Playing With Fire / PDN / Exposures                    

February, 2002

by Jane Gottlieb


When the volcano came to take the town of Kalapana in 1989, G. Brad

Lewis shot a photo looking across the lava flow at the crowd of people

whose homes were about to be extinguished in its path.  “It was a sad

event for most people because Kalapana was such a beautiful place, a

home to people for generations,” says Lewis, 43, from his Hawaiian home

just a few miles from there.  “But it’s also viewed as Pele the fire

goddess, and the people say, ‘She can have it because it’s her land.’

It’s a whole different attitude than if this was the mainland and a

natural disaster.”


With that shot, he caught what was about to happen coupled with the

emotions of the people who would face the consequences.  It was the

first photograph Lewis had ever sold as a professional.  It landed a

two-page spread in LIFE.  Time  came next, along with dozens of other

publications.  Lewis has been following the journey of the Kilauea

volcano ever since.


Hawaii’s youngest, most active volcano, Kilauea (which began erupting 19

years ago) makes its presence known with the magma that spews from a

fissure in the ground along with the cones it pushes up before boiling

over like a blast furnace.  Lewis is there with his cameras and tripods

for those moments which burn his face red and melt his boots.  He is

there when lava hits the ocean, throwing steam into the sky.


Lewis is also there when the cones have collapsed into craters and the

lava hardens to continue the process of growing the earth, and when

ferns take root in the raw lava.  His volcano photographs do not show a

single event or place;  rather they follow a lengthy process.  “What I

photograph will evoke an emotional moment.  Something moves me.  I get a

lot of feedback on that emotional response,”  he says between Kilauea

sightings.  “This is creation.  I’m capturing magical moments of

destruction and then creation.”


So closely has his career paralleled that of the seismic event that

Lewis’s moniker, like his Web site’s, is “volcano man.”


His outdoor photos, with an emphasis on Hawaiian volcanoes, sell briskly

at stock agencies and have made the covers of LIFE, Natural History,

and GEO  while also appearing in National Geographic  and Outside.  In

addition, he earns his living selling his prints which appear in

exhibits and books.


To understand his work, it is important to know that the volcanoes that

formed and are still forming the Hawaiian islands are not of the Mount

St. Helen’s variety which burst suddenly like a balloon, fill the sky

with ash and leave a lot of people dead.  “This is a continual

eruption.  We know where the event is and when a new event happens,”

Lewis explains.



Typically, scientists studying Kilauea contact him with reports of

activity.  Loaded down with a tent, a Nikon, a Pentax, a host of lenses,

protective gear and a bottle of wine for later, he hires a helicopter to

get to the spot.  He stays an afternoon or a week.  He might need to

wait for the best light or act fast because in 20 minutes an orange fire

can become a black surface.


He sets up as close as is safe with two cameras on tripods.  Lewis uses

6 x 7 format set for 30-second exposures, slow enough to give the feel

of motion.  The cameras are timed to go off intermittently.  If the wind

shifts and sends lava his way, he runs and leaves the cameras to do the

job.  “I’ve had situations where everything looked good and I had an

uneasy feeling that I needed to leave, and I turned around five minutes

later to find the spot where I was standing had exploded,” he says.


He sacrifices up to five cameras a year to the mission.  Usually, the

electronics get fried and the lens gets pitted by the acid filling the

air.  Casualties also include his photo vests which melt like tissue

paper.  He wears boots that are stitched, not glued, but still goes

through numerous pairs.  Lewis wears a respirator in the field but not

fireproof gear because he wants to know about sudden temperature rises

so he can move.  He has never been hurt and feels so secure in the field

that he sometimes takes his six-year-old daughter Heather to his



Still, in addition to fire bursts, Lewis has to watch for the delicate

shelf of new land formed by the hardening lava that can collapse under

his feet.  Once, he became stranded overnight when a stream of lava

unexpectedly surfaced and left him unable to get back to his car.


Lewis shoots largely on speculation and almost never works on something

that doesn’t interest him.  He follows a simple formula of doing what he

enjoys.  He has no training in photography.  He has made up for it with

a knowledge of geology and an intuition that leads him to seek beauty.


A Utah native, the photographer has let nature lead him from the West to

Alaska and now Hawaii where someday Kilauea may claim his own home.

“I’ve put 20 years of work into my home and garden, but people here are

not so attached,”  he explains.  “We do live on the world’s most active




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