Project Development: Research Categories

I am going to start from the general in organizing research into my project, the City at Night. I hope that sufficient winnowing will enable me to identify a kernel of interest that is worth expressing.

Photographic History
At the moment I have the following to research as a starting point:

  • Brassai
  • Bernard Eilers (early experiments in colour)
  • Harry Gruyaert (his use of colour and some images from his series “Made in Belgium”, interestingly a collaboration with a writer)
  • Todd Hido
  • Dan Holdsworth
  • Edward Hopper
  • Joshua K. Jackson
  • Dina Litovsky and her “Meatpacking” series:
  • London Nights exhibition:
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Daido Moriyama and Shinjuku (in Tokyo)
  • Trent Parke
  • Nick Turpin (Turpin, N. (2017). On the night bus. London: Hoxton Mini Press)

Need: identify key photographers of the city over the past century or more and concentrate on their work at night or after dark. Who are the people I definitely need to know about, modern and old? Important to widen the scope to include photography of night and dark, not just cities.

Cultural History
Find source material on cities, the metropolis, the urban experience particularly after dark, and specifically on Oxford itself. Investigate the city as a worldwide modern phenomenon. What do Oxonians themselves think of their city after dark? It could be views of the mayor but it could equally be someone waiting for a late bus. Check local groups and meetings around social and urban-city questions or even consider advertising for subjects and input.

Also find source material on night and darkness and their effect on our physical and mental states. Some may be film, fiction or poetry.

Narrative Approach
How to organize material: thematic, by the hour, by subject, by season or weather and so on? How will the project treat time? Will “night” be seen as a general condition or times of night treated specifically (for example pub closing hours, transport timings)? How will individual images treat time, for example live composite or long exposure images? How will “night” be defined since it is only a label for what elapses between dusk and dawn? There is the question of in-between or liminal states as day becomes night and night becomes day again. Do we experience time differently at night? How do our other senses react to it? 

Social Commentary
State, process or event? Will the project be generally descriptive, like an urban landscape exercise? Or will it attempt to show the lives of various subjects – night workers, revellers, travellers, the homeless, the marginal and so forth? Oxford is always full of new arrivals and visitors not only tourists, but students, migrant workers and commuters. It is unusually cosmopolitan.

Subject Matter and Sub-themes
Define night, define “city” and define Oxford if at all possible. Then decide how much to show of the city’s many possible subjects, from architecture to individual people, venues and areas (centre vs suburbs), commercial and domestic properties, etc. Possibility of finding and following specific subjects (street food vendors, for example). This in turn raises the question of treatment: the anonymous subject versus the identified subject with a voice.

Key here will be keeping the range in check and on-topic since the potential subject matter is unlimited. What does “night” mean and reveal that “daylight” doesn’t?

Mission Statement
Why this project and what it tries to do in a few sentences only. To do this, however, I need to conduct enough research to narrow the topic down from generalities to what, specifically, I am trying to express.

Ethical Considerations
Distressed people, homeless people, inebriated people and so forth. Is it acceptable to bring them into my practice and if so how? (At the moment I am thinking probably not except for revellers.)

Photographic Techniques
There are single images, but also live composite images and long exposures, collage, contact sheets and so on. There is also video. All are available, but if the delivery medium is a book my options are more limited.

Textual Considerations
No text, short captions, long captions, witness statements from subjects photographed, poetry, excerpts from appropriate literature, narration or statements by the photographer and so forth. All to be decided.

Colour vs monochrome. Colour palettes. Film emulation. Overall treatment of things like contrast and tonal values. Close-up vs wider angles. Deep versus shallow depth of field and “bokeh” images. Abstract versus naturalistic.

To enliven this otherwise wordy post, here is the trailer of a short film by Gerrit Messiaen about the photographer Harry Gruyaert. I have always liked his work, the use of colour, the often dim or subdued lighting, the sense of impermanence, the surrealist touches and, sometimes, his portrayal of the thin watery light of northern Europe. He is an influence, for sure.

See also:

Claus, H. and Gruyaert, H. (2000). Made in Belgium. Paris: Delpire Éditeur

Harry Gruyaert – Photographer. (2018). [film] Directed by G. Messiaen. Belgium.