For Joe Leavenworth, an interest in art and photography came from an unlikely source — the pages of skateboarding and BMX magazines.
“I began to pursue photography in high school, setting up an analog darkroom in my family’s laundry room,” said 33-year-old Leavenworth.
That interest continued into college, seeing him earn a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2007. In 2008, Leavenworth moved to New York to pursue photography professionally. There, he worked as an art preparator, installing art exhibitions for galleries and museums including the Pace/MacGill Gallery, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Morgan Library & Museum, as a means of supplementing his work as a freelance photographer.
In 2014, Leavenworth published his first art book, a monograph titled “Native Son,” featuring photographs taken between 2009 and 2012 that document his travels through the American South. Although raised in Woodbury, Connecticut, Leavenworth was born in Decatur, Georgia, where he was adopted shortly after birth. “Native Son” was inspired by Leavenworth’s interest in his estranged relationship to the South.
“The itch to experience this region I felt connected to, albeit abstractly, intensified, and I was further propelled after reading my biological mother’s nine-page handwritten letter left for me at birth,” said Leavenworth in an article for Aint-Bad.
“Native Son” received critical acclaim, with the first and second edition promptly selling out. Copies of the book are now housed in the permanent library collections of the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Since then, Leavenworth’s photographs have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, T Magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Fader, and W Magazine.
After living in New York for several years, Leavenworth decided to return to school in pursuit of a Master of Fine Arts degree.
“I was interested in having dedicated, focused time to develop my artistic practice and interdisciplinary interests, as well as receive critical feedback from a small community of dedicated artists,” he said. “I selected UCR’s MFA in Visual Art based upon faculty, generous funding, teaching opportunities, small scale, and proximity to Los Angeles.”
He was also drawn to the program because of Professor John Divola, whose photography Leavenworth discovered as a teen and credits with having a significant influence on his artistic development.
“It is rare to have such access to faculty,” he said. “It has been a privilege working closely with John during my graduate experience at UCR.”
After graduating, Leavenworth will teach photography at UCR during the second half of summer. He also plans to set up a studio in Los Angeles and publish collections of work he developed during his time as a graduate student. His second book, “Ayngel,” is close to completion, and Leavenworth hopes to have it published before the end of this year.