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Night Photography: The Power and Ingenuity of Nighttime Photographs

It’s often said that the freaks come out at night, but two recent shows prove that it’s really the photographers.

This month, “Night,” a spectacular show at Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York, comes to a close (June 4), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Night Vision: Photography After Dark” continues its run on the museum’s second floor (through Sept 18). Both exhibitions explore the power and ingenuity of nighttime photography, which came into its own in the early 20th century as faster films, portable cameras and commercial flashbulbs made it possible for artists to effectively see in the dark. The night’s newness as a photographic frontier gave these pictures they took a rugged quality that has stood the test of time and inspired later generations of photographers not to put their cameras away after sunset. Sharing moments veiled in shadow or glowingly illuminated, each dynamic black-and-white photograph on view comes across as a forgotten secret divulged once again.

“Night” starts in the 1920s, as the medium starts to hit its stride, when the new technology helped reveal the late-night beckonings of neon lights, the slickness of wet city streets and the vastness of the elements—lightning, snow and even the elusive quality of a bristling wind. Brassaï, the Hungarian-born photographer whose photos from his 1932 book Paris de Nuit are featured prominently in the show, was a grand manipulator of uninviting weather. He wrote, “Fog and rain…tend to soften contrasts. Steam, as well as wet ground, act as reflectors and diffuse the light of the lamps in all directions. Therefore, it is necessary to photograph certain subjects in the rain, since it is the rain that makes them ‘photogenic.’”

Perhaps that’s why the artist’s gray-scaled compositions often elicit an eerie, lonely vibe, with hoary street corners (Fille des Halles, Pres de Sebastopol, 1932, and Pavement Reflection, Place de la Concorde, 1930), dancers and ladies of the oldest profession, (La Casque de Cuir, 1932, and Streetwalker, Rue Quincampoix, 1931), and fellows who look like they’re up to no good (Gens du Milieu, 1932).

Given the intimacy of these photographs, the viewer wonders to what extent Brassaï was a part of or apart from his scenery.

The pictures taken some two decades later by another Parisian, Robert Doisneau, explore similar subject matter, with a zest for the idiosyncratic. His often untitled portraits of locals, like an antiques collector seated amid his treasures at home or a girl in a low-cut dress in a restaurant booth, underscore the fact that the traditional of night photography is as much about nightlife as it is about the natural state of darkness. They create the illusion of nighttime as a companion and a character in itself.

On the other hand, Ilse Bing’s photographs of Paris and New York stage sudden bursts of light as their top-billing stars. The illuminated sheet music on the stands in Orchestra Pit, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, 1933; the bright powder of freshly fallen snow in Silhouettes, Avenue du Maine, Paris, 1932; and the gleaming spray of Fountain at Night, Place de la Concorde, 1933, all pump up the contrast between dark negative space and night’s bright patches.

André Kertész, another Hungarian in Paris, made images in his native land, Paris and New York in the late ’20s and early ’30s that seem to have had an influence on Brassaï and, one can assume, on the other artists featured in the show. His shots are often wide and expansive, as in Eiffel Tower (Summer Storm), 1927 where cracks of lightning, slicing through the air as if hurled by Zeus himself, surround a stable, if not very obstinate-looking, Eiffel Tower. Indeed after the viewer gets over the fact that the image is really, really cool, the message becomes clear: feats of nature, feats of man.

In Kertész’s 1929 Pigalle at Night (Bal-Moulin Rouge), the flashing bulbs of the signs seem perfectly positioned, as if the artist had screwed each one in himself. When he does move closer to his target, however, his manipulations of shadow and silhouette create a sense of illusion rather than revelation, sometimes even bordering on the phantasmal, as with the ghost-like actress in At the Bobino, Paris, 1932, the sinister gentleman in Untitled, circa 1920, with his own shadow as backup, and the spectral Self-Portrait, Paris (1927), in which the photographer makes himself look like a smooth criminal.

Kertész’s Skyscraper at Night; Double Exposure (from the 1940s) finds its way into the Met’s exhibition, as do three images by Brassaï. However, the museum has reached back even further into photography’s archives with works by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen from the late 19th century, when the newly introduced gelatin dry-plate process first made it possible to photograph in low-light conditions. While Steichen’s 1899 Woods Twilight is a painterly ode to George Innes, Stieglitz’s photogravure Reflections: Night, New York, 1897—a true achievement during that era, made with a mere 58-second exposure time—captures the potential energy of the city aglow with streetlamps and mist.

Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 1910 Broadway at Night, 1910, packs a similar punch, with a touch of sentimentality that seems to foreshadow Woody Allen’s 1979 black-and-white romantic comedy-cum-love letter to New York, Manhattan. The artist explained his fascination with the nocturnal city in 1911:

“It is only at twilight,” he wrote, “that the city reveals itself to me in the fulness of its beauty, when the arc lights on the Avenue click into being. Many an evening I have watched them and studied carefully just which ones appeared first and why. They begin somewhere about Twenty-sixth street, where it is darkest, and then gradually the great white globes glow one by one, up past the Waldorf and the new Library, like the stringing of pearls, until they burst out into a diamond pendant at the group of hotels at Fifty-ninth street. Probably there is a man at a switchboard somewhere, but the effect is like destiny….”

During the Blitz of London, Bill Brandt saw more blackouts than lamp lightings in his city. Yet he later wrote, “The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since. It was fascinating to walk through the deserted streets and to photograph houses which I knew well, and which no longer looked three-dimensional, but flat like painted stage scenery.” This two-dimensionality can be observed in London by Moonlight: Saint Paul’s, a work that looks more like a charcoal drawing than a photograph.

The exhibition wanders into the second half of the 20th century with works including Sid Grossman’s Mulberry Street,1948, an on-the-fly snapshot of the night revelry at Little Italy’s Feast of San Gennaro, and William Klein’s luminous Man on Ladder Working on Theater Marquee, at Night, 1954. Photos of clandestine sexual encounters captured with infrared film by Kohei Yoshiyuki in Tokyo’s public parks, as well as images taken from a helicopter by David Deutsch for his 2000 series “Night Sun” demonstrate how far technology has expanded the limits of night photography.

Besides showing three never-before-exhibited-or-published early works by Diane Arbus, the Met will hold a special one-time-only screening of the London-based 1950 noir film Night and the City on Friday, June 17, at 6 p.m. Directed by Jules Dassin, it features Richard Widmark and the lovely Gene Tierney, but it seems safe to say they won’t be the brightest stars in the room that night.

This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “The Dark Night.”

By: Sarah E. Fensom

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: June 2011

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