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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."

Bill Brandt
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 Bunñuel, 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, (Abrahms, 1998).

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
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 phenomena.

Richard Misrach
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."

Arthur Ollman
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.

Steve Harper
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 since 1982.

Jan Staller
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.

Michael Kenna
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 and danger.

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 Walk, (Friends of Photography, 1988), The Rouge,(Ram Publications, 1995), to Le NÙtre's Gardens, (Ram/Huntington,1997), among others.

William Lesch
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 sociopolitical context.

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