Exercise 4.3: reading and research


“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.”
– V. Van Gogh

“It is the street-lamp that works the transformation. Under the first ray of this nocturnal sun, the nightscape dons its panoply of shadows and a malefic alchemy transmutes the texture of the visible world.”
– Paul Morand

“If only you knew the things I have seen in the darkness of night…”
– M. C. Escher


There’s something so incredibly attractive about night photography – and, I suppose – the night itself; that evocative, enticing mood; the darkness and the way it emphasizes the subject or subjects of an image and, as can so often happen, the way the absence of light can actually become the image.

What is it that we find so alluring and seductive about darkness? Does it stem from fear? Seems logical to be wary of a lack of vision – an obvious evolutionary advantage: fair to say that we probably wouldn’t even be around today as a species if we hadn’t been scared of darkness along the way.

So does that very sensible and seemingly rational fear translate into an aesthetic quality that we can then taste (and empathize with) through an image of the night or darkness be it photographic or otherwise? Or is it the simple fact of making the once hidden world of nocturnal monsters and magic disappear to reveal itself as something else, something more sinister, something much more beautiful than just fear and caution?

Background reading: pioneers and old masters

While reading up for this part of the course and looking carefully at Brassaï‘s ridiculously good night shots (Brassaï. and Morand, 2001) and Paul Martin’s Leicester Square shot from 1869 (Ang, 2014, pp100-101), I remember thinking that they reminded me of the light (and darkness!) in Caravaggio’s paintings.
It was about 20 years ago, the first time I ever saw a Caravaggio painting in real life (after having been forced to study pictures from books or poor facsimiles of his majestic opere), and remember just being simply blown away by it: its size, the quality of the expressions, and, of course, that unbelievable use of (often) a single source of light (cross lighting): so dramatic, so so moody, eerie, foreboding even –  and just simply mind-bogglingly gorgeous.

Looking back on his work now being primarily Cena in Emmaus, 1606, (Francalanci, 1989, p384), I am struck by the contrast his light creates: it’s as if mostly everyone else painting in the Baroque art period was using HDR whereas Caravaggio was almost underexposing and then seemingly breaking the contrast level in post production! It seems he really was scandaloso – and I am not just thinking of the admittedly scandalous content but more his scandalous and divine use of light

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Here, in just 7 years from the beautiful 1599 shot (National Gallery, London) look how moodier the 1606 painting is, and the use of the light allowing the darkness to become part of the structure of the image (apart from the arguably better placement of the figures in the frame). An astounding image. I’d sincerely love to try a tableaux or something of this scene, but the thought terrifies me as much as it excites me: how could you possibly get close to creating something so beautiful?
But that wouldn’t be the point. It would be about being influenced by the work and not about trying to emulate it or anything silly like that.

This also makes me think of Joel Meyerowitz’s 1996 photograph New York City Interior inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1926 Eleven a.m.painting (not that Meyerowitz is the only one to have been inspired by paintings of course, and Hopper has inspired some awesome work elsewhere too!).
Come to think of it, there are so many of Hopper’s paintings that are worth looking at it terms of his work with light (and colour) to create moods, as well as his skillful compositions. I had a pleasant time nosing through a book of his that I have (Kranzfelder and Hopper, 1996) but I was looking particularly for his nighttime paintings of which there are some real beauties. From the well-known Nighthawks painting to the (for me) ever-so-foreboding yet beautiful work Night Windows, 1928; the equally disturbing (at least for me again!) Rooms for Tourists, 1945 and the less threatening (once again, just for me) Drug Store from 1927. Although my favourite of his evening/night paintings is the 1939 New York Movie:

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939

Those warm orange lights (3000K?), the pensive gesture, even the carpet all work for me.

Another thing one notices about Hopper’s work is the preparation that he put into his paintings; extensive notes and some thoughtful observations about how light works (or would work) in his paintings (Kranzfelder and Hopper, 1996, p138/p53) as can be seen with his sketch and notes for Morning Sun:


Edward Hopper, Study for Morning Sun, 1952 (Kranzfelder and Hopper, 1996, p53)

Something to think about for my photography, although, in fairness, I have been making notes pre-tasks and really enjoy the habit of thinking through things as opposed to the older me’s more instinctive, raw approach (not forgotten or neglected, I might add!) especially (or maybe even exclusively) when doing these exercises and assignments.

Brassaï‘s famous book, Paris du Nuit (1933), really is an astounding collection of photos. What really struck me was not just his eye for composition or content matter, but the way he gets the light right; the use of the available ambient light is really masterful (an admirable quality considering that he was one of the first to attempt such bold unknown photography with arguably ‘limited’ technology).
One of his most famous images is the gutter shot with the pavement “snaking” across the frame in a fascinatingly striking dance, and I found this shot to be a great inspiration. The damp (wet?) road just adds a wonderful graphic quality to the image as well as bringing out the cobblestones and the pavement texture(s). This is probably the shot that gave me the most ideas for this exercises perhaps as it is the easiest one to try to recreate? I mean, it’s highly unlikely that I’m ever gonna get to a port or canal with the lighting that Brassaï captured; times have changed: everything is (rightly so) flooded with lighting nowadays which creates its own challenges.

Looking at other past masters, I was blown away by some of the beautiful night shots. A few stuck out for me, namely: Stieglitz’s Reflections of Night, NY from 1898; Paul Martin’s Leicester Square from 1896 an amazing 15m exposure (as well as Martin being a strong influence on Stieglitz); Kértész’s delicious Paris Square at Night taken in 1927 with its spotty lights and divergent shadows is a true masterpiece (as is most of his work, I’d say!); Edward Steichen’s The Flatiron from 1904 and its subtle, barely discernible details inspired by the night paintings of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (one brilliantly entitled  “Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket“, c. 1875” amazing!); Willy Ronis’ magical Rue Muller, Paris (1934) with those receding street-lamps and, like Brassaï, those damp cobblestones reflecting all that glory and accentuating all that texture.
Too much to take in really!

Bill Brandt (one of my faves) also made some lovely night shots during the “fantastically beautiful” blackouts in the 40s where he made use of the darkness and the moonlight stating how it, “[the moonlight] was so soft, it was like a stage, like stage lighting.
Something that we can see with an atmospheric shot he took in the 40s Blackout in London, Moon Over Suburbs  (Brandt and Jeffrey, 2007, plate 2) – a London that will unlikely ever be seen again.
Brandt’s mini series “The Magic Lantern of a Car’s Headlights” (1945) also shows some interesting work with a car’s headlights and the secrets they reveal.

I found Ogle Winston Link’s Hotshot, Eastbound photograph from 1956 an impressive and ambitiously set up night shot: the couple posed in the foreground (he paid them $10!); the connected flash lights at different points in the frame; the fact that he had organised things with the train driver (Ang, 2014, p228) to help out; the addition of the airplane to the screen in post production as the flash(es) had “washed out” the projected film (McCann, 2016).

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Such a massively well-thought out project that lasted for years and also had some really nice colour shots too, also taken at night, where you can really see the quality of the 4×5 view camera he used.

Background reading: present day masters

From the pioneers of early night photography to the more modern take on it, we can see some quite different (and quite lovely) effects.
Whilst collecting names of photographers to read up on, I came across a few contemporary photographers that I had never heard of before (WebUrbanist, 2008) and one that really caught my eye was Bill Schwab. Some ridiculously beautiful night images here, all in a wonderful B/W – I am hoping to contact him over on Flickr for my interview section, see if we can garner some insights!

Staying with Flickr, there are hundreds of users that contribute to a wonderful group made exclusively of night photos called appropriately Noctilucence (other ‘night’ groups on Flickr are undoubtedly available, but in my humble opinion, not quite as good as this one).
There are just too many to go into here, but suffice to say that some of the most gorgeous night shots that I have ever seen are there, and are well worth a look. And then another look.


 A screen grab from the stunning Noctilucence Flickr group

I was familiar with Sugimoto’s amazing Theatre series and have already researched his work before, although it was great to look through his work again and to marvel at his control of light as can also be seen with his museum waxworks (Cotton, 2009, p107).
Dan Holdsworth’s night work is extraordinary (and so is the rest as far as I am concerned), and I got sucked in to his set from 2008 entitled A Light in the Mountain, as well as California (2004) and especially A Machine for Living, 1999-2000 which I’d already seen from Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art  (Cotton, 2009, p95).
Cotton, when referring to Holdsorth’s car park photographs, observes how he, “…uses night-time both as the temporal equivalent of, and the best conditions with which to describe, the auspicious spaces he depicts. By setting up his camera for a long exposure, the lights of the car park and the traffic are depicted as radiating luminescence. The image has a distinctly non-human atmosphere, as if showing us an essence that could not be seen by the naked eye.
And it is true, the light seems so otherworldly, nothing like a car park at all especially with image 01 from A Machine for Living, 1999, like some sort of Martian settlement:

Dan Holdsworth’s distinctly non-human feeling car park.

The above image reminds of some work I have done (attempted to do) with long exposures in the past. They seem to bring out hidden colours (as well as realms!), invisible tones and unseen textures, things that were imperceptible to the naked eye. Here’s an example, with a decidedly more human feel, taken in 2013:


View from Our Place, 60 sec at F/8.0, ISO 80, 4.8mm (eq. 27mm); Panasonic DMC-FZ38, (yeah, you read that right: a bridge camera from 2009 which I still use), 19/09/13. Compared to a large format image this image is obviously pretty poor in terms of detail, however, the long exposure does reveal colours and textures that were not visible to the naked eye: the orange glow on the top left hand corner of the white building to the right as well as the tips of the buildings to the left not to mention the weird purple sky! The lights are obviously blown out, and with exercise 4.3 I’d like to try some cross lighting to avoid that.

Sato Shintaro, as suggested by our course notes for this exercise, has produced some great work such as Night Lights: a large set of images taken from 1997 to 1999 in Tokyo and Osaka. They are fine shots, although most of them they feel too cramped and cluttered for me, but, as he states on the website, by focusing on the neons and removing the people: “...the purpose of the lighting is lost and only the glow remains – providing a glimpse of the streets we know well from a less familiar perspective.” Michael Freeman in Capturing Light points out something interesting about neon displays: “…you can photograph them at a wide range of exposure settings – up to several f-stops – and they still look good. Or they look different.
Something which I tried recently for a personal project doing some double exposures at night. Didn’t work out too well, but I gave it a go.

Shintaro mentions this “less familiar perspective” again when talking about the superb set of images Tokyo Twilight Zone. According to his statement about the set, he shoots these city nightscapes from around the 10th floor because it is “...more like looking out horizontally to confront the city, rather than looking down on it. And it’s interesting that at this height signs of daily life, like laundry hung out to dry, appear in the photographs.
Interesting, instead of the normal urge to race to the top floor to get the highest view possible, Shintaro’s way seems (and looks) more immersive: we are among the buildings, not above them. These images are carefully framed and the use of the twilight mood gives the sky some character, and as Freeman also mentions, there is: “…much to recommend Blue Evening Light as a prime time for shooting, so that the sky stays alive and doesn’t just disappear into blackness.” (Freeman, 2013, p120) which we can see with Shintaro’s sky (as well as his evident use of filters or some adjustment brush tool on the sky – or is that just me again?)


Sata Shintaro, Tokyo Twilight Zone, 2004. Pretty heavy grad filter, or adjustment brush work on the sky here? Not that that is against the law at all, just curious as to the techniques used to create this image.

So as Freeman notes the sky (light) plays a part in the frame and the images balance without too much focus on the city, just enough. As Shintaro puts it: “... when manmade and natural light commingle.
He summarises with this: “ I am moved by this unconscious power-the raw power that issues from a city built by human hands. And in the twilight hours before night falls, this power becomes a subtle transition of light, revealing its shape even more clearly.
Barnbaum also mentions this and how to avoid the “spotty lighting”:
…But what about nighttime colour photography? In urban areas, contrast created by the inverse square law [what’s that?] where street-lights and other point sources produce extremely spotty, contrasty situations is difficult to overcome. One clever way to overcome this is to shoot well after sunset (or before sunrise) but with enough dusk or dawn light to even out the spotty lighting.” (Freeman, 2013, p95) Something that I  dabbled with in the previous exercise (Ex 4.2)
Still, Tokyo Twilight Zone, is truly a wonderful project, although, it may just be me (or my monitor), but the images tend to be a little too magentary [sic]? Of course, something we have to bear in mind is the different photographic aesthetic for the East (however Western these cityscapes could also seem). We must be careful not to rely too heavily on our own cultural preconditioning, and as Lucy Soutter points out: “Photographic aesthetics read differently depending on their cultural context.“, and how, “In Japan, Iran, India or any number of other specific cultural contexts, photographic aesthetics have a life of their own.” (Soutter, 2013)
So, I may just be totally ignorant to Japanese photographic aesthetics. Still, like anything in life, we need to keep an open mind and be tolerant to diversity, welcome it even.

Comparable to Holdsworth eerie and suggestive use of light is undoutedly Rut Blees Luxemburg’s golden night photography, or as Cotton describes it: “…magnificent amber imagery of urban architecture.” (Cotton., 2009, p76).
Luxemburg’s “golden” images are made with a 5×4 camera (yet another photographer who swears by large format) and as Higgins notes: “Her long exposures – up to twenty minutes long – made with the available light from street lamps, cast her images in rich gold hues, disclosing an unknown world of colour.” (Higgins., 2013, p67)
And Luxemburg also mentions how the large format camera allows: “…a transformation, something other than what you see in your mundane, everyday experience… Something which is there but perhaps can be sensed better than it can be seen.“, and, as Higgins goes on to say, she admits: “…a fascination with the possibilities of the large-format camera and the long exposure which allows me to let chance enter the work. The long exposure leaves space for the unexpected things to happen while the shutter is open.“. Quite a different approach to Holdsworth, or Shintaro’s work and more in line with Sugimoto’s “I let the camera capture whatever it captures…” approach. (Higgins., 2013, p153)
Brilliant stuff!
I’d seen Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads series from 2000 before and thought it would be appropriate for research here as his flash brings out pedestrians’ heads from the darkness… Until I discovered that he doesn’t use a flash but a hidden strobe.
And that the shots were not taken at night at all, but during the day!
What an amazing project, and, tenuously we can give a nod to his work here as it is a use of light.

The final photographer/artist* for this research is Paolo Roversi. I bought a book of his about three years ago, and flipped through it a couple of times but have never really looked at it until now. His work with torchlight is very nice and gave me a few ideas to try out for this exercise; the main difference being I didn’t quite manage to get hold of any waif like female models in flamboyant clothes for my shoot!
We live in hope.
Er, no actually we don’t.
*Delete as appropriate

Prep work and summary

After having almost overdosed on the absurd amount of material to study/read and look through on the topic of night photography (and realizing that what I have seen is just a fragment of the tip of the iceberg regarding this topic!), I must now put some ideas of my own together.
My first idea was to try and reveal the hidden colours of the night as all these masters (above) seem to do, but the truth is, without a view camera or some sort of modern camera that costs well over £2,000 pounds (not including lens), there really is no chance of coming close to the dynamic range, colours, and especially detail that large format can produce.
Ah well, just have to make do with what we’ve got and enjoy it without worrying about bigger and better cameras or dreaming about Fujifilm XT2s, Sony a7Riis, new X1D-50c mirrorless Hasselblads, Leicas, or full-frame flagships and the like from CaNikon, or Pentax, thank you very much.

(Takes a long, deep breath and continues)

My previous photos of night-time scenes and experiments with long exposures taught me some basics:

  • underexposing isn’t always a bad thing
  • get as much right in-camera as you possibly can (instead of messing around for years on post production software later)
  • use a tripod
  • use a shutter release cable
  • don’t need to use filters
  • experiment with WB settings on the camera
  • experiment with several apertures
  • prepare yourself for getting it all wrong
  • prepare yourself to mess it up again
  • try out new things such as movement, double exposures, bracketing
  • use low ISO (but don’t be afraid to push it and see the results)
  • make sure lighting is even and constant
  • avoid direct light into the lens to avoid those stars and blown highlights (unless that is your objective)
  • use manual mode
  • be prepared to get wet (use the rain like the masters did!)
  • use a torch for focusing in total darkness (and for seeing what you are doing i.e. changing lens, where the tripod legs are – ahem).

Let’s keep positive and get out there and start shooting, see what happens!

Sources and References

BrainyQuote. (2016). Vincent Van Gogh Quotes at BrainyQuote.com. [online] Available at: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/v/vincentvan106933.html [Accessed 18 Sep. 2016].

Ernst, B. (1976). The magic mirror of M.C. Escher. New York: Random House. (p17)

Background reading: pioneers and old masters

Francalanci, E. (1989). Da Giotto al Caravaggio. Novara: Istituto geografico De Agostini, (p373-384)

Westerbeck, C., & Meyerowitz, J. (2001). Joel Meyerowitz. Berlin: Phaidon Press

Kranzfelder, I. and Hopper, E. (1996). Edward Hopper. Köln [etc.]: Taschen.

My Modern Met. (2014). Incredible Composite Photographs Inspired by Edward Hopper. [online] Available at: http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/richard-tuschman-hopper-meditations?context=tag-art [Accessed 18 Sep. 2016].

Brassaï, and Morand, P. (2001). Brassaï – Paris by night. Boston [u.a.]: Little, Brown and Comp.

Jeffries, S. (2001). Brassai’s images of Paris at night. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2001/feb/06/artsfeatures [Accessed 18 Sep. 2016].

Ang, T. (2014). Photography. New York, New York: DK Publishing, pp154-155

Hackelbury.co.uk. (2016). Hackel Bury Fine Art – Willy Ronis. [online] Available at: http://www.hackelbury.co.uk/artists/ronis/ronis_pic10.html [Accessed 14 Sep. 2016].

The Museum of Modern Art. (2016). Alfred Stieglitz. Icy Night, New York. 1898 | MoMA. [online] Available at: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/51840?locale=en [Accessed 14 Sep. 2016].

Loc.gov. (2016). Reflections, night, New York. [online] Available at: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98501361/ [Accessed 14 Sep. 2016].  (See also: Ang, p106)

Kertész, A. (2007). André Kertész. London: Thames & Hudson.

Brandt, B. and Jeffrey, I. (2007). Bill Brandt. New York: Thames and Hudson.

YouTube. (2016). Bill Brandt BBC Master Photographers (1983). [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3KuY0quBsk [Accessed 19 Sep. 2016].

BOXER, S. (2016). IN SHORT; Bill Brandt’s Britain. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/17/books/in-short-bill-brandt-s-britain.html [Accessed 19 Sep. 2016].

Smithsonianmag.com. (2016). History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. [online] Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-big-picture-2-110497282/?c=y%3Fno-ist [Accessed 19 Sep. 2016].

McCann, M. (2016). When Steam Locomotion Ground to a Halt. [online] Lens Blog. Available at: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/16/when-steam-locomotion-ground-to-a-halt/?_r=0 [Accessed 19 Sep. 2016].

Johnson, K. (2015). O. Winston Link – Photography. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/arts/design/30john.html?ref=topics [Accessed 19 Sep. 2016].

Background reading: present day masters

WebUrbanist. (2008). Dark Arts: The Work of 10 Talented Night Photographers. [online] Available at: http://weburbanist.com/2008/07/30/10-unusually-talented-night-photographers-photography/ [Accessed 18 Sep. 2016].

Flickr. (2016). Bill Schwab. [online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/billschwab [Accessed 20 Sep. 2016].

Cotton, C. (2004). The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Danholdsworth.com. (2016). Dan Holdsworth{{pageTitle ? ‘ — ‘ + pageTitle : ”}}. [online] Available at: http://www.danholdsworth.com/works/ [Accessed 19 Sep. 2016].

Shintaro, S. (2016). Sato Shintaro – Tokyo Twilight Zone | LensCulture. [online] Lensculture.com. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/projects/1861-tokyo-twilight-zone [Accessed 13 Sep. 2016].

Sato-shintaro.com. (2016). Sato Shintaro Photo Gallery. [online] Available at: http://www.sato-shintaro.com/work/tokyo_twilight_zone/index.html [Accessed 13 Sep. 2016].

Soutter, L. (2013) Why art photography? New York: Taylor & Francis.

Higgins., (2013). Why it does not have to be in focus. Modern photography explained. Farnborough: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

the Guardian. (2009). Photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg’s best shot. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/apr/23/rut-blees-luxemburg-best-shot-photography [Accessed 14 Sep. 2016].

the Guardian. (2009). Photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg explores the public spaces of cities. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/gallery/2009/mar/09/rut-blees-luxemburg-photography [Accessed 14 Sep. 2016].

Kippenberger, S. (1997). Interview: A shot in the dark. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/interview-a-shot-in-the-dark-1287703.html [Accessed 14 Sep. 2016]. (Article about Rut Blees Luxemburg)

Moma.org. (2016). MoMA | Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Head #10. 2002. [online] Available at: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/philip-lorca-dicorcia-head-10-2002 [Accessed 14 Sep. 2016].

Roversi, P. (2011). Paolo Roversi. [Roma]: Contrasto. (pp49-62)

Flickr. (2016). Noctilucence. [online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/groups/nightshining/ [Accessed 15 Sep. 2016].

Kev Byrne 1971. (2016). A Durational Space – Project 2: Ex. 3.2 – reading and prep.. [online] Available at: https://kevinbyrne1971.wordpress.com/2016/04/24/a-durational-space-project-2/ [Accessed 18 Sep. 2016].

Kev Byrne 1971. (2016). The Frozen Moment. [online] Available at: https://kevinbyrne1971.wordpress.com/2016/04/23/traces-of-time-the-frozen-moment/ [Accessed 18 Sep. 2016].

Flickr. (2016). Noctilucence. [online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinbyrne1971/albums/72157633306180979 [Accessed 19 Sep. 2016].

Barnbaum, B. (n.d.). The art of photography, p95

Freeman, M. (2013). Capturing light. USA, The Ilex Press Ltd

Higgins, J., Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus – Modern Photography Explained, Thames & Hudson, London, 2013,

Tanizaki, J. (1977). In praise of shadows. New Haven, Conn.: Leete’s Island Books.

Grayling, A. (2002). Rereadings: In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/oct/05/featuresreviews.guardianreview25 [Accessed 18 Sep. 2016].

 Notes from the Notebook





2 thoughts on “Exercise 4.3: reading and research

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