"Good storms are like hot romance. The wilder the better, as long as they're safe," says Stephen Levine who's currently showing his storm chasing photos of lightning shows and storm clouds at Lago Vista Gallery.
Stephen Levine has always been enamored by storms. Every since he was two years old, he says. He would watch them from his window and have what he describes as a "spiritual orgasm." "I would see the glow and spark in the sky and hear the thunder while the sun was shining. Awesome."
Levine says his father wasn't thrilled about his obsession. "Dad used to have temper tantrums when I looked out the window as if that threatened him spiritually," he says. But a few years before his father passed, he did a 180. "He would introduce me as, 'My son the storm chaser.'"
By 1977, Levine got tired of watching those storms from a distance. "If they're not going to come to me, I'm going to go to them," he figured. So that's when he started storm chasing. It's clear how much he loves both the chase and the "capture."
Storm chasing can be a dangerous hobby, of course. Once, at night, lightning struck two houses away from Levine. It looked like a waterfall of blue. "And the thunder knocked me to my knees. It hit me in the gut and then the moon came out. I thought, 'I came awfully close to riding that moonbeam.'"
Levine started a storm chasing tour company in 1995 and says the release of the film Twister in 1996 really helped his business take off: "It was very fulfilling when I did it. But after ten years, I burned out."
Now Levine is a full-time academic advisor at Richland College. He also teaches students who have had traumatic brain injuries due to accidents or stroke or the like and are now putting their lives back together. "It's creative arts for self-discovery and it's an amazing group of students," he says. "I've learned so much. Their positive attitude is mind-boggling."
Levine sees no difference between art and weather: "I experience weather as a combination of art and spirit and science." So it only makes sense that he would photograph the storms he chases and show those photographs in a gallery setting. Hence his current show.
The photographs are small in scale, forcing the viewer to come in close for a good look. But their tiny size belies the powerful punch these photographs hold. Each photo like a personification of nature.
In "Emory Light II" the lightening is embracing the trees and in "Ocean Lightning I" it's as if one is seeing into a science lab, connecting electrodes with lightning. "Lake Lightning I" portrays what seems to be giant tree roots attacking the city, and "Lightning II" portrays a thick, central strike with roots coming off of it reflected in the hood of the car. That thick strike, Levine explains, is the leader bolt.
"It comes partway down and then another rises up from the ground to meet it. It's called the surge. The pulsing you can sometimes see is the up and down and back and forth. Most never see the leader and the return stroke." He dances as he talks about the lightning as if he himself is the surge.
"Lake Lightning II" is particularly interesting. It's strange how, in this piece, Levine captures the sky above the clouds and the lightning beneath. "Multiple bolts from the cloud were extra high," Levine explains. "The winds and the charge of energy were intense and there was a huge polarity between the ground and the sky."
"Lightning I" portrays two pairs of long limbs of lightning reaching out to one another as if holding hands and "Lake lightning III" calls to mind alien creatures as if the lightning has a mind of its own and is purposely striking down on the earth below.
When I saw "Greenville Rainbow by Air," which shows double rainbows touching down to the earth, I couldn't help but think of that insane double rainbow youtube video. The guy in the video is nuts. But his awe at such a sight isn't. The sight in the photo is incredible. I can only imagine what it was like in person.
"This Tornado is Blowing my Mind," "Rice Texas Tornado I," "Rice Texas Tornado II," and "Rice Texas Tornado III" all show incredibly clear images of funnel clouds. Way too up close and personal for my comfort. So the show is well-worth seeing if you want the view without the danger.
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Levine loves chasing storms and photographing and showing them. But when it comes to storms and what they mean in the bigger picture, Levine's working on something even grander. "There's a dream I'm building for, a book with these images and my poetic prose. I want to inspire people. All the beauty seen within the storms is inside of us. So the more we recognize outside the more we can see inside."
You can see the show The Joy of Storm Hunting through November 18 at the Lago Vista Gallery on the Richland College campus.
For more about Stephen Levine, visit joyfulstormhunting.com.