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Photography Instructors Team Up On Winning Muni Art Project

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City Walks, the winning Muni Art proposal by School of Photography instructors Lisa Levine and Peter Tonningsen. Photo courtesy of Lisa Levine and Peter Tonningsen.

Two Academy of Art University photography instructors were recently named one of five winners of the 2017 Muni Art contest. Working together, Lisa Levine and Peter Tonningsen came up with the concept for City Walks, their winning proposal. The pair is now busy creating a series of eight bold, colorful images that will highlight San Francisco’s landscapes and distinctive neighborhoods. From January through April 2017, their final pieces—along with work from the other winning artists—will grace the interiors of 100 Muni buses.

“We love the fact that this project is local,” said Levine, a fine art photographer who teaches a variety of photography classes at the Academy. “It celebrates our city and the beauty and visual diversity of our city. We’ve already done quite a bit of photography in San Francisco, particularly around the building of the Bay Bridge and in the downtown area. This project is an opportunity for us to get out into other neighborhoods we haven’t explored.”

So far, Levine and Tonningsen have photographed the Mission District, Hunters Point and Mission Bay for City Walks. Other areas they will likely focus on include the Castro, and to show off San Francisco’s natural charms, either the Presidio or Golden Gate Park. 

“Muni Art provides incentive for us to get out and make more work about different districts in San Francisco,” said Tonningsen, who has taught a wide range of classes during his 15 years as an Academy photography instructor. “We’re always eager to do that since much of our work is regional specific and it gives us a chance to better explore where we live.” 

In addition, Tonningsen appreciates the chance he and Levine are getting to share their work in a space where the public isn’t necessarily expecting to see art. “It’s not only great exposure for us, but in a sense a project like this democratizes art by making it available to the public without the exclusivity that many traditional venues embody,” he remarked.

Levine and Tonningsen have collaborated on a number of public art projects in the past. Along with City Walks, they are also currently working on several big projects in other parts of the country. For their joint endeavors, the duo uses a unique photography process they came up with a couple of years ago. It involves taking turns shooting pictures on the same roll of 35-millimeter film, passing it back and forth multiple times, and then digitally manipulating the results together to create a piece of art. 

“We’ve known each other a long time and have had lots of conversations about the solitary nature of photography,” explained Levine. “We always thought it would be fun to collaborate, but weren’t sure how we could do it until we came up with this idea. We repeat the process of shooting on top of each other’s work four to eight times until we end up with a cacophony of images.”

The photographers then scan the film and begin mining it for imagery they can manipulate. Although they can’t control what they’ve captured with their cameras, once the film is digitized, they have a lot of control over things like desaturating the color or intensifying certain areas they like. Often, they sit down together to look at the digitized film on a computer and make joint decisions about what to do with it. 

“It’s kind of a serendipitous process,” said Levine. “We prefer to look at the film at the same time and discover things together.”

Levine and Tonningsen hope the Muni riders who see their art will recognize familiar areas of the city and enjoy locating small details they identify with. “Part of the fun of our work is that it combines so many perspectives and localities,” Tonningsen said. “The way that visual information comes together can be curious and surprising. We want riders to share and delight in that discovery.”