I love photography. Most people do. People are drawn to the idea of capturing a split second in time, a family memory or once-in-a-lifetime event, on a piece of paper or in a digital file. Photography can be edited, manipulated, and used to show things that aren’t physically possible (the whole concept of taking a picture with one person half your height but who is really just 20 feet farther away). Photography can be as easy as point and shoot, used for simple memory-making, or as complicated as a volume of books for rules and techniques used in fine art photography. It can be an art used by amateurs, or a lifestyle finessed by professionals trained from early childhood. Michael Levin takes all that and throws it all away.
Michael Levin is a photographer from Vancouver, BC who is on the rise in the international photographic community. His reputation is built on large, long-exposure landscape photographs, often seeming to be floating on clouds. But Levin doesn’t come from your typical photographic background (he used to own a restaurant) and he doesn’t follow the usual photographic rules, at least not on purpose. Beginning taking photos just seven years ago at the age of 35, Michael Levin now travels the world to find random, remote places to take long-exposure photographs in the early morning or late at night. Some of his film exposures can last as long as 60 minutes, but all the ones that turn out are a breathtaking display of contrast and detailed texture.
I met Levin at the opening of his Continuum show at the Lúz Gallery on Fort Street in Victoria, BC. Lúz Gallery is a small photography gallery focussing on “serious photography with an interest in Canadian artists.” Quinton Gordon, Lúz Gallery owner and workshop leader, says the year-old gallery is building its reputation on artists like Levin.
“We show Michael’s work because it is great,” says Gordon, “but we also show him because he is serious about his art, not just the creation of it, but the production and selection of works for a show – the business side. This fits with what we do at the gallery and it helps build our reputation alongside the building consistency of his body of work. And he’s a nice guy!”
Lúz Gallery’s first show was of a local artist, and most of the photographers the gallery has worked with are Canadian. As the gallery builds its reputation as a ‘serious gallery,’ the artists it works with are branching into international waters as well, artists now hailing from Japan, the United States, and New Zealand. Continuum is the gallery’s last show in its current Fort Street location as a new, bigger, more capable location is being completed on Oak Bay Avenue.
Levin’s show contains works from both his award-winning, sold-out book Zebrato and some new prints. There was also a chance to buy a new special edition print of Zebrato, as it was a limited printing and once it is again sold-out, there will be no more copies made. The prints were displayed in the small gallery on every space available, but not over-crowded as that would have taken away from the simplistic element of the photos. Most prints were created on a large format Epson ink-jet printer, mounted and framed on white backgrounds and simple black wood frames. The prints may look simple at first glance, but the long exposure and vast depth of field make every tiny detail visible in stark contrast, making something new pop out of a photo each time it is looked at.
The simplicity and symmetry of Levin’s photos come not from a life-long following of the golden rules of photography, but from a natural attraction to symmetry and the architectural elements of man-made structures. But while taking long-exposure shots may turn out interesting, the process can be daunting. Some of Levin’s photos may take up to an hour of exposure and multiple attempts spread over days of shooting at times when there is little to no light. “The best times for taking long-exposure photos are the early hours of the morning”, explains Levin, or after the sun sets at night because of the required lack of light. So what does Levin do to pass the time? “Recently? I put in my iPod and listen to the new Wilco album. And I explore the surrounding area looking for other photographic possibilities.”
Out of Levin’s prints shown as part of Continuum, there was one that stood out for me. Most of the photos were taken in Japan, but there was one split image of a Dutch windmill and wild grass landscape. It was mounted on aluminum without a frame or mat and the two images were spaced just inches apart. This production method made the photo look like one print from long distance, but on second glance drew me into the negative space between the prints.
My eyes were drawn both to the windmill in the foreground of the left print and down a river in the right. This picture also stood out for me because it seemed to focus less on the stark contrast between black and white like most of Levin’s work. Instead the focus seemed to be on the different, subtle shades of gray in the windmill tower and the softly-swaying grass.
Levin’s photos are mainly taken with large-format or medium-format camera’s, some taking negatives as big as dinner plates. The advantage is the amazingly high resolution of a negative that is 8”x10”. None of the photos are photo-shopped or edited during the development process; all get their mystique through the long-exposure. And Levin suggests that none of his photos can be recreated, even by him, because he doesn’t write down the timing or the F-stop or even the location. An example of this unpredictability is the photo titled Zebrato, a photo taken during a three week trip to Italy. It was pure coincidence that Levin found himself looking out onto a dock with a fisherman in the early hours of morning with perfect clouds (the inspiration behind the name – think zebra), and he doesn’t think he’d ever be able to find that place again. It was the only photo printed from that trip, and it is likely Levin’s most successful print to date.
Here are some more questions posed to Michael at the end of his Continuum opening:
BF: Why no people in your photographs?
ML: The locations and times I shoot in are so remote, random, and isolated and early or late that no people are generally around.
BF: Favourite shooting subject?
ML: General landscape, I love the architectural elements, whether man-made or the shapes in nature. (Points to a photo titled Pyramid ROCK) See the shape here? It’s completely natural but it has a great pyramid shape.
BF: Favourite Camera?
ML: My Ebony 4×5 – no, scratch that, it’s my Hasselblad, what am I saying?
BF: When did you start taking photographs, and what was the reason for starting?
ML: Seven years ago, I was 35. I took a picture in Northern BC and it resonated with me unlike any the images that I had shot before. It all came together then: I knew what I wanted to do; it set the tone for all my work.
BF: So any photography experience before that? As a child?
ML: No, that was it!
BF: If you could do something else for a living, what would you do?
ML: Well, I used to own a restaurant…I sure wouldn’t do that again! (Pauses, thinks) I don’t know. I have the best job ever; I travel around the world to wherever I want to go, whenever I want to go. I get to take pictures, I get to explore. I don’t have a deadline or a boss telling me what to do. I don’t want to do anything else!
BF: Favourite part of photography?
ML: That’s it: I get to explore the world wherever I want.
At the end of my chat with Michael Levin, I asked him the question he is most often asked, “what is the best tip you have for a young photographer?” His reply wasn’t quite what I expected. Instead of focussing on the shooting practice and the technique, he replied:
“Be very critical of your own work. If you think it is so-so, don’t put it in. Nobody wants to see so-so, they want to see the best. If you can be very self-critical, you will force yourself to take better photographs and you will get a reputation of having only great prints. This creates the professionalism that is important in photography and in the business side. And patience, that is very important too.”
Patience is a skill Levin must have mastered. His vast collection of long-exposure prints are a stunning example of what hard work, inspiration, motivation, and especially patience can achieve for a photographer.
To view more photos by Michael Levin and to learn more about his upcoming shows, please visit his website.
All photos taken by Ben Fast, except print of Michael’s original work (the windmill) which is subject to copyright by Michael Levin. Prints used with kind permission from the artist.