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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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 ) 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.