If only the world were a perfect place, there’d be more partnerships like the one between fine-art ocean photographer Wayne Levin and scientist Randy Kosaki of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
Kosaki invited Levin on a research cruise to six of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands last year to convey "the feeling of what it is like to be there," says Levin. The photographer’s resulting work is on exhibit at the Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center through Oct. 15.
What’s this? A scientist who wants to capture feelings?
"Wayne’s work is much more accessible to the general public than scientific data," says Kosaki, a research director with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and deputy superintendent of the monument. "It hits at a gut level."
Kosaki says there’s nothing like art to educate people about environmental causes. Papahanaumokuakea was designated in 2006 by President George W. Bush to protect the 139,797-square-mile area’s entire ecosystem, on land and deep into the sea. The area is the last habitat for some of the globe’s most endangered species and holds special status in the culture and cosmology of native Hawaiians.
Recent Photographs by Wayne Levin’
On exhibit: Through Oct. 15; 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays and until 6 p.m. Fridays
Place: The Contemporary Museum at First Hawaiian Center, 999 Bishop St.
Also: Docent-guided tours at noon on the third Thursday of the month
Part of the reason the area caught Bush’s attention was Susan Middleton and David Liittschwager’s arresting portraits of life around the sanctuary, which were exhibited nationally, including at Bishop Museum, Maui Arts & Cultural Center and the White House. Their work resulted in a book, "Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World’s Most Remote Island Sanctuary" (National Geographic, 2005, $65).
Kosaki took Middleton to the area on one of his cruises. After seeing the impact of her work, "I virtually begged Wayne to come along with us."
LEVIN CALLS Papahanaumokuakea "a sacred, special place." On that cruise, research was done at Nihoa, Mokomanamana, Laysan, Pearl and Hermes, Midway and Kure.
"It was a beautiful place, very isolated. It was a place of birds and fish," he recalls. "It was like there were two worlds: above and under water."
Huge ulua dominated the waters alongside sharks, Levin says. The fish were curious rather than afraid of human visitors, and this afforded Levin tremendous opportunity for great shots. But it also created a few scary situations.
"There were lots of sharks, mostly Galapagos whitetips. One day a group of scientists were doing very deep diving, and they told me to go along because they were often bringing up large ulua and sharks" that followed them.
"The scientists spent quite a while in the water decompressing from their deep dive, and more and more sharks were circling until there were about a dozen of them. But the predators wouldn’t get too close because there were lots of bubbles and noise from the equipment.
"But I was free-diving, so there were no bubbles or noise around me, and five or six sharks got real interested in me," Levin says. "After a while I waved in a boat, and that scared them away. But if I was there alone, it would’ve gotten really hairy."
Another time, trekking Nihoa with archaeologists, Levin wandered into a valley he believes was a tern nesting area.
"It was really windy, and the terns would catch the wind and fly right at me. At the last minute they’d swoop up, but they kept coming right at me — and they had really sharp beaks. It was their way of saying ‘no trespassing.’ So I got out."
MUSEUM CURATOR Inger Tully says when Levin approached her about showing this body of work, she agreed sight unseen.
"Even before he went, I already said I would love to do the show. I knew the images would be wonderful," says Tully. "I trusted him."
Levin had more than enough material from which to choose, taking about 3,000 shots. He whittled those to the hundreds and presented them to Tully.
"It still took about a month to decide on the 40 or so in the exhibit," she says.
Levin says that while he’s a fine-art photographer, he didn’t feel compelled to capture "that perfect shot of a particular animal."
"I was honored to have an opportunity to go to such a special place, and I felt a strong responsibility to get photos that conveyed what the place was like," he says.
As far as Kosaki is concerned, Levin definitely hit the mark.
"Wayne’s results speak for themselves," he says.