PHO702 Week 9: Enter the Academy

The reflective task for this week is to Identify and research a real-life group exhibition that my work might fit into, establish its intent and discuss it.

I will choose the ‘London Nights’ exhibition held by the Museum of London in 2018 as an exhibition that my own work would fit well into – though clearly I would have to travel down and make some photographs of London first! I have been doing just that for many years anyway, in fact, though not for my degree course. My project is on urban night photography and that was the subject of this successful and wide-ranging exhibition which surveyed the field from Paul Martin to Bill Brandt to contemporary practitioners like Rut Blees Luxemburg (Sparham 2017).

In the book of the exhibition Anna Sparham, the Curator of Photography at the Museum of London, makes several points relevant both to the exhibition and to my practice (Sparham 2018). I would say that the intent of the exhibition was to show not only the history of night photography but also to show what is distinct about it, how it reflects changing times and cultures, and also how night photography is well suited to portraying the restless energy, rush, mysteriousness and alienating strangeness of any great modern city though in this case specifically London. Sparham writes:

The notion of the night is, after all, where the imagination has always run wild. (Introduction)

The concept of night photography is best explored through images that stand distinct in appearance to daylight. (Introduction)

The unsettling sense of change or loss can be intensified at night, when limited light adds to the drama and tension. (78)

Fear, threat and suspicion often lead the imagination to blend with reality. (86)

Sparham goes on to note that ‘voyeurism, privacy and surveillance’ are all issues with urban night photography and are becoming more so.

To unpack these remarks a little (the images that follow are not from the exhibition):

Night photograph has to be approached as something quite distinct. It is not simply photography without daylight and won’t produce successful images if treated as such. Brassaï’s spooky deserted streets are highly atmospheric at night but during the day are just another bland boulevard. See Figure 1.

Brassai_Avenue-de-lObservatoire-in-the-Fog-1933
Fig. 1: Brassaï 1933. Avenue de l’Observatoire. Light and shadow, weather, point of view and the headlights of a car are all used to distinguish this scene from the unremarkable urban space it might be during the day.

Sparham points out that images made at night need to capture ‘an aesthetic and characteristic distinct from the diurnal’ (Sparham 2018: 125). Blees Luxembourg always comes to mind as a practitioner successful in this aspect and she is certainly an influence. However, so is David George. Blees Luxemburg is adept at photographing the city at night, but to my eye George has the surer sense of place and is more clearly photographing London at night (George 2020). See Figure 2. A sense of place is an issue here. I am photographing Oxford at night, not Leamington Spa.

GEORGE, David. 2015. Hackney at Night.
Fig. 2: David George 2015. Hackney by Night. George’s images of East London at night are notable to me for their strong sense of place.

Night jumbles up our senses and primal instincts come to the fore. We are more alert to danger. This sense of disorientation is an essential ingredient of night photography and, when allied to the uncertain and the deserted, produces a sensation of the uncanny. Almost all the practitioners I am mentioning – Brassaï, Brandt, Hido, Blees Luxemburg, George – are accomplished at this. It is one of the most important things I need to learn.

Good images require tension. Aesthetics alone, in the sense of beauty, colour, light, are not enough. The search for tension is perhaps why Brandt used his wife as a stand-in for a pedestrian or even a lonely streetwalker in some of his night photography, and of course Brassaï went for the real thing. In addition, tension creates a story. The moment there is tension we start to ask ‘What if?’ or ‘What happened?’ This is clearly an important ingredient for some practitioners. For example, it could be argued that the only difference between an arranged tableau by Gregory Crewdson and an image by Todd Hido is that Crewdson has introduced a character and set up a story. The other qualities – the low light, the dodgy suburban buildings, the feeling of alienation – are very similar. See figure 3.

gregory-crewdson-untitled-2001
Fig. 3: Gregory Crewdson 2001. Untitled. A very similar suburban atmosphere to some of the practice of Todd Hido, but with characters added in an arranged tableau to create a story.

Night photography reflects the time, culture, ethics and so on of where it is made. Thus surveillance, for example, has become a pressing contemporary issue. It has become so partly from a climate of fear, and partly from the increasing encroachment of private capital in public spaces. What used to be open or merely neglected is often now fenced off, surveyed by CCTV and patrolled by private security companies. Unless one wishes to live in a bubble, these things are now part of the night and should therefore be noted. This marks a move away from the more aesthetic ‘beautiful mysterious’ of Eggleston or Shore forty or so years ago. A comparison here would be with Mark Power’s ongoing study Good Morning, America (Power 2020). Many of the images in that have very sharp social edges.

How would my work fit into the above and what might a reviewer say? I hope a reviewer would say that my work portrays Oxford in the way that David George portrays East London or Todd Hido portrays suburban America, though in my case sometimes with a sharper social bite. Perhaps they would also say that while my practice is clearly in this tradition, it is not unique enough to be truly distinctive.

So, finding my own voice within this long tradition emerges as my number one priority.

References

FALCONER, Karen and David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

GEORGE, David. 2020. ‘David George Photography’. David George Photography [online]. Available at: http://www.davidgeorge.eu/ [accessed 3 Apr 2020].

POWER, Mark. 2020. ‘Projects’. Mark Power [online]. Available at: https://www.markpower.co.uk/Projects [accessed 16 Mar 2020].

SPARHAM, Anna. 2017. ‘London Nights Exhibition Opens at The Museum of London 2018’. Museum of London [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r5lOoizXyLE [accessed 2 Apr 2020].

SPARHAM, Anna and Inua ELLAMS. 2018. London Nights. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

Figures

Figure 1. BRASSAÏ. 1933. Avenue de l’Observatoire.
Figure 2. David GEORGE. 2015. Hackney by Night. From: Karen Falconer and David George. 2015. Hackney by Night. London: Hoxton Mini Press.
Figure 3. Gregory CREWDSON. 2001. Untitled.