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The PHOTO METRO Interview with Steve Harper (March 1983)
by Paul Raedeke

Paul Raedeke: Steve, when did you first get fascinated with shooting photos at night?

Steve Harper: I was watching them change the windows at I. Magnin (a now defunct dept. store) one night. The mannequins were standing there in different stages of disarray and three men were running in and out dressing them. I realized that the men would become ghosts around these startling figures if I did slow exposures. When I saw that the things I did had been done before, I turned to the industrial area where the light becomes very subdued. Exposures became much longer and night photography became a much deeper subject for me.

PR: You photograph exclusively at night, in full darkness, not even under twilight conditions?

SH: Twilight and dawn are more akin to available light or daylight photography. I consider true night as beginning an hour or two after stars appear overhead. When they appear on the horizon it is truly dark. In the winter I can go out shortly after 6 o'clock; sometimes I can't get started til after 9 or10.

PR: How did you develop your technical approach to night?

SH: Just guessing at first. There's nothing written on night photography at all, a few strange pamphlets. They give a lot of information about films, but they didn't discuss any film that would make things look natural. Reciprocity acts very strangely on most color films, including Koclachrome 64 and 25, 1 did a lot of research to try and find a basic film that would reproduce colors as you would expect them to be; also a black-and-white film that would register more tonalities.

PR: What films worked satisfactorily for you?

SH: Tungsten film is good under most circumstances; the sky is rendered blue just a few blocks out of the city I keep reading that daylight film is preferable; and it is as long as you don't get beyond 1/30th of a second. With longer exposures you get a green sky, green buildings, a lot of yellow . . .

PR: Don't you think the effects of reciprocity can be used effectively to create surreal effects?

SH: If you're shooting orange or red or yellow at night, the colors shift enormously and you get wonderful saturated colors. But if you include the sky, it's pea soup green, a real strange, washed-out green that often doesn't work with the other colors. And if you're including star trails, they turn out very mushy, they aren't concise.

PR: How about black-and-white?

SH: Tri-X or an equivalent ASA400 film can cover a lot of ground by rating it at 400 or pushing it to 1200, and processing it with that in mind. You get good tonality, which is more necessary in black-andwhite. Colors help to separate tones; in black-and-white you need more even lighting overall to achieve separation.

PR: You process your black-and-white in Rodinal?

SH: Yes. There are a number of developers that you can use, but I think Rodinal is most effective in holding a range of tonalities.

PR: How would you recommend building a system of exposures for night? Most meters aren't much good at night.

SH: No they aren't; that's the catch in night photography I've found, however, that when you get into it, nobody has any trouble! I suggest you go to an area You know you can photograph and start there. I spent months going around testing films, getting into darker and darker circumstances, and found out that you could legitimately take photographs when there is no moon at allwhen it's What we consider totally dark, when you really can't see your feet.

PR: This is with fairly wide apertures?

SH: Yes. You almost have to start wide and work down to small apertures if you want depth-of-field. And when you have,a large field in focus, people often get into the concept of adding light. Here you have to decide whether you're going to impose yourself or whether you're going to use ambient light. I prefer to make it look like ambient light. I've seen so much gimmickry and concoction that it concerns me greatly. You do that a few times and it's exciting, but I find it more rewarding to shoot in all sorts Of circumstances-and do so as directly as possible, without interference or imposing myself. It's a very rich field if You try to find photographs that are already there. It's wide open to fantasy.

PR: What are some of the effects that are unique to night photography?

SH: Of course there are the blurs; night is ideal for showing motion. And the surrealism you find in different kinds of lighting- and the fact that it can infer another dimensl on more than any other art form I've seen. You get photographs that are absolutey real, that are untouched, that are processed and printed exactly as they were, and the end result looks like you are on another planet - and very magical. The magic happens when you depend on the passing of the atmosphere and time, using night's own light to preserve it, It tends to lose its mysticism and spirituality when You impose yourself.

PR: What sort of exposure times are you dealing with now?

SH: For the last year I've been photographing primarily around the full moon, out in very remote places like Tioga Pass and Death Valley. Exposures of about 18 to 20 minutes are common. You still might have to use flash to subtly light objects in the foreground. You can do an entire roll of film in a night if you go at it seriously.

PR: Do you think the slow, deliberate exposures needed at night encourage more previsualization?

SH: Very definitely. I was in Death Valley recently, intending to shoot the sand dunes. I walked all over those things - and you know how hard that is - and got three pictures all night. But there's a more important facet for the people who become cultists of night photography: you become more attuned to the universe. The earth is turning and you see it in your images as star trails. There's a peacefulness about it because you're deliberately remote from ambient light; it gives you a chance to slow down and tune into nature. During the day, in B/W, the sky is a difficult problem to solve. It's a bland gray but star trails can enable you to design with that space. They change with every direction you face, drawing circles around the north star, coming up at diagonals in other directions. The position of the north star is very critical if you want to predict how long the trails will be and which direction they'll go.

PR: What's the bigger challenge at night, the technical or creative aspects.

SH: Once you've established a technical base, it's the conceptual and creative aspects that get your juices running and are the most fulfilling. Most of the energy goes into what you see. It's much more complex at night. And dealing with the things that just happen, that you don't plan on.

PR: You feel that the element of spontaneity is important in your work?

SH: Yes it is. Even when you're doing 45 minute exposures, it seems invariably that something happens to add magic to the photograph. Spontaneous might not be the right word for a one hour exposure - but things do come out of left field and off the wall. The things that happen at night that you can't account for - like changes in the atmosphere during a long exposurecreate a mood characteristic of night, and generally surreal.

PR: What kind of locations have you used in your work?

SH: The industrial section, south of Market, is incredible. There are so many fascinating buildings and things parked on the streets you don't see anywhere else. And the lighting is as varied as you could possibly imagine. Exposures there are a matter of seconds. The Sutro Bath ruins are like a giant Hollywood studio. A variety of lights spill across the levels, platforms, stairways and the ocean. You'd have a rough time manufacturing something like that. There exposures run to 4 or 5 minutes. Outside of town, in Nicasio for instance, you get into real long exposures, real darkness. Unfortunately when you get out of town, everything is fenced in and you're in a bind unless you trespass on someone's property. Yosemite and Death Valley - I'd also like to try Baja California - places like that offer some real opportunities.

PR: Are there historical prescedents for the kind of work you're doing?

SH: There haven't been many pioneers in the field. People have done it all along, but there isn't much of a collection of work as yet. Brassai used ambient light a lot. And Jesse "Tarbox" Beales used the gas lights in New York. Both made beautiful, moody images.

PR: You can see a cult of night photography developing in the Bay Area.

SH: I've seen night photography from all over the U.S.-just a hit here and there. I'm almost surprised it's gotten as far as it has What you see in the photographs is someone playing with lights an awful lot, gimmicky effects you could do just as well in a dark room. And people using films that seem inappropriate.

PR: Does the kind of photography you do at night preclude commercial uses? Wouldn't a fashion model rebel at having to stand still for 45 minutes - not to mention the costs involved when you're paying $75 an hour and up?

SH: It is difficult. I've had a model stay in place for 45 minutes. That tends to be too discouraging to even attempt. What no one seems to have caught on to yet is the potential of using rear projection, and combine other-worldly effects with more standard exposures in a studio. If you carefully fit the studio lighting to the projection, it could be outrageous, stunning.

PR: You've taught numerous classes in night photography. Do you find that has helped you personally in your work?

SH: Oh yes. When you have 20 people with you, naturally lots of novel ideas come out. Students of mine have done landmark things, working with blocks of lights, drawing with penlights and other stimulating approaches. There's little satisfaction in teaching unless you learn also.

PR: Are you shooting any series or themes?

SH: I don't approach it that way. Light varies so greatly that you'd be extremely limited if you want to keep it unified in a tight thematic way "Aberrant light," lighting that is out of the ordinary, is as much of a theme as I pursue.

PR: Do you think that poses a problem in exhibiting your work?

SH: Yes it does. Curators and critics get very uptight with eclectic vision. They're much more comfortable with themes, when they see you are following something right down the line, when you've done it a number of times. The continuity makes it easier to judge. If you've done it ten times, they can soy "that person does such-and-such" and write about it more "knowledgably". There's a natural insecurity involved that makes it harder to approach work with a broader base. What's wrong with "experiments in night photography"? If your exposures go from a 1/4th of a second to five hours, exploring aberrant lighting, that's a rather incredible theme, isn't it! But the concept is hard to handle critically. If you don't have a theme, and work in varied circumstances, your view is considered eclectic. Those kind of people don't become recognized until after they're dead. Then they publish the images one at a time and think they're sensational.