There is a minimalist grandeur to a Michael Levin photograph that weds technical mastery with a more loose and lyrical expressiveness. So many sharply-detailed small moments that resonate as sturdy, spellbound and suggestive. Levin hews to the adventuring spirit of a 19th century journeyman photographer, an idealist carrying a second set of eyes who still sees the world for its evocative beauty and poetic allure. In telling an artistic story of the locations he finds, Levin shifts our perspective so that the lingering effect is less about an actual place than an emotional state – the landscape read as mood and memory, as places marked by longing and potential.
Early in his artistic development as a photographer, Levin spent time in Japan scoping out its secluded areas while paying close attention to the meaningful principles behind Japanese aesthetics. The quiet, simple and spare use of space. The clarity achieved through stillness and solitude. The appeal to the unadorned natural order that inspires a more profound appreciation for beauty. While Levin has now photographed extensively in many different countries and his portfolio includes intriguing and iconic locations throughout the world, the measure of his work remains connected to subtlety and simplicity.
Consider the evidence of what Levin finds essential in a landscape. In Weir, the lattice of fish nets and scraggled posts in the water seems at once fragile yet timeless, an ancient tradition still proving its value and beauty in a more technologically-equipped age. But Levin is now a master at making small moments feel eternal despite their ephemeral qualities. In Departing Ferry, Levin balances both qualities beautifully. The hard stroke of the long wooden lighthouse pier serves to lead the viewer to notice the blurry white brushstroke of a ferryboat passing by. A brief, fleeting moment caught forever.
Whereas much of Levin’s early black and white long exposure work placed the central subject in context with an open expanse – whether set against the distant line of the horizon or encased in a silvery white glow of light and fog – his most recent work marks a notable shift in perspective. While in Sea Park, Quiet Harbour and Lost Mooring, the apparently limitless scene is vast and airy, Levin commands a much more direct relationship with his subjects in newer work such as Jazz, Cologne Cathedral and his riveting shot of the Eiffel Tower at night. Yet even in these scenes of potent immediacy, Levin finds a note of poetic grace. In Tourists, his camera captures not just the architectural grandeur in the old Palais Garnier but also a flutter of tourists briefly standing in a lower loge. It seems we’re all here to experience the sublime.
Still what has always marked Michael Levin’s photographs is their painterly quality – his scenes have an expressive purity and a self-contained life of their own. Now that he has introduced into his collection, it’s interesting to consider Levin’s long admiration for the work of Mark Rothko. Color was a device for Rothko to inspire a range of intimate emotions – to draw the viewer in deeply to his fully immersive perspective and experience their own revelation. Levin uses his own palette of colors to similar effect – lustrous aquamarine blues, diffused yellows and pale muted tones that recall old postcards. The effect is captivating.
In Levin’s nuanced handling, color becomes another lure toward a contemplative appreciation of a landscape. In Tuileries Fountain the arc of people arrayed around the central fountain appear perfectly content as they daydream beneath the warm glow of an elegant pink cherry tree and a long row of greenish gray mansard roofs. For Dusk Versailles, Levin cools his colors down lending this nocturnal scene a quiet, jewel-toned elegance that proves engrossing.
But the clarity in Levin’s purpose is most delicately evidenced in Sunshowers. Our eyes are first drawn to the graphic form of the undulating pier and the receding line of vertical bamboo posts – they seem to be the image’s central subject. But consider closely the vaporous layers of subtle color that float through the scene, the faint play of raindrops on the water and the crackling silver light starting to break through the lustrous fog that has enclosed this brilliant, fragmented moment. Levin is leading the viewer to a keener appreciation of the transformative opportunity still radiant in the world – not just all that endures and is timeless but the evanescent, transitory moments that are here for a startling minute and then gone forever. Except they remain, light-struck and wondrous, in Levin’s evocative prints.
Barry Dumka, May 2016