|A History of Night Photography
by Lance W. Keimig
The night has always been associated with romance, mystery, fear, and the
unknown. The nocturne has also been a natural subject for art. Albrecht Durer
printed gruesome night scenes in the early sixteenth century. Rembrandt exploited
night and darkness in his paintings to increase their emotional impact. During
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Goya, DeGericault, and
Delacroix painted both horrific and romantic night scenes. Following in this
tradition, photographers ventured into the night with their cameras within
a few years of the discovery of photography.
The history of night photography is almost as long as the history of the
medium itself. Only ten years after the introduction of the daguerreotype in
1839, John Adams Whipple daguerrotyped the moon through a telescope. In 1863,
Whipple used electric lights to take night photographs of Boston Common. However,
it was not until the 1880's and the invention of the gelatin dry plate negative
that night photography became a real possibility. Unlike the earlier wet-collodion
process, which required that negatives be exposed and processed while still
damp, dry plates permitted longer exposures, and were more light sensitive.
In his desire to test the limits of the photographic process, Alfred
Stieglitz experimented with night photography in the 1890s. Steiglitz
braved the elements to photograph wintry nocturnal street scenes in New York.
Aside from occasional experimentation, no single photographer made any kind
of serious commitment to night photography until the early 1930s.
The publication of Brassai's second book, Paris de
Nuit (Arts et Metiers Graphiques, 1933, reprinted, Pantheon, 1987) was a landmark
event in the history of night photography. This remarkable book is a graphic
documentation of the "seedy" night
life of Paris in the early 1930's. Brassai was born in Hungary, but moved to
Paris in 1928 and was quickly accepted into the inner circles of the local
art scene, which included the likes of Picasso, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp
and the man who was to become Brassai's closest friend, Henry Miller.
Brassai's photographs are marked by atmosphere. They are revealing and moody,
yet somehow there is a sense of detachment from the photographer. If Brassai's
work can be called documentary, it is successful on many levels because he
has captured more than what can be seen with the eye, he has recorded feelings
as well. John Szarkowski said of Brassai's work, "Looking at his pictures,
one is not aware of the act of photographing. It is rather as though the subject,
through some agency of it's own, reproduced itself."
At nearly the same time in England, Brassai's great contemporary,
Bill Brandt, was also beginning to photograph at night. Having stumbled onto
photography in 1928, Brandt was commissioned to make a portrait of the poet
Ezra Pound. Pound introduced Brandt to Man Ray, and he worked in Ray's Paris
studio in 1929. Affected by the surrealist films of Salvador Dali and Luis
Brandt became obsessed with the rearrangement and disturbance of space, and
the substitution of fact with fantasy. Perhaps this was the impetus for Brandt
to begin to stage scenes and design photographs before shooting them, something
that was seldom done at that time. Due largely to the success of Brassai's
book of night images, the same publisher commissioned Brandt to photograph
A Night in London, (Arts et Metiers Graphiques, 1936). Brandt's acuity gave
this body of work a similar feeling of detachment as Brassai's images, and
they convey an overwhelming sense of mood.
Drawn by stories of towns shut down by the depression and the closing of
steel mills and factories, Brandt ventured into the industrial north of England
in 1937. Working as a photojournalist for several newspapers and magazines,
Brandt made a long series of ambiguous images that could have been either day
or night photographs. His contrasty printing and lack of shadow detail only
added to this ambiguity.
O. Winston Link
There were very few people photographing at night between
1940 to 1970, with the exception of a New York commercial photographer named
O. Winston Link. Obsessed with steam locomotives, and the rapidly approaching
end of an era, Link passionately traveled to small towns in Virginia, West
Virginia, and North Carolina to photograph the trains of the Norfolk and Western
Railway. During the years of 1955-1960, Link created a remarkable series of
night images, using view cameras and amazing numbers of flashbulbs wired in
sequence along the tracks. Links beautiful black and white prints are highly
prized by collectors. There have been several books published of Links work,
most notably, Ghost Trains, (The Chrysler Museum, 1983) which also included
a 45 rpm recording of train sounds, and the more recent Steam, Steel, and Stars,
With the coming of the 1970s came a new wave of interest in night photography
that was centered in northern California. People like Steve Fitch, Richard
Misrach, Arthur Olman, and Steve Harper ventured out into the night with their
cameras and tripods.
Steve Fitch was fascinated with the highway culture of the American
west, and photographed the signs of man's encroachment upon it. His book, Diesels
and Dinosaurs, (Long Run Press, 1976) contrasted symbols of the past (the old
west), signs of prehistoric life, (neon signs and roadside attractions featuring
dinosaurs) and Native Americans, (more neon signs, and cigar store Indians)
with the giants that currently roam the highways- diesel trucks. By surrounding
these symbols and signs in darkness and using the stark quality of black and
white, Fitch monumentalized them, making them larger than life. To Fitch, "a
diesel is a dinosaur."
Fitch returned to night photography nearly ten years later, as part of the
N.E.A. photographic survey project, Marks in Place. This project which was
initiated in 1982 gave five photographers the opportunity to photograph petroglyphs
andcave paintings in the American deserts. Now Fitch turned to color, and the
8X10 camera to record this ancient graffiti by fire light. Fitch was concerned
with showing the context of the artwork, he wanted to show a sense of place.
Photographing the petroglyhs by fire light enhanced the sense of timelessness
and put them in context, as well as conveying the mystery that surrounds this
The failure of Richard Misrach's first book entitled Telegraph
Avenue, 3 am (Cornocopia Press, 1974) led him to the conclusion that politics
and art don't mix! For the time being, Misrach chose art over politics and
began photographing at night in the American desert. Working with the 2 1/4
format in black and white, Misrach made a large series of formal monolithic
compositions of cacti and rock formations that are very beautiful, but when
viewed as a whole become somewhat repetitive. Still entranced with monoliths,
Misrach turned to Stonehenge for inspiration, and photographed it in a similar
fashion. These two series of images are also notable because of a particular
split-toning technique he developed that made for very striking prints. In
1978, he switched to color film and the 8x10 format, went to Greece, and photographed
the Acropolis at night. After this series, there was a great change in Misrach's
work. He returned to photographing plants, but his approach was altered drastically.
Gone were the tight formal compositions of the desert images, replaced with
chaotic and much freer visions of Hawaiian tropical vegetation and Louisiana
swamps blasted with harsh flash. All of these night series were free from the
sociopolitical context that would later become the main emphasis of his work.
Misrach said that he "used to search for form and beauty, but now can't
escape the fact that the land is suffused with political implications."
Another northern California photographer began photographing
at night around the same time in 1974. Arthur Ollman is known for his bizarre
architectural night photos. By making long exposures on color negative film,
Ollman transforms the world into a synthetic alien place where colors are shifted,
and nothing appears real. Subject matter is important to Ollman, but he is
also motivated by process. For Ollman, color not only functions as an attribute
to content elements, but is content itself.
Formal design and composition are concerns of California night
photographer Steve Harper, who strives to achieve colors as close to reality
as possible. He finds that by using tungsten slide film instead of color negative
film, colors are represented more naturally. Working mainly with full moon
lighting in remote areas of California like Mono lake, Tioga Pass, and Death
Valley, Harper strives to capture the passing of time with his 6X7 and 35mm
cameras. Harper started taking night photos in Mendocino in the late 1970's
when he became bored with the predictability of daylight exposures. For him
movement is the key to capturing the passage of time on film. Through the movement
of stars or clouds during his twenty minute exposures, Harper creates the illusion
of fantasy. Steve Harper has taught classes and workshops on Night Photography
New York photographer Jan Staller creates surreal scenes of abandoned
industrial areas by playing off of the various types of artificial lighting
found in such places. Staller shoots color negative film, and color corrects
for the mercury and sodium vapor lights in his prints, which in turn cause
the sky to shift to intense shades of red and purple. Staller has given light
and color a quality as tangible as the objects in his formal compositions.
Two books showcase Staller's work, Frontier New York (Hudson
Hills Press, 1988) and On Planet Earth, Travels in an Unfamiliar Land (Aperture,
1997); representing twenty years of Staller's roaming of deserted sections
of New York City as well as construction, nuclear, and defense sites in the
west - late at night and at dusk. Common to all of Staller's imagery is the
landscape altered by some element of human activity.
The same could be said of the work of Michael Kenna. Aside from
this similarity, Kenna's imagery could not be more different from Staller's.
The best known of contemporary night photographers, Kenna's haunting and lonely
black and white images transform familiar locations into places of ambiguous
intrigue. Subtlety, grace, and sophistication have made this artist's work
some of the most sought after of any living photographer.
Although he settled in San Francisco in 1980, Kenna is originally from Lancashire,
England, the heart of northern England where Bill Brandt photographed in the
late 1930s. It's not surprising then that Kenna cites Brandt as a major influence
on his work. In fact it was Brandt's death in 1983 that inspired Kenna to return
home and photograph in the same places Brandt had 45 years earlier. It was
on this journey that Kenna encountered the location that would provide him
with some of his most famous photographs. The Ratcliffe power station in Nottinghamshire
was, for Kenna, like a giant stage for him to set. These intriguing images
are not intended as social criticism; rather he plays on the ambiguity of beauty
Kenna's aim is to transform our view of the world through the use of camera
angle, lens, and of course - the night. Kenna says that his work has come full
circle. He originally photographed completely natural landscapes, and then
became obsessed with man's influence on the land. He then began the Brandt-like
series in which there was no sign of nature at all. More recently however,
Kenna has been photographing the gardens of 17th century Frenchman Andre Le
NÙtre, the designer of Versailles, les tuileries, and Vaux-le-Vicomte.
There are many books of Michael Kenna's stunning work, from Night
of Photography, 1988), The Rouge,(Ram Publications, 1995),
Gardens, (Ram/Huntington,1997), among others.
Tucson, Arizona based William Lesch is impressed with the intensity
and variety of light in the desert. He combines daylight or twilight exposures
with a second exposure after darkness has fully arrived, and then uses colored
lights to paint his scenes much as a painter uses pigment. Lesch says, "What
began for me as an experiment, has become a weird ritual of exposure, performed
in the dark of night more by intuition than logic." His book, Expansions,
was published in 1992 by Treville Press.
Across the Atlantic in Europe, Alan Delaney has seemingly covered every square
inch of London , as demonstrated by his book London After
Dark, (Phaidon Press
Limited, 1993). Italian Lucca Campigotto has made a very ethereal and moody
study of his native Venice, shown in his book, Venetia
Obscura, (Marval, 1995).
Shimon Attie is unique among night photographers for two reasons. For Attie,
the night is not a reason in itself to photograph, but a means to execute his
conceptual art. Attie is also unusual in that his night photographs have a
Working in Berlin's Jewish quarter, an area known as the Scheuneviertel,
or barn district, Attie projected fragments of historical prewar photographs
of the area onto the same buildings 60 years later. Although he did photograph
the projections, they also served as site-specific installations. It is Attie's
hopes that now that the installations are long gone, the photographs, and his
book, The Writing on the Wall, (Braus, 1993) "will go beyond being a record
of past projections, but have a life and power of their own."
The people represented on these pages are the ones who have had the greatest
influence on night photography, and have made the most enduring images. Almost
every photographer at some point gets curious and wanders into the darkness
with camera and tripod in hand, but it takes commitment and dedication to master
the special circumstances of night photography. The most magical thing about
the night is the element of surprise. One can never be sure of what will happen
when the shutter opens after dark.
(Lance W. Keimig teaches workshops in night photography on the East Coast
and other locations His website is www.thenightskye.com)