Brain Pickings

Akule: Magnificent Black-and-White Underwater Photographs

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What underwater tornadoes have to do with marine sustainability and Captain Cook’s death.

For the past 30 years, photographer Wayne Levin has been capturing the magnificence of the underwater world in spellbinding black-and-white images with equal parts mystery and awe. One day, as he was swimming to photograph the spinner dolphins of Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay, infamous as the location of Captain Cook’s death, Levin came across what appeared to be a giant coral reef. But, as he approached it, the “reef” began to move and morph, turning out to be an enormous school of bigeyed scad fish. Levin snapped some photos and scurried to find the dolphins, but the experience stuck with him. Over time, he developed a fascination with the strange beauty and synchronicity of these fish schools and spent the next 10 years capturing them on hundreds of rolls of film.

His new book, Akule, offers a selection of his finest photographs, named after the Hawaiian word for bigeyed scads. Haunting and poetic, Levin’s work is particularly fascinating — if not melancholic — when examined in parallel with the Census of Marine Life and our efforts to reverse the damage we’ve inflicted on this whimsical microcosm.

Surrounded by Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Puffer fish with Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Two Amber Jacks Under Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

School of Akule by Mooring

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Most underwater photographers are divers first, then they get into photography to capture the beautiful scenes they see underwater. I was a photographer first. My first serious underwater photography was when I finished graduate school at Pratt in 1983. I returned to Hawaii to teach photography at University of Hawaii, and decided to photograph surfers from underwater. My first attempts were in color, but the results were very murky blue on blue. Then I switched to black and white, and everything came alive.” ~ Wayne Levin

Line of Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Akule Tornado

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Rainbow Runners with Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Great Barracuda Surrounded by Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Akule Pinwheel

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

I feel a sense of freedom, and I can feel myself relax, and my bodily functions slow down as I leave the anxieties of the human world behind. But the ocean has its own dangers. … So there is a freedom in being underwater, but also a responsibility to always be aware of your surroundings, and yourself.” ~ Wayne Levin

Akule is the follow-up to Wayne’s 1997 debut book, Through a Liquid Mirror, a play on the title of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to convey the magic and wonderment Wayne finds once he passes through the surface, just like Alice passes through the mirror into Wonderland. For more, NPR has an excellent interview with Levin.

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