Photographing the Inferno

April 1, 2009

By Lorraine A. DarConte

“Kilauea is a more user-friendly volcano than most,” says photographer G. Brad Lewis. “And that’s one reason I’m attracted to it. I have a cabin in Alaska that’s about 20 miles from several big, 10,000-foot volcanoes. I’m not too drawn to those because when they’re active, they’re dangerous; if you’re in the way, you’re dead. And I have no interest in dying.” That said, G. Brad Lewis’ love of photographing the planet’s most active volcano has put him at death’s door a handful of times.

Lewis lives on the summit of the Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii with his wife and daughter. He first visited Hawaii in 1982 from Alaska, where he was living in a cabin at the edge of Cook Inlet on the Kenai Peninsula. Back then Lewis was working as a geologist in the Brooks Range high above the Arctic Circle, and as an archaeologist in Prince William Sound.

“I’ve always been interested in volcanoes,” he says. “But while living in Alaska, I was more oriented to glaciers, the cold and that landscape. Coming to Hawaii and experiencing actual molten lava made a huge impression on me.” The movement of the molten lava—what he calls “liquid light”— fascinated him. “I was hooked right away,” he affirms.

When Lewis first moved to Hawaii, Kilauea was in its beginning stages of eruption. “It started a couple months after I arrived,” he explains. Hawaii Island, also known as the Big Island because it is more than twice the size of all the other major islands combined, is comprised of five volcanoes. Kilauea, which has been highly active for the last 23 years, is the
youngest volcano.

According to Lewis, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has always had an open attitude about people experiencing Kilauea. Initially, Lewis worked the areas that were open to the public, especially the ocean because he was fascinated with how the sea interacted with the lava. Although Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory (HVO of the USGS—United States Geological Survey), which is located within the park, had an official photographer back then, he eventually quit and was not replaced. “This is often the case with government entities here,” says Lewis. “They don’t usually have funds for positions to be refilled. So when that happened, there was a huge need for images.” Lewis immediately made his pictures available to HVO, the park and its scientists, who helped get him full access to the volcano. “As I built credibility and trust, I was able to establish a unique contract with HVO, which allowed me to go pretty much where I wanted.” The contract, says Lewis, is a win-win for everyone. The scientists use his images in-house, and Lewis retains copyright and ownership rights.

“My interest [in the volcano] is artistic but I also shoot what works best for HVO and the park,” he says. “I learned what the scientists were looking for, such as images with lava toes [the leading edges of the flow] and exploding cones [small fragments of lava and cinder that fall to the earth after explosion]. I photograph every element (of the eruption), not just lava flowing into the ocean or cascading down a cliff. The vent [the exposed opening on the Earth’s surface where volcanic material is released] is most interesting of all,” says Lewis, who likes to camp there at night when a new cone forms. “It’s so dynamic to see things created right in front of your eyes.”

Arriving on the Big Island in 1982, Lewis’ trip was supposed to be a quick break from the Alaskan winter. “I had lived in Alaska for years and when I wasn’t working in the bush I lived at my cabin, grew a garden, fished from the beach and observed the numerous volcanoes across the Inlet.
“I grew up in Utah in the Wasatch Mountains. I spent my boyhood exploring this range, as well as the sandstone deserts to the south. Being surrounded by the beauty of nature has always been a priority. That is what inspired me to go to Alaska and, years later, to Hawaii.

That said, Lewis’ two-week tour of Hawaii turned into a self-proclaimed lifelong love affair. “I never left. Kilauea Volcano has a lot to do with this,” Lewis says. “The current eruption of Kilauea Volcano began a few months after my arrival to Hawaii. Having pursued photography since I was a young boy, I knew that this living volcano with its liquid light and unique textures offered something very special. I was hooked. The opportunity to record the many faces of creation and to explore this mesmerizing landscape are privileges I will continue to pursue.” While Lewis still visits his cabins in Utah and Alaska for balance and perspective, Hawaii has captured his heart.

Danger Zone
“People look at my images and ask, ‘Why would you put yourself in such danger?’ In my opinion, it’s not dangerous if I pay attention, use common sense and listen to my intuition,” Lewis says. “I’ve always felt it’s more dangerous to drive to where I start walking, or take a helicopter to where I get dropped off, than actually being on the volcano.”

Lewis admits it is a formidable challenge to capture striking images of the volcano. The dangers are extreme at times—thin-roofed lava tubes and spontaneous pit-craters are a constant threat. And huge fragments of land—where the lava flows into the ocean—can break away from the coast without warning. “I do stay very cautious and aware; if there are strange noises or vibrations that would indicate an impending eruption, I’ll react and get out of harm’s way.” Even so, Lewis has had his share of dicey moments. “The most dangerous was my first interaction with the vent. I had hiked into the lava lake and was at the edge of the vent. Suddenly, the entire lake started to inflate and the ground got really hot. I was on a high spot and by the time I realized I needed to get out of there, several lava rivers were blocking my way.”

Lewis managed to escape that time, and in the process, he learned he needed to pay attention to everything. “Had I paid better attention to how hot the ground was getting, I could’ve avoided the situation. But I had to figure it out myself; and it was these experiences that taught me what I needed to know.” For instance, Lewis now protects himself with special boots with sewn-on soles—not glued—because glue melts. He also discovered that wearing an insulated suit to protect him from the heat hindered his ability to sense impending danger. “If I’m focused on a dynamic scene in front of me, I need to know if the flow behind me is coming closer. I want to feel that heat so I know what’s going on.” Lewis also carries a respirator with canisters that are made specifically for volcanic fumes, which often act like acid rain. “A lot of times, my photo vest will turn to tissue paper and my bandana will dissolve, but as long as I protect my skin and lungs, I’m good.”

Disposable Cameras
“Volcano photography is hard on camera equipment, and I have gone through a lot of equipment over the years. Basically, anytime I am wearing a respirator to keep the caustic fumes out of my lungs, my camera is
slowly being destroyed.”

Lewis shoots with several cameras including a Pentax 6 x 7 II and a full Nikon setup—both film and digital. “I always carry three camera bodies and a host of lenses, from 16mm to 500mm. I also carry a stout tripod, lots of film and CF cards,” says Lewis. “A lot of my clients no longer want transparencies, so I’m shooting more digital to accommodate their needs, but I prefer film. I don’t use a larger format because the conditions are so tricky. I have to be quick—get in, shoot and get out.” The heat is his main nemesis. Acid steam fries electronics and pits lenses. After a while, components start to melt so he has made special housings for his gear to try and extend its life as much as possible.

“Sometimes my film buckles where the heat has come through the lens. And I often have to shoot through heat waves, which is a real challenge, because they can make images appear out of focus.” Lewis does his best to stay up-wind to avoid the heat, fumes and breeze.

Open Your Eyes
Although he was once an archeologist, Lewis is now a full-time photographer. “I stayed with it when I got to the Big Island. In the beginning, when I decided it would be my career, I had to be diligent, stay in Hawaii, quit traveling so much and market what I’d shot. Photography was always a priority but I never really took the time to make it work for me financially. Once I had enough unique volcano material, I contacted every magazine I ever wanted to work with.”

Life magazine was first to publish his work. “When lava flowed into Kalapana, a town in Puna, [the magazine] sent three of its photographers there. Consequently, Life already had a little portfolio I had sent the year before.” The magazine published a double spread of Lewis’ work and soon after agents and other publications contacted him, jump-starting his career.

Lewis considers it an honor—almost spiritual—to witness, learn from and photograph Kilauea. He says, “There’s constant change and variety, so I don’t ever feel bored or jaded. It’s been a continually satisfying subject to photograph.

“The goal of my photography is to further the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of the natural world and to contribute, on a global scale, photographs that help us comprehend the bigger picture,” Lewis offers. “In this series of images, ‘LavArt,’ I utilize movement, light and texture of volcanic activity to open human emotions to the pulse of the earth. I have chosen Kilauea as my primary subject. Nowhere else on Earth is creation happening on a continual basis at such a rapid rate. I find it crucial that there exist visual reminders that the Earth is alive and fulfilling an agenda of its own. It is my desire to continue generating positive inspiration by focusing on photography that captures this essence of creation, beauty and raw power.

Lewis’ volcano images have appeared in numerous publications, including Life, Natural History, Earth, Geo, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek and Men’s Journal. One of his images even appeared on the cover of National Geographic’s “Best Pictures of the Year.” Lewis’ work is also available in galleries and museums, books, posters, calendars and more.
For more information about G. Brad Lewis and his work, visit

Lorraine A. DarConte is a freelance writer/photographer living in Tucson, AZ. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including, Rangefinder magazine, Studio Photography, Newsday and Tucson Visitor’s Guide.