Electric lighting in the early 20th century allowed photographers to shoot hitherto unrecorded scenes. The shot, taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn, shows Broadway in around 1910. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, from the The Elisha Whittelsey Collection.
Shooting at night pushes photography to the limits of the medium, leading to a particularly close association between art and technology in this fascinating genre, finds Bill Kouwenhoven.
Author: Bill Kouwenhoven
13 Jun 2012 Tags: Documentary
From the start, the night has had a bad rap. The first words of the West's great monotheist God were, "Let there be light". Having found "that it was good", he "divided the light from the darkness" and named the former day and the latter night. Light was good and dark was bad, and not surprisingly God's great arch-rival soon became known as The Prince of Darkness.
The human race has found many ingenious ways to ward off the night and, by 1829, it started to be drummed out of our cities. The first gas lamps were planted along the Champs-Élysées that year; by the 1870s, electric street lights were placed in Manchester. By coincidence, photography was invented at around the same time, allowing a new breed of artist to "write with light". Doing so in the dark sounds almost like a contradiction in terms, but the first night photograph quickly appeared - The Bridges and Gallery of the Louvre was taken in 1839, by Alphonse Giroux or Louis Daguerre.
Peter Henry Emerson and Edward Steichen went on to capture ghostly moonlight filtering through the clouds or trees in the last years of the 19th century, and Pictorialists continued the tradition to demonstrate painterly, even romantic, sensibilities. Photographers such as Alvin Langdon Coburn shot the first years of the 20th century by night, as glass plates and films replaced wet collodion.
Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center #2; Groom Lake, NV; Distance - 26miles, 2008. Image © Trevor Paglen.
By the time Brassaï started working in Paris in the 1920s and 30s the centre of town was brightly lit; he deliberately worked on the fringes with slow-exposure glass plate negatives to show a moody and menacing world. He also captured sordid night-time glamour, however, going into the clubs and brothels lit up with electricity, and photographing them with a flash-lamp, invented in 1899.
Brassaï's work set the standard for Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee, who used brilliant flash photography to record New York's demi-monde in the 1930s and 40s. Traipsing about in stockinged feet, Weegee was able to sneak up on his subjects, and, using an infrared flash plus Kodak's newly commercialised infrared film, shoot people making out in theatres or sleeping on the beach. By the late 1940s and 50s New York's bright lights plus faster film emulsions allowed photographers such as William Klein and Ted Croner to shoot the energy of the city's heyday.
Art and technology
Shooting in low light pushes photography to its limits, making for a particularly close bond between art and technology. Photographers have taken advantage of changes in lighting, cameras and films to show the ever-evolving world of nocturnal human activity, but night photography remains difficult to pull off, and its technical challenges make for an aesthetic all too easily written off as "other" or even "amateurish".
Two recent exhibitions suggest this reading is receding, and that night photography is becoming established as a genre - Night Vision: Photography after Dark, held last year at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and Twilight: Photography in the Magic Hour, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in autumn 2006. Night Vision used photographs from the museum's archive to explore night photography from its 1830s origins to the beginning of the 21st century; Twilight surveyed contemporary approaches to photography after sunset by Robert Adams, Gregory Crewdson, Ori Gersht, Bill Henson, Chrystel Lebas, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Liang Yue and Boris Mikhailov, situating their work in a tradition of Western art and literature.
Night photography, it seems, is more popular than ever with photographers, some of whom use new techniques such as night-vision goggles and the sensitivity of the latest DSLR sensors or medium format backs to record their images, others of whom are using old tricks to show new technology used at night. Michael Kenna maximises the available light by using black-and-white film and very long exposures, for example, and his images of the California coastline often include sky halations caused by the steam from power stations that lend a magical glow to the photograph. Simple but exquisitely composed images, they evoke both the passage of time and the beauty of scenes that would be prosaic, or even ugly, by day.
Recording the movement of the stars, Richard Misrach also recorded evidence of nighttime military exercises. Venus and Missile Evasion Flares from Gu Oidak (Big Field), Tohono O’Odham (Papago) Indian Reservation, 3.19.96 8-29 P.M.-10-18 P.M., Arizona. Image © Richard Misrach.
Richard Misrach, Simon Norfolk and Trevor Paglen also use long exposures to shoot at night but, unlike Kenna, they use it to explore new advances in American military technology. Misrach's images of the skies above America's southwestern deserts started innocently as an investigation of the beauty of the night without direct light pollution, for example. But the work evolved into an exploration of the US military when he realised it was conducting exercises in night warfare, and testing experimental aircraft away from prying eyes during daylight hours. "During the long exposure, almost two hours, the stars and the bright planet Venus etched elegant lines onto the film as the earth rotated," says Misrach. "While this was happening, jet fighters were playing war games above. The maggot-like light spots are missile evasion flares."
Norfolk began photographing orbiting satellites and rocket launches as part of his Full Spectrum Dominance project, which records the American military's attempts to control space. His long exposures trace the rockets' and satellites' passage across the sky with a quiet beauty, belying the menace contained within. "One has to get the landscape to reflect the emotional effect of what you are trying to photograph," he says.
"The only tools we have are the light, the time of year and the climate. One can take the most beautiful landscape on Earth and make it the most creepy and scary place imaginable. This is a storytelling tool. With Full Spectrum Dominance, there is a certain sinisterness about the idea that "missileers" have to practise for nuclear warfare by test-firing missiles. They have always fired them in the middle of the night.
Image from the series Hind Land, shot under London's Orbital M25 motorway with an Achromatic Digital Back able to record the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum. Image © Tim Bowditch and Nick Rochowski.
"I wanted to get away from the "classic" launch picture of a rocket ascending from a plume of smoke, and this gave me two perfect canvasses – the night sky with the rotation of the stars with the passage of clouds and, because of the length of time for the exposure [up to three hours] I got the sky and the actual launch and initial flight of these missiles up into space, including the way the boosters separate. I needed a number of cameras in order to get the right angle as each camera had only one chance. Against the God-like perfection of the canvas of the night sky looking over the Pacific, the only thing I could do was to counter-pose this with the image of man's intervention – a missile test. The missile makes a kind of arcing gouge across the night sky. That is my metaphor. There is no way I could have photographed them digitally because of the way the noise would have built up during these long exposures, thus film was the only way to go. This is a beautiful example of how film can capture things the eye cannot see."
Paglen takes satellite tracking one step further in a photographic project that's part of his wider examination of military and political surveillance. His images depict the surveillance satellites tracing orbits over us and are as beautiful as familiar images of star trails. Yet by identifying them with the names of the specific satellites they depict, and the reconnaissance programmes with which they are associated, he paints a very different picture to the starry, starry skies that so fascinated Vincent van Gogh. Paglen has also used long-distance lenses to capture secret military stations by night.
Geert van Kesteren and Benjamin Lowy have also used night photography to observe the military; unlike Misrach et al, they have adopted military technology to do it. Both noticed almost 10 years ago that soldiers operating at night were using night-vision scopes or goggles, which magnify the available light or are sensitive to infrared light. The enhanced view is typically rendered as a green or grey-hued image, a limited perspective that reminded van Kesteren of video games, and seemed to reflect the American experience of war.
"Once, down the road in Samarra, I used the night goggles of a soldier I had befriended," he writes. "He took it off his helmet and I held it with one hand in front of my lens while I held the camera and pressed the shutter with my other hand. The night goggles let you look in the dark but what you see is a transformation of reality into a science-fiction alien melancholic poem. And that was precisely what an American soldier saw of Iraq."
This image – used on the front cover of the book Why Mister, Why? – was shot using US military night-vision goggles. Image © Geert van Kesteren.
Tim Bowditch and Nick Rochowski, meanwhile, are currently using technology more often used for aerial surveillance to record the underside of London's M25 orbital road. Using an Achromatic Digital Back they are able to record the infrared and ultraviolet parts of the spectrum, as well as those visible to the eye, creating "wide-spectrum" black-and-white images. "Fascinated by the voids left by the motorway as it [carved] through the landscape," they write, they "give the camera a completely blank canvas, devoid of contrast. Due to the way light is recorded with such technology, hidden details become apparent and the landscape appears almost lunar in quality".
Peter DiCampo and Andrew McConnell also use night photography to political ends, but they work far away from light-polluted Western skies (where, the BBC reported in early April, "half of the UK's population cannot see many stars because the night skies are still saturated with light pollution"). They record the darkness that descends with energy poverty, and the fact that, as DiCampo puts it, "1.4 billion people – nearly a quarter of humanity – live without access to electricity".
DiCampo is working in various places in the world, from Ghana to New Mexico, photographing people with the available light, from torches to fires to mobile phones. Forced to live "off-grid" it's difficult for them to work or read by night, keeping them poor and reinforcing the vicious circle. Shooting on a light-sensitive DSLR, he doubts the project would have been possible on film. "The beginning images of the project were made soon after I upgraded to the first Canon 5D so, in many ways, those early stages were also a way of testing the camera to see just how dark I could go and how high I could set the ISO and still get a usable image," he says.
Glory Trip 197. An unarmed Minuteman III nuclear missile with a National Nuclear Security Administration experiment on board is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The missiles single unarmed Re-Entry Vehicle travelled 5250 miles to a target area just of Guam, 22 May 2008. Image © Simon Norfolk, from the series Full Spectrum Dominance.
Similarly, Andrew McConnell's show the plight of the Sahrawi people of the Western Sahara, who are caught in a war for their own independence from Morocco and Mauritania. Their neighbours have limited access to power, literally and figuratively and, like DiCampo, McConnell uses minimal lighting to drive the point home. "They were shot on the Canon 5D Mk II, and the low-light capability of the camera was a great help in capturing these shots," he says. "Before the new sensors came along, noise would have been a major issue, quality would have suffered, and the tonal range would not have been good because detail in the shadow would have been lost.
"Now there are no limitations to what hour of the day a photographer can shoot, especially with the new batch of recent DSLRs. I'm shooting a follow-up to the Sahara work and am about to start using the 5D Mk III – the possibilities are exciting and I'm specifically looking for larger depth-of-field at night, something that has been difficult to achieve up until now."
Name withheld, photographed at an undisclosed location on the coast of Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. From the series The Last Colony © Andrew McConnell.
Stephen Wilkes, meanwhile, is using digital capture to record New York "in a way no-one had ever done before". Each image in his Day and Night project is made up of many layers of photographs, taken over the course of a day, then put together in post-production. "I photograph between 12 to 15 hours straight from a fixed position," he says. "The images are made by maintaining a fixed aperture to control the depth-of-field, while varying the shutter speed depending on time of day... I am also able to choose the moment I photograph to optimise the details – a person getting out of a taxi, for example, or a certain gesture. [Then] the layers are built up in Photoshop.
"My work is all about harmony, but I want the viewer to get into the work as a photograph and then to understand what is going on," he continues. "I feel that what I am doing is, really, an evolution of straight photography. In the end, with technology, I am melding my two loves of epic landscapes and shooting street photography. All the moments I capture from 20 metres in the air are moments of street photography, but I combine them into what I call the iconic moments of the day as it folds into night."
People board the last car of the night through Wantugu, Ghana, from the series Life Without Lights © Peter DiCampo.
Jill Waterman, meanwhile, photographed New York at night during the near-total blackness of the 2008 power cut, building on her long experience of low-light shooting. "The city was buried in darkness for the first time in many years," she says. "The Chrysler Building was lit only by the most minimal emergency lighting [so] the contrast range in the dense darkness made photography very hard. It was only when the moon broke from the clouds and side-lit the building that the picture I wanted to take was possible.
Waterman has also photographed New Year's Eve celebrations around the world and the uncanny colour shifts created by urban lighting, and has published a book on the topic, Night & Low-Light Photography. In addition to surveying the best night photography and photographers, she points out the close relationship between technology and art when shooting at night, as well as the capricious effect of the weather. It's a point Kenna picks up in his introduction to the book, remarking that shooting at night is more unpredictable and magical than its everyday equivalent.
"There is something magically seductive about a creative process that is not fully in our control," he writes. "Much of what happens during night photography is like that. Long exposures, from seconds to hours, make images unpredictable. While the shutter stays open, objects and elements may move at any time, and the Earth is moving all the time relative to the planets and stars. Colour and contrast may shift to reciprocity failure and the idiosyncrasies of particular films and digital systems. Weather systems may vary or change dramatically. Light can appear in many forms and from unseen and multiple directions. Deep shadows invite our curiosity. These associated creative possibilities are all part of this fascinating experience."
For more on the photographers profiled, check their websites: www.michaelkenna.net, www.artnet.com/awc/richard-misrach.html, www.simonnorfolk.com, www.paglen.com, www.geertvankesteren.com, benlowy.com, www.timbowditch.com, www.rochowski.net, www.peterdicampo.com, www.andrewmcconnell.com, www.stephenwilkes.com, www.nightphotographybook.com (Jill Waterman), www.vam.ac.uk, www.metmuseum.org.
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