And Now It’s Dark – American Night Photography

And Now It’s Dark brings together the work of three contemporary American photographers and provides context by setting them amongst a brief collection of American night photography from between 1900 and 1964. It is curated by Dr Mark Rawlinson (Associate Professor of Art History at The University of Nottingham) and runs from 6th September to 9th November at the Djanogly Art Gallery in Nottingham.

I went along on Sunday and spent an hour with the work before visiting again today to attend a gallery tour with the show’s curator. I was familiar with the work of Todd Hido having researched him during the earlier stages of the course and I have a book edited by Will Steacy although it contained no photographs. Jeff Brouws was new to me. The earlier work includes by William Klein, René Burri and Jack Delano. The central theme, other than the fact that all images are taken in America at night, is that they appear to track the progress, evolution and eventual decline of the ‘American dream’ through this frame of reference.

It makes sense to view the work that sets the contemporary artists in context first. This collection is made up of 5 groups of photographs that run chronologically. The earliest work shows the electrification of America, with the neon billboards and shop-fronts providing what must have been a technical challenge to the photographers that catalogued it in the first half of the 20th century. We see Times Square (devoid of people, presumably because of the effect of the long-exposure that must have been used) and can imagine the sense of wonder that people must have had looking at these first, electrified billboards. These advertisements, burning high above the city must have been compelling to the average consumer, but seem to remain limited to the promotion of beer, soft drinks and other ‘low-end’ products. These pictures were clearly made to celebrate this new technology.

The next few images, assuming we follow the show in the order intended, feature pictures of the industry that fuelled this development, manufactured the goods being advertised and employed the consumers that would be enticed by this advertising. The lights in the factories are burning through the night as they work 24-hours to keep up with the demands of the consumers in the world’s richest country. We also see residential properties in the shadows of these factories, a theme that is echoed in the contemporary work later.

Cleverly, there is a slightly wider spacing between the frames as we move subtly between topics. The next set, through the pictures of Jack Delano, shows the spread of this commercialisation and advertising from the cities into ‘small-town’ America. We see the first signs (sic) of the fonts and stylings that have become familiar and a clichéd American look. They are typical U.S. streets but at a very specific point in time. Today it would be impossible to take similar pictures without advertising being omni-present. In these, there are the first gentle signs of this intrusion that will feature so heavily in Brouws’ work later.

We go off at a slight tangent next with Delano’s Kodachrome pictures of war-time railway marshalling yards in LA. These are the first colour images and may be included as an example of early use of colour at night. The results are interesting, especially the odd traces of the worker’s torches during the long-exposures but while there is a billboard lit-up in one of the pictures, the set seems to break slightly from the building narrative of the show so far, or at least makes us work to find our own link.

While Magnum photographer René Burri‘s pictures of the north-east black-out are a fascinating documentary of the event (and beautifully printed), I can only think that they are included as they begin to blur the line between documentary and contemporary, conceptual photography. Everything to this point has been straight documentary – the Delano work was commissioned by the Office of War Information – but Burri’s set adds an underlying narrative of tension and fear that the temporary darkness of a power-cut brings.

Finally, William Klein’s short film Broadway by Light begins to cast doubt on all that glitters. The billboards that we saw in Times Square earlier are replaced by the bright lights of Broadway a few of decades later but are cut up, blurred and thrown at the viewer, accompanied by a grating jazz soundtrack. As Rawlinson says in his accompanying essay, “The tone is distinctly critical, the spectacle gaudy and vulgar”. A couple that were in the gallery during my first visit had to leave as the film had made them feel ill, such is the visual assault.

View from the café

View from the café

So far, in this first part of the exhibition, we’ve seen the development of this optimistic, consumer-driven culture being enticed and encouraged by the pervasive advertising, that has begun to be evident 24-hours a day, now it can be lit on a massive scale. We’ve seen this encroachment become overpowering and vulgar, and we’ve seen what happens when this new 24-hour electrified illumination fails, bringing a fear of being returned to a primitive state – the scene is perfectly set for the contemporary work of Hido, Steacy and Brouws.

Will Steacy had a set method when working on his Down These Mean Streets set. He’d fly in to regional airports and then walk into the financial centre of the nearby city during the night, taking large format photographs as he went. This risky strategy has produced a politically-charged representation of the darker side of American culture. We see behind the brash, glossy exterior and discover what happened to that optimism and ebullience that we saw in the earlier work – and it’s not a pretty site. The forgotten people and places we see are menacing enough, but when photographed at night there is a voyeuristic tension to the work. A feature of a couple of the images is how the people in these areas appear to be treated by the cities in which they live. We see fences, cameras and barriers as if the residents are unwelcome in their own community. The effect is cumulative, each image adding to the overall feeling that we’re glad Steacy went to these places so that we didn’t have to.

Todd Hido uses the night time in other ways in his Excerpts from Silver Meadows. Like Steacy, the night adds drama and builds upon our psychological reaction to losing the use of one of our senses. His work uses a variety of cameras, filters, lighting and formats that, when combined with the work being shown in an apparently haphazard and densely-populated arrangement, adds to our feeling of unease and disorientation. There appears to be the suggestion of a narrative that takes us through a night, from dusk until the following, murky dawn. The images are like glimpses of memory or dreams – we flash back to a childhood, see lovers, suggestions of violence – each picture adding to the crushing weight and claustrophobia. Hido’s early work (see House Hunting) featured the exterior of houses at night. There was usually a window, lit from the inside with the blinds closed. The work in this show may be what is going on in those houses. It is America’s ‘dirty linen’ laid out for us to see.

Finally, the Jeff Brouws work is a retrospective selection of several of his projects, but the subject matter remains similar and a strong narrative is developed through the collection. Many of the images condense the themes of the entire show into one frame – that apparent decline of the U.S. and souring of the hope and optimism we saw earlier. In Brouws’ work, we return to the places that featured in Delano’s pictures earlier, that showed the first signs of commercialisation in small-town, road-side America that are now abandoned, or replaced with the corporate logos that are pervasive the world over. The work comments on the loss of individuality and cultural difference of our towns as globalisation takes hold.

Two of Brouws’ images are shot through glass, the reflection leaving us unsure of whether we are inside or out. It’s disturbing that our minds are almost comforted by the recognition of the Shell logo that we use as a visual anchor to make sense of the image. Another diptych shows two views of the same development at night with one image exposed for the building and its massive, empty car park; the other shows us its surroundings and the magnificent rock formations above the hotel. The narrative is obvious in that the rampant spread of our artificial light into nature means that things beyond the light are unknown and feared.

This pair of images illustrates the other central theme of the show. It is about darkness, but more importantly it’s about light. These contemporary photographers have played upon our primal reaction to darkness to enhance the impact of their work, understanding that often it is what we can’t see and what lurks in the shadows that will play on our minds more than that which is front and centre and perfectly lit.

It is an excellent show that appeals to me on several levels. Firstly, I do shoot a lot at night as I enjoy the idea that not only can darkness be used to create an unease in a viewer, but that the darkness (and light in the darkness) can itself be used creatively. The narrative themes of the show are also something that I’m very interested in and relate to those that I’m working on, to do with the decline in the sense of community in small villages like ours.

I’ve booked on to the symposium on October 18th that will be attended by Hido, Brouws and Steacy and look forward to better understanding their motivations and methods. I’ll probably update this post after this.


References

And Now It’s Dark website [online] Rawlinson, Dr. M. Available from: http://andnowitsdark.com/ (Accessed: 22 September, 2014)

René Burri [online] Magnum Photos. Available from: http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL5350UE (Accessed: 22 September, 2014)

Brouws, J (2006) Approaching nowhere. New York; W.W.Norton & Company

Steacy, W. (2012) Photographs not taken. USA; Daylight Community Arts Foundation

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