Levon West moved often as a boy, as his father preached in a series of North Dakota towns. His father was pastor at the Congregational Church in Glen Ullin from 1914 to 1918, when the family moved to Harvey. West graduated from high school in Harvey as valedictorian, and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1924. He wanted to take almost entirely art courses but his father insisted that he major in business administration.
When he began working with color photography, Levon West he adopted the pen name "Ivan Dmitri," though he continued to use the name Levon West for his non-photographic works. As Ivan Dmitri, he helped to gain acceptance for photography as an art medium, helping to establish one of the first photography exhibits at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dmitri felt that such a move was necessary in order for the public to treat photography as art, rather than just something reserved smaller mediums like books, magazines, and newspapers. In 1959, Ivan Dmitri founded Photography in the Fine Arts.