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