Idan Levin Shoots from the Shadows

A local photographer applies military stealth to art.

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.”

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.

The more advanced shoots require about five or six hours of preparation. First, Levin will drive around at night, looking for things that strike his fancy. He’ll crack the window open to feel the cold air prickling his neck, and to hear the low peal of a foghorn or a manufacturing plant. Once he sees something, he’ll note the exact location and check it out on Google Maps. He might scout it twice more — once in broad daylight, once at night. The whole process becomes an elaborate recon mission.

“I didn’t go back into photography, so much as I went back into my military experience,” Levin said. “I wanted to climb buildings and go places I wasn’t supposed to go. The camera became an excuse for when I get caught. Otherwise, ‘What are you doing on this roof?’ becomes a much harder question.”

But Levin would prefer not to use photography as an alibi, even if a cop tried to arrest him. “If you can run, run.” he said. “It’s probably better not to face any questions.”

Levin decided to reconnoiter the Fruitvale Bridge shoot on the night of Thanksgiving, sans camera. He left his Emeryville home at 12:30 a.m., and fifteen minutes later was speeding down 880 at 90 miles per hour, wielding his car as though it were a fighter jet. He lurched across lanes and took the curves at sharp angles. From a passenger’s perspective, it was terrifying: tight turns, face-flattening velocity, g-force akin to that experienced on a roller coaster. Levin trained his eye on the windshield.

“Too many cars,” Levin mumbled, weaving between the other vehicles. “I have to watch carefully and make sure none of them are cops.” He simpered. “Of course, I could just drive slowly — but that wouldn’t be any fun.”

Levin got off at the Alameda Avenue exit, made a right turn, and entered a large strip-mall parking lot. He noted that the gas station was open, and a few cars were parked outside the Home Depot. Otherwise, the place looked dead. Cones of light beamed from a vacant cheese-steak restaurant and the Pet Food Express. Levin rounded a corner and parked by a warehouse, right outside of Jingletown. He got out. The night air felt dry and prickly. It was quiet enough to hear the squeak of a giant recycling plant on High Street, which droned on, repetitively, like a programmed drum pattern. Levin moved swiftly. He snuck through an alley, following a set of train tracks no longer in use — the gravel was blanketed with broken glass. The tracks led up to a small draw bridge that separates East Oakland from Alameda.

Levin has had his eye on this bridge for quite some time. Its two towers stand about ten stories high, and the upper deck affords a panoramic view of the whole waterfront area. Levin had heard that a larger boat sunk in the estuary a couple months ago, after Tiki Tom’s restaurant burned down at Pier 29. He hoped to photograph it from a bird’s-eye perspective. Climbing the ten-story tower would be a cakewalk, he assured.

Even so, Levin over-studied the mission. He first scouted the bridge on Tuesday afternoon, noting all the security cameras and which direction they pointed, figuring out where the guard typically parks his car, taking stock of different escape routes. The fastest would be to run back the way he came — along the train tracks, through the alley, back down the street to his car. But there was also an alternate path along the water, if he could brave a small, rocky embankment.

Fruitvale Bridge doesn’t get heavy traffic, but a steady stream of cars glides by throughout the day. Small vessels crawl underneath, the sailors standing on deck in yellow rain slickers. At night, the scene is much quieter. Right away, Levin noticed a different car in the guard’s parking spot — a large, dark-brown Bronco. “The day guard drove a beige ’57 Chevy station wagon,” he said. “And it looked like he took care of his car.” He paused a beat, thinking. “He was the type of guy who would come out if he saw strangers loitering by his car.”

Levin sauntered over to the east tower, which stands right behind a small building where the guard supposedly keeps watch all night. But for a glimmering security monitor near the ceiling, it was dark. Levin peered in the window. The guard was sound asleep, lying fully clothed on a cot.

The original plan was just to stake things out for the real mission that Saturday. But Levin can never resist a chance to sneak past a sleeping guard. “It’s very hard to stay awake in those conditions,” he murmured, “when the room is all dark.” He peered in the window again. “I don’t even see a light from the TV — you know, that flickering color that you see. He’d have to be psycho to be awake.” Grinning, Levin slithered past a “No Trespassing” sign at the foot of the tower, and carefully began his ascent. He climbed all ten stories, then straddled a three-foot gap to reach the upper deck, only to look down.

One way to irritate Levin is to ask about his family, a subject about which he remains smartly reticent. He has a wife and two kids who seem to know very little about his adrenaline-junkie lifestyle. Either that, or they deny it. The photographer gets cagey at any mention of them, and insists that he’s trying to keep those worlds separated. “I don’t talk about art at work, and I don’t talk about family at work,” he said. Still, there’s always that back-of-the-mind possibility that he might leave the house at 1 a.m., get apprehended at 2 a.m., and call home from jail at 4 a.m. It’s almost happened.

“There have been times where people walked directly underneath me, but never saw me,” he said. “People don’t look up.” He said that once he climbed the side of a building in Oakland, and braced himself on the ledge over a doorway in order to get to the roof. As soon as he got on the ledge, someone walked out of the building, got into a car, and sat there for ten minutes. Levin was stuck standing on a tiny crossbar just wide enough to shield the doorway from rain. Finally, the guard left.

“When you’re standing in the cold, ten minutes can seem like forever,” he said. “It gets worse when your equipment is out, knowing I might have to leave it behind. I’d probably take the memory card and ditch the camera. A few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment aren’t worth the price of freedom.”

Besides the risk of getting caught, there’s also the danger of falling. Climbing the stairs of a ten-story bridge tower doesn’t quite compare to that of a narrow ledge or a fifteen-story crane, but it’s still a dicey situation. The steps follow a steep zigzag, and a gap between the stairs and the railing is big enough for an adult to slip through. And there’s always the chance of a guard waking up and checking his security monitor. Not to mention that November nights are cripplingly cold on the waterfront.

Levin returned to the bridge on Saturday, which might have been the coldest night of the year to date. By 2 a.m., temperatures had dipped below forty degrees, and an arctic wind rustled the trees below. Levin wore gloves and a light windbreaker that crinkled when he walked. He climbed swiftly. He appeared to be sweating.

There’s a large gap between the top of the stairs and the upper deck. Levin straddled it easily, grabbing on to a big locking pin. (It appeared to be part of the mechanism for raising and lowering the bridge.) The upper deck ran about a hundred yards long, made of steel bars and railroad ties with five or six inches between them. Levin pulled out his tripod and set it up at the east end. Then he crept to the other side, careful not to jam either foot in the gaps between the railroad ties, and wind up with a 127 Hours-type scenario.

“People drive across this bridge every day,” he’d say later. “But they never go a hundred feet up and look down.”

It was, indeed, a mesmerizing view, if you could overcome the fear of falling. Oracle Arena stood in the distance, its neon sign twinkling over the water. Taxis drove by intermittently, but mostly, the night was quiet enough to make the squeak of the recycling plant seem overbearing. Looking east, cars glided like hovercrafts across a seductive curve of the 880 freeway. Levin moved his tripod to photograph houses by the water. He saw a man and woman go underneath the dock, the woman ditching her bicycle on the shore. At one point, a little blond speck trotted across the lower deck of the bridge.

“Oh,” Levin said. “That must be a dog.”

He took 54 pictures in all, then snapped up his tripod and stuffed it in a backpack. He climbed back over the gap, gripped the locking pin, and righted himself on the stairwell. He began running down the steps, sweat bubbling from his forehead. “Go, go, go!” he said. “At this point, it’s all risk.”

But there was no need for fear. At the bottom of the bridge, the guard was still sleeping, TV screen flickering in the background. Cameras, signs, tower, Venetian blinds, and Ford Bronco all remained in their proper place. Levin walked briskly to his car, wiping his brow and breathing heavily. He didn’t pause until he was standing across from the recycling plant.

“I’m coming back for that one,” he said.

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