Hot Shots

Photographer G. Brad Lewis gets closer to lava than you’d ever want to.


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G. Brad Lewis shoots all kinds of photography, but he's really only known for one thing. "Most people only think of the volcano when they think of my work. It's a hard act to follow," he says. It's not surprising. Not only is the sturm und drang of erupting lava visually compelling, there's an inherent, implied drama in volcanic photography: behind the lens of each shot is an actual human being, perilously close to flying molten rock and crumbling sea shelves.

For more than 20 years, Lewis has been that person, documenting Kïlauea's eruption since it rumbled to life in 1983, just a few months after Lewis moved to the Big Island. His photos have been published in such magazines as National Geographic, Life and Newsweek, and Lewis has now collected some of his best work into a book, called Volcano-Creation in Motion.

A river of lava flows over a precipice and into the ocean. Photo: G. Brad Lewis

As you might expect, he's had his fair share of close scrapes in the course of documenting Kïlauea's eruption. "One time, lava was actually fountaining and landing behind me," Lewis says. "Once one piece went over my head and landed behind me, I got out of there." Consummate professional that he is, it was only a temporary retreat. "I had left the tripod and camera on a 30-second exposure, and I went back and got it. It's become quite a popular shot."

But the book is less a daredevil's diary than a paean to the many facets of Pele. Lava is shown in an amazing variety of fiery tableaus, appearing, by turns, raucous, majestic, sinister and implacable. It sprays into the sky, pours sluggishly into the ocean and engulfs fire hydrants and visitor centers. Even the ultimate monuments of lava, the peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, are given proper treatment-the blue-and-white palette of their frigid landscapes contrasts nicely against the blacks and reds of the new lava.

Jim Kauahikaua, the staff geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, provides informative commentary, highlighting the differences between 'a'ä and pähoehoe lava, and giving a rough history of the eruption's activity at the Pu'u 'Ö'ö and Küpaianaha vents.

If anything, the science only adds to our awe of the volcano. In his years of studying and photographying Kïlauea, Lewis says he's never lost the feeling of excitement he's had since the first time he saw it erupt: "I just have a tremendous amount of respect for the power it has. I've never gotten blasé or felt like I have this thing figured out."

Volcano-Creation in Motion. Photos by G. Brad Lewis, text by Jim Kauahikaua. Mutual Publishing, $29.95.

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