Just before the pandemic hit, Alain Levitt went through an old box full of photos. He flipped through each glossy print and found endless images he shot of the wild days and nights of the downtown New York City scene back in the early aughts. There were old friends, friends who’ve passed, local legends like Gabby Hoffman, Chloë Sevigny, and Harold Hunter. The memories rushed back. As with anyone who finds themselves combing through old photos from their younger, halcyon days, Levitt felt something stir.
The photographer, who’d once contributed to VICE, decided to share those photos, taken from 2000 to 2007, on the Instagram page AlainLevittPhotography. “I think I waited a long time [to look through those old photos] because, but I kind of thought I sucked,” said Levitt, who quit photography and opened the Lower East Side Italian restaurant Bacaro in 2007. “So it was hard to face boxes and boxes and boxes of what I felt were my inadequacies as a photographer. When I finally looked at them, I was kind of taken aback by what was there. It feels like a different life.”
Artists, at least not the ones who are assholes, tend to be their worst critics. That’s evidenced in Levitt’s photographs, which are energetic, youthful, and vibrant, beaming through the grit that comes with old film photos. They go beyond the ultra-fluorescent party photography that was dominant at that time and offer snapshots of an era that millennials and Gen Xers recall, even if slightly blurred by time and the alcohol consumed on those nights. “I like being able to, out of nowhere, spring these memories on people,” Levitt said. “Like all of our friends who were there, it’s a reminder of what we had all experienced.”
But also, for those of us who were in our hometowns far away from the Lower East Side we’d read about in magazines and message boards, the photos fully capture the cool New York we glamorized, where you could end up hanging with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore at an art opening or catching a secret Yeah Yeah Yeahs set in a basement. Pretty soon, Gen Z might be buying American Apparel disco pants from DePop and remind us of our mortality—though Levitt’s photos might do that a bit too.
The band The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black at Otto's Shrunken Head.
After moving from LA to New York City at age 26, he fell into photography through his sister, Danielle Levitt (who also shot for VICE in the early aughts). “I kind of just rode her coattails a little bit in the beginning,” he said. “I had nothing else going on, and she helped point me in the direction. These weren't photos that I was planning on showing. I wasn't taking them as art. I was just taking photos because I had a camera and I was there.” Together, along with other well-known photographers like Ryan McGinley, Joshua Wildman, and Angela Boatwright, they became fixtures of the Downtown scene.
His photos show the bars lost over the years, and the people who made them special. Seeing Cat Power under a table at a Sing Sing Karaoke, or Quik RTW at Alleged Gallery on Ludlow Street, or Old Dirty Bastard performing at Plaid is a real IYKYK type situation. The comment section is testament to that, as they’re often filled with people from the photos or others recalling the places and people in them. But even if you DK, the photos can be appreciated as rad street and party photography.
Old Dirty Bastard performing at a VICE party at Plaid.
Now, Levitt is almost 50, and he has a life that’s pretty far removed from the partying he did back in the early 00’s. He has two kids, owns a business with his wife. “It's a little hard to look back on it because there was so much fun and a real innocence,” he said. “But it was also hard. There's so many people who are gone, and then also so many people who have done so well, and lived up to everything they had hoped that they were going to. One thing I remember is that there was a time when people could do whatever they wanted, and it didn't seem like there were many repercussions. And then at some point, it seemed like everything caught up with everybody really quickly.”
Chan Marshall, known as Cat Power, under a table at Sing Sing Karaoke.
After finally sharing his work, the positive response he’s gotten for it has given Levitt something he didn’t think he’d ever have again. It allowed him to overcome some of those inadequacies he felt as a photographer, and inspired him to take pictures again, especially now that he’s older, wiser, and happier. He carries his camera every day again, and snaps photos of anything that catches his eye.
Legendary costume designer and stylist Patricia Field.
“I'm shooting just as a way of connecting with the world again,” he said. “It came from the Instagram. Sometimes all you need is a little bit of attention. It can fuel you a little bit. I felt invisible for a long time. I get some attention for my photography, stuff that I had written off, and it feels wonderful. Maybe I can appreciate it more in a way that I wouldn't have back then.”
Here are more images from Alain Levitt. If you’ve been hankering to cut your bangs recently, this is the time to do it.
Pro skater and actor Harold Hunter (left) with writer Lesley Arfin and filmmaker William Strobeck in front of Max Fish Bar.
Artist Steve Powers.
Photographer Ryan McGinley and visual artist Agathe Snow.
During the 2003 blackout.