Through A Liquid Mirror: The Photographs of Wayne Levin


Deep Reflection

Levin shares a mystical universe through photos

By Burl Burlingame,
Honolulu Star-Bulletin Reporter

PHOTOGRAPHER Henri Cartier-Bresson called it the "decisive moment" -- that unimaginably narrow slice of eternity in which the elements of mass and volume and velocity arrange themselves in front of the camera lens -- the instant during which there is a photograph waiting to be captured, not a millisecond before or after. The elements compose themselves, and then hurtle onward.

But the process also takes place behind the camera, deep in the synapses of the brain. Training and instinct and personal mythology sense the coming moment in time to fire off a signal to the shutter finger. It's a random world, so it's best to be prepared for it.Wayne Levin's decisive moments, many of which are collected together in the book "Through a Liquid Mirror," are eloquent visual statements of a mysterious world. As an artist, he's clearly communicating this vision. The book was named the Samuel Kamakau Book of the Year in the Hawaii Book Publishers Association's "Ka Palapala Po'okela" awards, and won three other awards in the annual event.

Levin's floating universe is the boundless sea. Like the old observation goes, it's a big ocean, and you're only seeing the top of it. Some of Levin's images, particularly those of body surfers drifting through crashing clouds that look like some of the deep-space nebula photographed by the Hubble telescope, have become some of the best-known photographs ever taken in Hawaii. They strike a deep chord in viewers.

Levin became interested in photography in high school, and attended a photographic institute before joining the Navy, where, he said, "Naturally, they didn't assign me as a photographer. But the Navy allowed me to fall in love with traveling, and I got a new Nikon camera in Japan."

After his discharge, Levin worked for Honolulu photographer Robert Wenkam, and then went back to school at the Pratt Institute.

"I was in in love with water and the sea, and I tried taking photographs with a Nikonos with color film. But color film is a problem underwater. The liquid absorbs the spectrum except for green and blue, and it's too dense to illuminate with a flash anywhere but right in front of the camera."

He tried black-and-white film, abandoning the flash for natural light. Suddenly the sea, which for Levin's camera had existed only as far as the flash could reach, became a vast and seething universe. Levin began spending his days in the primordial, billowing soup of Makapu'u and Sandy Beach shorebreaks, in deeper water communing with whales and sharks, in the overgrown haunted houses of shipwrecks, and occasionally on dry land, as when he photographed Hawaiian archaeological sites on Kalaupapa and Kahoolawe.

The element of chance always comes into play, and Levin says "the most enjoyable part of photography" is scouring the contact sheets of newly printed negatives, looking for the happy accidents.

Levin uses a variety of traditional photographic techniques in his printing, such as selenium toners and prefogging the paper to get a feeling of depth. It isn't an exact science -- no two prints will be perfectly alike -- but once he gets on a roll, Levin prints "quite a number of images at once, and they're all pretty close."

Over the years, he's discovered that his ideal tonal range for an image has "become softer and more subtle. Photography is a legitimate art. I don't care how others define it, if I'm communicating with a viewer how I feel about the subject, then that's great.

"The ocean is a mysterious place. When you're in the ocean, you're in the hands of a greater power, and that feeling that you get from nature is what I'm trying to express. I've been told that even when I use large-format color film of above-water subjects, they still wind up looking like a 'Wayne Levin,' that is, like a black-and-white underwater print!"

Levin's work has become popular enough that he commands an average of $800 for a 16-by-20-inch print mounted into a 20-by-24-inch matte. (To buy a print, contact Levin directly at 808-328-9036 in Kealakekua or at

"The best-selling images by far are the one of the surfers flying through the water. The pictures have amazing ambiguity, and people read all sorts of things into them. What's ironic is that it took me a while to realize how strong they were."

The idea of a book had been bubbling for a while, and Levin had been egged on to produce a monograph by friend Thomas Farber. Mainland publishers sniffed politely at the concept, which, Levin said, "Worked out OK, because while it went on, I kept taking more pictures that wound up in the book."

Farber suggested Levin show his work to Gaylord Wilcox, whose Editions Limited publishing house specialized in high-quality visual productions.

"I was just floored by the pictures," said Wilcox. "I wasn't even sure what I was looking at at first, except that it seemed magical."

Wilcox published the book last year, and it has sold slowly but steadily. A supply recently went out to mainland surf shops. The hardback is $37.50 and the softcover version is $25.

Levin's current projects include photographing the artificial oceans in aquariums. "It's a high-tech way of reproducing nature, and the split between the worlds in and out of the water there are incredibly visual," said Levin.