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Idan Levin Shoots from the Shadows

A local photographer applies military stealth to art.



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He flipped to another image of an industrial building, also in Emeryville. "You'd have to break in, avoid the cameras, then climb up this really tall fire escape on the side," he said. The whole point would be to photograph other warehouses and retail outlets across the street.

In the end, the Fruitvale Bridge won out. Freeway arteries are starting to become passé, Levin said. The billboard was guarded by a razor-wire fence — no problem for Levin, but too harrowing for his reporter companion. The factory didn't guarantee a good view. The bridge would be fast and easy. Its ten-story tower was essentially a long, twisty fire escape. Easy. "And I'm not sure it this part if manned," Levin said, pointing to a guard booth at the bottom. "But if we go late at night, they probably won't see us."

At 37, Levin cuts a striking figure. He's long and narrow, with thick dark hair and a perfectly sculpted jaw bone. He spent part of his childhood in Israel and retained an accent of indeterminate origin. Levin said that's a good thing to have, should he ever get caught by a cop or a security guard; he does the dumb foreigner thing pretty well. But his best asset is an unusually fast metabolism. "It's very inefficient," Levin complained. "It's as though you filled up your gas tank at night, then parked your car in front of the house and when you wake up, the tank is empty."

Yet having that kind of biology allows Levin to succeed at missions that would daunt other people. He can climb fast, squeeze through tight corners, run on legs trained from years of cross-country cycling. But it's Levin's psychology that drives him to take risks and test limits. He's a thrill-seeker with such a huge appetite for danger that he can't do something ordinary — like drive the 880 freeway at night — unless it becomes a death-defying stunt. He said that as a kid he was enchanted by the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland, and he's always tried to replicate that experience. Asked if he'd rather fly or be invisible, Levin doesn't even have to think about it. "I already know how to be invisible," he said. "So I'd choose flying."

The son of a teacher and an aeronautical engineer, Levin grew up in Israel and the United States, spending part of his teen years in the Silicon Valley. He traces his interest in photography back to seventh grade, when one of his father's colleagues took him out to explore a wind tunnel lab in Israel's Institute of Technology. The two of them took pictures of intricate pipes and very large air tanks — stuff that would interest a twelve-year-old boy, Levin said. They used black-and-white film, then developed it themselves. Levin was hooked.

At age eighteen, he repatriated to Israel and joined the army. "I didn't have to," he said. "But it seemed like the only option. All of my friends did it. It's kind of like a national duty." Levin has little to say about the Israel-Palestine conflict, but he clearly enjoyed military life. During basic training he was required to do night missions, in which he was dispatched to an area after dark and told to find specific points without the help of a map. Levin loved it. "Sometimes there's an element of fear," he said. "But it keeps you going."

When Levin moved back to California at age 21, he dropped into a pretty normal life. He snagged a tech job, fell in love, raised a family. Always a workaholic, he set photography aside and focused wholeheartedly on business development. In his spare time he collected art and worked pro bono to help other artists with their marketing strategy. He's currently the executive director of San Pablo Arts District Fund, an organization that focuses primarily on the corridor of San Pablo Avenue between 54th and 68th streets. He and several collaborators are trying to turn that area — oft called the Golden Gate district — into a nexus of small galleries and performance spaces. They've positioned themselves as community boosters.

But a couple years ago, Levin began waxing nostalgic for military operations. Not the artillery part, he said, but the stealth part. He missed climbing atop industrial structures, sneaking past guard towers, and mapping out routes in his head. He still had a taste for fear. In 2008, Levin decided to start going on night missions again, this time documenting them with his Nikon D100, which is a more primitive version of the camera he uses now.