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This introduction and following interview with Steve Harper appeared in the March 1983 PHOTO METRO Magazine.

Night Light Photography
by Paul Raedeke

Despite the absolute regularity of its return, the advent of night is greeted with a mixture of excited anticipation and foreboding - anticipation over the fantasies which the veil of night can incubate - foreboding born of a lingering mystery which remains deeply seated in our subconscious, a legacy of human experience transmitted from history and prehistory.

My photographs are rarely about the things that they depict. Instead, I use concrete subject matter and light to create illusions, formal abstractions and fantasies in space and time. Multiple or time exposures, combination printing and the addition of artificial lighting to night scenes are common elements of my technique. Images thus created render things visible that otherwise could not be seen; motion and the passage of time are suggested in visually concrete ways.

Once a day, every day of the year or leap year, with greater regularity and predictability than the finest quartz timepiece, daytime fades through twilight and yields to the night. With somewhat diminished regularity and an almost studied unpredictability an assortment of photographers emerge to weave the myriad qualities of the night into their photographs.

Some come with a large cast, bizarre props, elaborate lighting and a choreographed scenerio. Others make the most of spontaneity, chance and the "found" image. Most fit somewhere between, with a decided inclination to operate with well defined goals, sophisticated concepts and uniquely adapted technical approaches.

Much of night photography has been motivated by social or political concerns, adopting a surprising variety of conceptual and technical approaches to document nocturnal subjects. Brassai's artful use of available light enabled him to create an intimate and credible look behind the scenes, "after hours", in the seamy, decadent, vibrant slice of life published as "The Secret Paris of the 30s."

Weegee (Arthur Fellig) created documents to serve a very different function. He ranged from the gutters to the opera, framing people and events of the night in dynamic compositions, lighting them with direct, on-camera flash, instantaneously freezing vital, insightful images to accompany the front page news.

Just about 180 degrees from the documentary approach to night is a world of imagination, mystery and fantasy. The night's numerous personalities offer material and inspiration to nourish the wilest visions, from the romance, mystery and surreality of twilight to the transience, terror and fantasy of moonlight and the harsh, cold reality of a streetlight. From richly textured twilight environments to the tabula rasa of an inky, moonless sky, segments of the night are integrated into images that merge reality with imagination.

Photography by night poses technical challenges while opening new potential for creativity. On-camera flash and portable strobes offer controllable and predictable results. Simple calculations from knowable quantities (flash output, camera-to-subject distance, film speed, aperture) require minimal adjustment for the less quantifiable factors (atmosphere, reflectivity of surroundings, etc.).

With ambient light more experimentation is required. The low levels of illumination and extreme contrast range that characterize most night scenes render ordinary light meters ineffective or inaccurate at best. Field tests with careful exposure notes establish personal standards which can be varied to fit new conditions or serve different intentions. Since the lighting conditions prevalent at night vary significantly from those for which most films are designed and under which they are tested, idiosyncratic processing systems are the rule. Esoteric developers (often formulated from scratch), unusual dilutions, abnormal time/temp combinations, odd agitation methods, intensifiers and astounding chemical pyrotechnics are applied to counter the whimsical moods of night's many faces.

Reciprocity Failure
One of the most significant and mercurial variables is termed reciprocity failure (often referred to simply as reciprocity). The Photographer controls the intensity of an exposure by adjusting the shutter speed and aperture (lens opening). Under daylight conditions a change in shutter speed will result in exactly the same exposure if it is countered with a reciprocal (in this case equal but opposite) change in the aperture. However, if the shutter speed is slower than a second or faster than 1/1,000 second, the theoretical relationship does not hold, yielding negatives that are usually underexposed. Since most night exposures fall into these categories, generous "bracketing" is employed, primarily in the direction of increasing exposure.

With color emulsions reciprocity failure occasions additional variables. The separate layers that respond to and reproduce colors are carefully matched for contrast and speed by the manufacturer. As with B/W film, the light encountered at night falls outside the range of the film's sensitivity In color films the problem is compounded by the fact that the individual layers of the emulsion vary from theoretical responses in almost unpredictable proportions. The surreal hues that often result can enhance or destroy the image, depending on the intentions and skill of the Photographer.

The dark of night can function much in the same manner that a darkened studio serves the needs of a still-life photographer. Since ambient light levels are extremely low, the photographer has limitless options to construct an image by adding increments of light and image - possibly even on locations separated in space and time. The darkroom magic of surrealist photographers like Jerry Uelsmann can be conjured up by a wave of a flashlight , a burst if electronic lightning (or the real thing provided by nature), the liqhts of a passing car or the dotted trail left by a blinking light as it passes through the lens's field. Although gimmickry and contrivance abound, thoughtful use of additional lighting has enabled the creation of images that challenge our perception and appear to be part of another reality.

The related elements of time and motion are integral - both technically and conceptually - to virtually every night photograph. The extremes of exposure duration coupled with subject and/or camera movement can result in fields of swirling motion and visions of a primordial past, a frozen present or visionary future. The use of flash with long, hand-held exposures has been exploited for the lively tension it creates between motion and stasis, between reality and dream. Movement becomes visual and concrete, leaving 'tracers" as light passes by or as the camera is waved. Each luminous source - a cigarette, penlight, airplane, elaborate pattern constructed by the photographer, pulsing neon sign or flashing semaphore - impresses its unique mark on the film in endless combinations and permutations.

Despite the hazards posed for photographer and equipment - from the accumulation of salty mist on lenses by the ocean to the cold, sometime lonely vigil of a two hour exposure in an ancient glacial riverbed - a vigorous cadre of night light enthusiasts has appeared across the country. Some of the best known and gifted denizens of the night practice their art in the Bay Area. Arthur Ollman focuses on diverse facets of the urban environment, using mixed lighting and the effects of reciprocity to intensify his vision of contemporary culture. Richard Misrach is best known for his desert images that isolate extravagent and exotic plants with well - modulated flash, and place them in surreal and other-worldly environments through additional ambient light exposure. The intensity and depth of his richly textured images is enhanced by exemplary technical craftsmanship, including subtle "split-toning." Creative fashion , editorial and photojournalistic applications have been devised by Charly Franklin (November PHOTO METRO [1982]) and Ed Kashi.

Our featured photographer Steve Harper has been shooting night photographs for years, and has contributed significantly as both photographer and educator to the flourishing growth of this photographic specialty - primarily in the use of ambient light and "found" images.