On an unseasonably cold night in July, Emeryville photographer Idan Levin parked his car on a side street near Laney College, in a spot that was big enough to make a fast getaway, if necessary. Clad in gloves and a black jacket, he walked swiftly and purposefully to a large construction lot by the 880 freeway. He hopped a chain-link fence and cut across the gravel to reach a huge crane, about twelve to fifteen stories tall. Levin grabbed onto the bars and began climbing up, carefully placing hand over foot and trying not to look down. It was like a very steep jungle gym, he said. "The bars are big and thick, sometimes hard to hold onto. I didn't have any rope. If I slipped, I'd die."
By 4:30 a.m. Levin was eight stories up, so that his sightline met the skyscrapers in downtown Oakland. He worked fast, pulling out a Nikon D300 and focusing his lens on the construction area below. The air was frigid, he said, and the steel bars felt like thick blocks of ice, even through his gloves. Still, he managed to capture the scene: a patch of dirt far below, clotted with machinery. Bars crisscrossed the foreground, giving the shot an oddly claustrophobic effect.
To Levin, it was strange and beautiful. An anti-John Muir, he insists that only man-made environments excite him: cranes, bridge towers, intricate steel structures, and freeways that seem to unspool in every direction. The whole idea is to solidify a particular experience at a fleeting moment in time. If you sit there and wait for an hour, he said, the composition changes completely.
But he hadn't timed this operation well. At 5 a.m. the construction workers shuffled in to start their workday. Levin froze. "I was wearing all black, so I figured if I didn't move, they wouldn't see me." He waited for an hour, while the workers cranked on their machines and shined giant lights over the site, occasionally pointing them in Levin's direction. As dawn bled in, the lights went out. Levin hoisted himself down, clutching each bar with frozen hands. He hit the ground and tiptoed back to his car. It was one of many close calls.
For Levin, photography is risky business. His whole MO is to capture images of urban environments from angles that nobody really sees. He prefers to photograph after dark, using long exposure instead of a flash to absorb as much light and detail as possible. He tries to catch the industrial world in its most private and intimate moments: the city skyline as glimpsed from a rooftop, the street scrubbed clean of cars, a freeway artery in the wee hours of dawn. He subjects each photograph to a highly surgical editing process in LightRoom and Photoshop, dividing the image into a million sections and splicing them all together.
The effect is often surreal. His picture of a freeway overpass in West Oakland (called "Arteries") has the quality of an Impressionist painting, in that every detail springs into sharp relief — the concertina wire, the mottled gray sky, the ground choked with weeds and other organic matter. His work appeared at the Oakland Underground Film Festival this fall, as well as museums in Shanghai and Beijing.
That said, Levin's finished product is often less interesting than his process. He's managed to turn a fine art into a stealth operation.
A former Israeli soldier who grew fond of nocturnal spy missions, Levin takes the concept of voyeurism to its utmost extreme. He wants to see everything without being seen. In the last few years, he has climbed freeway catwalks, scaled the tops of buildings, tiptoed across joists, trespassed onto industrial sites, and scrabbled up flatbed trucks. He's barged into high-security buildings by walking backwards through an exit, hiding in the middle of a crowd. He snuck into a luxury apartment building in China by acting like he belonged there, chattering on his cell phone while looking expectantly at the guard. "I pretended there was someone on the other line, and I told that person I was coming right up," Levin said. And it worked — the guard buzzed him right in.
In fact, Levin is fascinated by security devices. He loves fooling guards, evading monitors, and circumventing extra layers of fortressing. He always takes note of security cameras and their angles. But instead of hiding from them, he often tempts them: He'll walk in front of the camera, make a noise, shake the gate, peek over the fence. "I'll usually do something that would beckon a response," he said. "I'll walk in front of the camera and look like I'm wandering in the wrong place." The whole point is to see if anyone eventually comes out to ask what the hell he's looking at. Often, nobody does.
The photographer characterizes himself as an innocuous trespasser. He said as much in an e-mail dialogue with the British graffiti artist known as Banksy, who could, in some ways, be his proper analogue. "I said, 'We both go to places in the middle of the night. We break in and trespass. But you leave all these marks to let people know you were there. I like to leave everything just the way it was."
Still, there's no question that Levin loves the thrill of almost getting caught.
One of Levin's favorite restaurants is Best Taste in Oakland's Chinatown. He usually picks a back table in the far corner, and asks the waiter to bring him one meat dish and one vegetable. On a recent Wednesday night, it was braised chicken and watercress with bittermelon, hot green tea, and a side of egg rolls. He sat eating in the measured, methodical way of one who treats food as fuel, rather than pleasure. A laptop by his side had its web browser set to Google Maps, where Levin perused street-view images of potential sites: a high billboard on Mandela Boulevard, the Fruitvale drawbridge near Jingletown, the Emeryville connector between I-80 and the 880 freeway. "You can see the catwalks underneath," he said, zooming in close enough to see scrub marks on the shoulder. "But I don't know how interesting that will be, visually."