Levell felt there was more subject matter that lent itself to her historical photographic processes and opportunities for her in Europe.
After her graduation, the couple first moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was the gallery manager for the Cambridge Photo Co-op. After subsequent trips back to Europe in 1976 and 1978, the couple finally moved in 1980 to southern France, where Levell hoped to print photographs onto ceramic tiles, merging her artistic interests. Eventually they toured and settled in Germany, living for the next fifteen years primarily in Heidelberg, located in southwestern Germany in the Rhine valley. Home to the US Army European Headquaters, one of the largest post-World War II/Cold War military bases in Europe, her husband went to work for Boston University's program for the Americans while Levell first used her commercial reprographics and design skills in military map making. She eventually moved on to teaching an impressive range of art and design classes for over fourteen years at Big Bend College and the City Colleges of Chicago's branches in Heidelberg. For her final three years in Europe before moving back to the United States in 1996, Levell was a graphic artist and the chief photographer for the US Army in Europe, making the official portraits for high level military officers including General Colin Powell, international dignitaries, and even the visiting U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle.
During her time in Germany, Levell exhibited at a range of institutions including the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut in Heidelberg, Galerie Reflexion for Fotografie in Heilbronn, and the Auslanderbeirat at the State Capitol of Munchen/Munich. In 1989, she notably was featured in a special exhibition at the Stadmuseum Ludwigshafen celebrating the 150th anniversary of Daguerre's published instructions for sensitizing photographic plates the birth of modern photography. Since returning to the US, she has exhibited at The Platinum Gallery in NYC, the Princeton Arts Council, Bucks County Community College, the Mercer Museum, Delaware County Community College, the Hunterdon Art Museum, and was a prize winner at the annual Phillips' Mill Photography exhibition in New Hope, among many others. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Burgerhaus Bensheim in Germany, the City of Ludwigshafen in Germany, as well as the Musee Nicephore Niepce in France.
Levell made her final body of gum bichromate prints in approximately 2010, a still life series from her vegetable garden. In the past ten years, has begun teaching herself digital photography and still continues to pursue new bodies of work from her gardens and travels. She continues to live in Doylestown with her husband Jim, where she tends to ten gardens and continues to host private exhibitions of her work in her home.
In 2019, the Michener Art Museum presented Intrepid Alchemist: Diane Levell's Bucks County, a selection of more than twenty photographs by Levell featuring Bucks County.
Diane Levell, Yearbook Photo, 1965. Solebury School, New Hope. Image courtesy of the artist.
Buckingham Friends School, Buckingham, PA, 1961
Solebury School, Solebury, PA, 1965
A.S. Degree in Interior Design and Architecture, Endicott Junior College, Beverly, MA, 1967
B.A. in Fine Arts, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, 1970
Corcoran School of Art, Washington D.C., 1972-1974
M.F.A. in Photography, George Washington University, Washington D.C., 1976
Connection to Bucks County
Diane Levell moved to Bucks County from Philadelphia with her mother when she was seven years old. She attended Buckingham Friends School and The Solebury School. One of the teachers at Buckingham Friends introduced her to the Pearl S. Buck family, where she was chosen to be a companion of one of Pearl Buck's adopted daughters. Levell spent weekends at the Dublin house and a few weeks in the summer at the author's Vermont estate. Levell also met Pearl S. Buck's illustrious friends, like Oscar Hammerstein, James A. Michener, the Gimmels, the Burpees and the grandchildren of Henry Wallace. She played tennis with Mr. Michener at the Wallace property, and Mr. Hammerstein's daughter drove her to Buckingham Friends School.
Major Solo Exhibitions
Nude Series, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1973
Photogravure MFA Thesis Show, Dimock Gallery, Washington D.C., 1976
Gum Bichromate Prints, Cambridge Arts Society, Cambridge, MA, 1979
Leben In Der Turkei, Silver, Gum, Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut, Heidelberg, Germany, 1986
Frauen en Europa, Gelatin Silver, Cyanotype, Haus de Jugend, Ludwigshafen, Germany, 1988
The World We Have Lost, Reflexion Gallerie Fur Fotografie, Heilbronn, Germany, 1988
Menchhen in Europa, Gelatin Silver, Burgerhaus, Bensheim,Germany, 1988
Historische Photographische Techniken, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen, Germany, 1989
Diane Levell: Nudes, Gum, Cyanotypes, and Algerian Color Solarized Prints, Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut, Heidelberg, Germany, 1989
Frauen in Europa: Fotoaussttung von Diane Levell, Silver gelatin prints, Viernheimer Stadtbucherei, Viernheim, Germany, 1992
Foto-bilder und Bucherausstellung Uber Die Turkei, Gelatin Silver Prints, Der Auslanderbeirat Der Landeshaupstadt Museum, Munchen, Germany, 1992
Cyanotypes, Morningstar Carriage House Gallery, Lambertville, NJ, 1999
Diane Levell: Gelatin Silver Prints, Studio Exhibit, Buckingham, PA, 1999
Diane Levell: Historical Photographic Processes, Princeton Arts Council, Princeton, NJ, 2000
Algerian Solarized Prints, Studio Exhibit, Buckingham, PA, 2001
Diane Levell: Historical Photographic Processes, Gallery 14, Hopewell, NJ, 2003
Encounters: Diane Levell, Gelatin Silver Portraits, Bucks County Community College, Newtown, PA, 2005
Intrepid Alchemist: Diane Levell's Bucks County, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, 2019
Major Two-Person Exhibitions
Solarized Algerian Color Prints, Linseed Building, Artsbridge Show, Stockton, NJ, 2001
A Different Point of View, Delaware County Community College, Media, PA, 2004
A Comparison Between the Neckar and Delaware Valleys, Triumph Brewery, New Hope, PA, 2005
The Neckar and Delaware Valleys, Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut, Heidelberg, Germany, 2006
Louisiana, Studio Exhibition, Buckingham, PA, 2007
New York City, Studio Exhibition, Buckingham, PA, 2008
Louisiana, Studio Exhibition, Buckingham, PA, 2010
Alsace, France, Studio Exhibition, Buckingham, PA, 2015
Major Group Exhibitions
Annual Photographic Exhibition, Phillips' Mill, New Hope, PA, 1998, 1999, 2000
Artsbridge Juried Exhibiton, Prallsville Mill, Stockton, NJ, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002
Safety in Numbers, Old English Pine Gallery, Lambertville, NJ, 1999
Art on the Mountain, Mount Snow, Wilmington, VT, 1998, 1999
Artworks Faculty Show, Artworks, Trenton, NJ, 1998
Phillips' Mill Art Association Exhibition, Phillips' Mill, New Hope, PA, 1998
Artbridge Members Exhibit, Washington Crossing Visitor Center, Washington Crossing, PA, 1998
Artworks Gallery, Trenton, NJ, 1998
Small Works, Princeton Arts Council, Princeton, NJ, 1999
Princeton Photographic Club, Nassau Club, Princeton, NJ, 1999
Sauce for the Goose, Princeton Arts Council, Princeton, NJ, 1999
Ken-tem-pe-rer-e, Old English Pine Gallery, Lambertville, NJ, 2000
Cyanotypes, Nagy Gallery, New Hope, PA, 2000
Tawa Invitational, 20 Historical Process Prints, Ellarslie Museum, Trenton, NJ, 2001
Apropos Seventh Annual Exposition, Old English Pine Gallery, Lambertville, NJ, 2001
Artist and Model, Cyanotype and Gum Bichromate Nudes, Artworks, Trenton, NJ, 2002
Peace Fair Art Show, Buckingham Friends Meeting House, Buckingham, PA, 2002
47th Annual Print Exposition, Hunterdon Museum, Clinton, NJ, 2003
Philips' Mill Photographic Exhibition, Philips' Mill, New Hope, PA, 2003
Abstract Photography: 15 Historical Process Prints, Hunterdon Museum of Art, Clinton, NJ, 2003
TAWA, Artworks, Trenton, NJ, 2003
Abington Art Center, Abington, PA, 2003, 2004
Apropos, West Chester College Gallery, West Chester, PA, 2004
1860 House, Princeton, NJ, 2003, 2005
Dream Africa, three Person Show, Artworks, Trenton, NJ, 2005
The Human Face, three person exhibition, Gallery at Mercer Community College, Trenton, NJ, 2005
Visual Feast, Montgomery Center for the Arts, Princeton, NJ, 2003
The Gallery At Delaware County Community College, Media, PA, 2003
The Woodmere Annual, Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, PA, 2004, 2005
Historic Carversville Society Benefit, Carversville, PA, 2008, 2009
Ellarslie Open, Ellarslie Museum, Trenton, NJ, 2010
Images of the Delaware River Watershed, Prallsville Mill, Stockton, NJ, 2012
Alternative Photo Processes, Red Filter Fine ART Photography Gallery, Lambertville, NJ, 2012
Works on Paper, Cyanotype and Gum Nudes, Joan Perkes Fine Arts, Lambertville, NJ, 2012
Images from Frenchtown to Trenton, Prallsville Mill, Stockton, NJ, 2013
Tete-a-Tete: Conversations in Photography, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, 2016
Light and Matter: The Photographic Object, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, 2017
Sheraton Design, Boston, MA, Designer, 1967-1968
University of Delaware. Newark, DE, Graphic Artist, 1968-1970
Thorion Industries, Washington D.C. Graphic Artist, 1970-1972
Pine Point School, Stonington, CT, Art Teacher, 1977-1978
Cambridge Photo Co-op, Cambridge, MA, Gallery Manager, 1979
Big Bend College, Heidelberg, Germany, Taught Photography and Design, 1981-1991
U.S. Army Engineers, Heidelberg, Germany, Offset Photographer, 1987
U.S. Army Headquarters, Heidelberg, Germany, Supervisory Photographer, 1991
City Colleges of Chicago, Heidelberg, Germany, 1992
U.S. Army Headquarters, Heidelberg, Germany, Graphic Artist , 1992-1995
Burgerhaus, Bensheim, Germany
City of Ludwigshafen, Germany
Nicephore Niepce Museum, Chalons-sur-Saone, France
Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA
The Platinum Gallery, New York City, NY, 1998
In my work, I have consistently striven for a high level of craftsmanship and aesthetic quality. And I wanted to use the photographic medium to its fullest extent: 'straight' black and white, color and the historic techniques of the pictorial school. The latter I have attempted to update in a usable way. Gum bichromate, cyanotype, etc. are helpful in portraying the evocative beauty of the old European civilization and in documenting the swiftly-changing 'traditional'cultures of Turkey and North Africa. With 'timeless" subject matter, like nudes, these techniques are also appropriate.
In 1988, I had a show in Germany entitled The World We Have Lost. The images were done in the techniques used by the pictorial school of photographers (1890-1910). Thus by using demanding 'lost' methods to portray traditional societies and also losing key elements of their identity, I believe my work and methods had a unified theme.
For the 150th anniversary of photography, I was in a solo show at the Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen, Germany, which was educational. Some of 65 images were duplicates, but done in a different comparative method: gum bichromate, cyanotype or Van Dyke Brown or some combination thereof. It was informative and gratifying.
With the introduction of digital photography and consequent decline of film and gelatin silver paper, and the continuing visual homogenization of Europe, this theme is more important to me than ever. And America, always known for rapid change, is accelerating the pace in a disorienting way. How much more quickly our skills and traditions (and landscapes) are disappearing! A recent trip through the old South confirmed this observation.
My main interest then has been to portray people engaged in traditional work and social situations before their societies, towns, and landscapes changed beyond recognition. Living abroad for twenty-four years gave me the opportunity to do this, not as a photojournalist but as a fine art photographer. The portraits in my portfolio number almost one hundred people, from various countries, printed on gelatin silver paper or using the old processes, gum bichromate, cyanotype, etc. My use of the historic processes, again, exemplifies a keen desire not to lose everything useful from the past and to dignify my subjects in their traditional milieu.