After being discharged from the Navy in 1968, native Los Angeleno Wayne Levin moved to Hawaii, where he has continued to live over the past half century. He began to pursue his studies of photography in earnest, eventually receiving his MFA from the Pratt Institute in 1982.
After completing his studies, Levin returned to his adopted home to teach photography at the University of Hawaii. Soon thereafter he began making underwater photographs, documenting surfers from a perspective few had seen. After some early experimentation with color film, Levin quickly recognized that black and white photography allowed him to portray the ocean from a new light.
In 1989, he moved to Kona and dove deep into underwater photography, creating numerous luminous series of powerful seascape work. His mesmerizing scenes of life below the surface are scenes from another world, a spellbinding environment that remains a mystery to us. His seascapes provide a luminous look at marine life in the wild, and it is intersects with the incursion of humanity.
While issues of climate change and extinction are finally being rightfully centered in public discourse, for many the issues remain abstract because they cannot picture the impact in real time. Photography does what few other mediums can: it offers a window into a realm few may go, speaking a language that can be read by all in the sighted world. It drives social media engagement, whether manifesting aspirational images or exposing injustice, inviting people to reflect, respond, and react to what they see.
Although Levin does not personally use social media, his daughter Elise set up an Instagram account to post his black and white underwater photographs. His recent documentation of coral bleaching events around the Hawaiian Islands and the power of social media inspired Levin to organize the recent exhibition, Add a Comment…. at the Honolulu Museum of Art.
Add a Comment… was designed to engage museum goers in the conversation around urgent issues of climate change and current threats to our ocean as a reminder to people that their voices are tolls of power. Beneath his photographs, Levin posted sheets for visitors to share their thoughts, creating an interactive space for the audience to participate in the show — and inspire others to think more deeply about the way they engage with art and the world.
“I wanted to survey and compare the audience response to images about the misuse and destruction of the ocean by the human species with images that are more positive and show its undisturbed natural beauty,” Levin wrote in an artist statement for the exhibition.
“I realize that Instagram is a tool I can utilize to show people, through photography, the current dire threat to the ocean: a threat that includes climate change, overfishing, pollution (including plastics, shoreline runoff, oil spills, dumping of other waste products), habitat destruction, acidification, etc… Yesterday, I went for a swim/snorkel at a place where I usually frequent, and saw a freshly bleached Lobe Coral that I’m certain wasn’t there just a few weeks ago—an ominous sign. If the ocean dies, so does humanity.”
All images: © Wayne Levin, courtesy of the Honolulu Museum of Art.