The ocean is just incredibly powerful. I’m aware that I’m putting my life in the hands of something vastly more powerful than me and it’s by its grace that I return.
Since spending his days chasing the surf in the late Sixties, underwater photographer Wayne Levin has devoted his life to exploring the strange lure of life beneath the ocean’s surface. Exploring the mysterious depths of the ocean, his pictures capture a world of hidden mysteries and surrealist dreamscapes – rolling waves form a stormy skyline, shoals of fish become living sculptures and jet-black bodies hang in pools of light. Descending beneath the waves, Levin immerses himself into another dimension and illuminates the expansive mystery and beauty of the ocean.
After 45 years looking through his viewfinder, the 72-year-old still continues to find the wonder in the wilderness. Just hours after battling a riptide, we speak to the Hawaii-based photographer, about the mercurial power of the ocean and his enduring curiosity for life underwater.
‘Looking up into Skylight’
As soon as you put your head underneath the water it feels like you’re in another world. It’s like Alice passing through the looking glass into Wonderland.
Back in ‘83, when I first put on the mask to shoot from under the waves I had no idea that when a wave breaks the surface looks like huge storm clouds suspended in the sky. As soon as you put your head underneath the water it feels like you’re in another world. It’s like Alice passing through the looking glass into Wonderland. All of a sudden you’re surrounded by all these different species, you’re kind of weightless, things are moving differently.
Mankind has always depended on the oceans, but we rarely see beneath the surface. It’s an amazing world, it’s so diverse and has so much power. To me, the fact that there are people who not only survive but thrive in that world represents a meeting between the ocean and the people who really love and respect it. When I photograph swimmers and divers I notice how they transform when they enter the water. They’re regular people on dry-land but underwater they’re exceptional. All of a sudden they really know how to move, they become fish-like. Above water I’m a little shy, maybe tentative not sure of myself but, when I dive in, something changes.
‘Swimmers, Ironman Triathalon’
Perhaps things would be better if we escaped our individual worlds and saw ourselves as part of humanity on a larger scale.
The ocean is filled with wonder. It’s there when I’m watching big waves break from underwater, been in touching distance of a whale or been echo-located by circling dolphins. But, what fascinates me the most is watching schools of Akule. They form schools of tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands. In constant motion, they form shapes like otherworldly, kinetic sculptures. And, as predators interact with the school it will suddenly explode, or morph shapes instantaneously. The individuals react and move in incredible coordination like they’re cells of a larger being.
Seeing the way they move I have to ask myself, what’s the individual? Is it the single fish, or is it the school? When you extend the question to the human race, it makes me think, are we really part of something larger? Perhaps things would be better if we escaped our individual worlds and saw ourselves as part of humanity on a larger scale.
‘Swimmer with Humpback Whale’
If we are going to have even a small chance to save the ocean, we have to act aggressively right now.
I’m nostalgic for times I’ve read about, when huge shoals of fish and whales roamed the oceans and when Kona was filled with beautiful Coral Reefs. Whilst we have created some incredible things, what we are destroying is even more important. We are doing close to irreparable harm to the ocean and we are destroying the environment. We have literally filled the ocean with pollutants. From chemical runoff to plastic that breaks down into harmful microplastics. Here in Hawaii, many windward beaches are now loaded with junk, all the way from Asia.
Human overpopulation puts a huge strain on the natural world, and yet we continue to put our immediate needs and comforts ahead of our species survival, and the survival of the planet. I think the lessons are already here to see. The declining fish populations, the plastics, the oil spills, the rising water temperatures, the breaking up of the polar caps, the rising sea levels, the dying coral reefs. We’re now on the brink. if we are going to have even a small chance to save the ocean, we have to act aggressively right now.
We’ve reached a point where it’s hard to ignore the danger we’re in. Recently I’ve been trying to make more of a political statement about the plight of the ocean and the plight of the world right now. I’d like my work to encourage more empathy toward the ocean because it’s in danger of dying. It’s time we start thinking of ourselves as being connected to each other and the world we rely on.
‘Guillaume Nery Freediving’
‘Ascending Freedivers, Pacific Cup of Freediving’
I was getting tired fighting the riptide, I even thought about letting it take me.
In my old age, I continue to push my vision and ideas. Recently, I have found a pier, here on Oahu, that I’ve been snorkelling under. There is a mix of the natural forms of the schools of fish and the graphic shapes of the man-made relics on the bottom. You might think that photographing under a pier is a nice safe project for someone in their 70’s. But today, I decided to go out whilst the surf was up, with huge waves breaking outside on the barrier reef. As soon as I started swimming, I could feel the strength of the current, it was like pushing across a fast-moving river. I was getting tired fighting the riptide, I even thought about letting it take me, but I realized if I did that it might hook out to sea. It was a real struggle but here I am, telling the story.
Running Wild: Lessons of a Life Lived Nowhere
Wayne Levin was born in Los Angeles in 1945. His father gave him a Brownie camera, and a little kit to develop his own film, for his 12th birthday and from that early age he was hooked on photography. While Levin worked for years as a commercial and travel photographer after his discharge from the Navy in 1968, he has spent the majority of his career photographing below the surface of waves in Hawaii. Levin earned his B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute and his M.F.A. from Pratt Institute in New York. Flowing, a monograph cataloging over 30 years of underwater photography was published by Datz Press in 2015. His monograph, Through a Liquid Mirror (Editions Limited, 1998), received the Hawaii Book Publishers Association’s award for Book of the Year. Levin received the Photographer’s Fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council (1989); and the National Endowment for the Arts (1984). His photographs are widely exhibited and are in major public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Bishop Museum, Honolulu; and the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts.
Follow his story @waynelevinimages