Walking After Midnight

Christopher Moraff

“Night Visions: Photography After Dark” – on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 18 – offers an inspiring glimpse at the intrepid photographers who, for more than a century, have made the night home.

Art is tasked with the mission of revealing profound truths hidden in plain sight; and the greatest works are driven by a creative intuition that recognizes these truths as something greater than the artist himself.  It follows that this experience is even more powerful at night, when humanity confronts what Victor Hugo called a “mysterious transaction between the infinity of the soul and the infinity of the universe.”  We’ve all encountered this feeling, standing in an open field or on a deserted street corner as the “iron tongue of midnight” blithely extols our insignificance. 


The night exposes our vulnerabilities, and in our nakedness we feel more alive.


The great masters -- Dürer, Goya, Van Gogh -- all tasted this nocturnal muse and some of the most moving works of the Canon offer up the textures and pigments of the night to impart  a sense of melancholy and wonder that is unattainable during daylight hours (did Rembrandt even consider painting the “Day Watch”?).  


For the early photographer, the desire to capture this ethos was tempered by the technical limitations of the craft. Wet processing, long exposures and clunky equipment meant that for the first four decades beyond the patenting of the Daguerreotype in 1839, photographic imaging was largely limited to the staged portrait or the occasional daytime landscape.   


Even today, with high technology on our side, every photographer knows of the challenges of shooting at night; but most also recognize its potential to reveal images of unimaginable beauty. This dichotomy is part of what makes night photography so thrilling.  In the right hands (and with the right eye) the wonders hidden in the dark are exposed like Wonka’s Golden Ticket, reflected in a shimmering tableau of curtain-wall glass and brushed steel.


Curator Mia Fineman’s “Night Vision: Photography After Dark,” which runs through September 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, captures the essence of this endeavor in a handful of works from some of the world’s most iconic photographers.  


Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Robert Frank, André Kertész, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus – they are all represented here, on walls that have been painted midnight blue to resemble the night sky. But there are also less familiar names, like the Dutchman Pim Van Os, who produced mostly abstract and experimental work until his death in 1954, and the Americans Louis Faurer and Gordon H. Coster, who began his career as a commercial photographer for the prestigious Underwood & Underwood studio before being drawn into the more subtle realms of the craft after discovering the “New Vision” photography of Lászlo Moholy-Nagy.

As such, the subject matter of “Night Vision” ranges from the ethereal street scenes of the German Subjective Photographer Otto Steinert’s “Silhouetted Man in Front of Poster” and Giuseppe Albergamo’s “Light Weavings,” to the social documentary work of Japan’s Kohei Yoshiyuki and American Peter Hujar.  But the leitmotif here, if there is one, is historical more than it is aesthetic; it is a celebration of the pioneers who overcame the technical restrictions of a young medium and those who followed in their footsteps, pushing the envelope in ways that are sometimes subtle, and often bold and daring.


Photographers began shooting at night almost as soon as technology enabled them to, and the 40-plus black and white photographs represented in “Night Vision” -- all drawn from the museum's collection -- span from the late 19th century to the end of the last.

Soon after the introduction of dry processing techniques, like the gelatin dry-plate negative – which was first sold commercially by George Eastman in 1880– a few enterprising photographers began experimenting with nocturnal shooting.


The earliest pictures in the exhibit, by Englishman Paul Martin, were taken in 1896 and published by Amateur Photographer magazine under the title London by Gaslight. A young Alfred Stieglitz, who was also publishing in the magazine, saw Martin’s work and became inspired. Stieglitz spent the winter of 1897-1898 wandering the cold New York streets after sunset and was soon able to cut down Martin’s long exposure times (upwards of 30 minutes) to just under a minute. The result of these wanderings, Picturesque Bits of New York and Other Studies, is the earliest compendium of Stieglitz’s work and includes one of the most iconic of the early night photos, “An Icy Night” (which is housed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts).


For “Night Vision,” Stieglitz’s “Reflections: Night, New York” -- shot in 1897 and printed, as were many of his later images, as a photogravure, using an etched copper plate -- is displayed under glass next to Martin’s.


In spite of these brilliant early experimentations it wasn't until the first part of the twentieth century -- with the introduction of faster films, portable cameras (especially the Leica II rangefinder, in 1932) and commercial flashbulbs – that night photography came into its own.


The 1930s saw an explosion of street photography and with it a movement among young urban artists and journalists to document the gritty realities of city life in the cafes, bordellos and rooming houses they frequented.


Hungarian-born Brassaï's (Gyula Halász) 1933 debut Paris de nuit, captures his adopted city as he saw it, populated by prostitutes, street toughs and working men.  His pictures -- which include some stunning shots of the Seine -- embody a dreamlike quality accentuated by his preference for shooting in fog and rain, and exemplified by his 1932 photograph “Morris Column in the Fog,” one of three works by the artist on display at the Met.


“Chance is always there. We all use it,” Brassaï once said. “The difference is a poor photographer meets chance one out of a hundred times and a good photographer meets chance all the time.”


Around the same time Brassaï was haunting the streets of Montparnasse with his bulky Voigtländer Bergheil, the English photographer Bill Brandt, who had studied with May Ray in Paris before moving to London in 1933, was using his lens to document all levels of British society.  Following the popularity of Paris de nuit, Brassaï's French publisher commissioned Brandt’s A Night in London (1938), which featured 64 black-and-white photographs, including “Soho Bedroom” (1936), which is part of “Night Vision.”  Brandt, who died in 1983, went on to become one of Britain’s most well-known photographers and is the subject of more than a dozen books.


Brassaï's Paris de nuit and Brandt’s A Night in London served as the inspiration for the generations of photographers who followed them into rambling nocturnal theaters of New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles and elsewhere. These were itinerant voyeurs who, with camera in hand, set about capturing that special dance that takes place when the sun goes down.    


In New York, the man who came to be known as Weegee (Ukrainian-born Arthur Fellig) drove the streets of the naked city from sundown to sun-up following the chatter of a police scanner to the latest crime scene. The product of one of these late-night chases, “Human Head Cake Box Murder” (1940), shows a police photographer surrounded by a gaggle of detectives considering the body part that has just rolled out of the cake box to the right of the frame. The intrepid photographer – somewhere out of the frame, shooting from above (from a second story window perhaps?) – remains unseen, always the quintessential observer.


This voyeuristic theme continues throughout “Night Visions,” from Kohei Yoshiyuki’s candid shots of random sexual encounters in Tokyo's parks (and the spectators who seem to enjoy watching them), to David Deutsch's “16 Aerial Views of Houses, from the Night Sun Series,” taken from a helicopter over Los Angeles using a police spotlight.


In both cases the viewer gets the uneasy feeling of seeing something he’s not supposed to, sharing, like Yoshiyuki’s peeping Toms, a glimpse of the forbidden.


But not all night photographers limited themselves to exploring cities, and by the late 1970s a handful of adventurers struck out into the suburban hinterlands looking to document the sometimes delicate,  and not so delicate, balance of civilization and nature.


American Stephen Tourlentes’ stunning large-format shots of American correctional facilities glowing on the periphery of suburbia – like that in “Avenal, California, 1997”– “investigate the uneasy relationship between these institutions for incarceration and their neighboring communities” and are as much a sociological indictment of America’s prison-industrial complex as they are works of art in their own right.


“Prisons exemplify a ritualistic use of time sentences and/or ‘death’ to mediate a facet of complex social interactions and public policy,” the artist writes. “These temporal sites reflect a boundary of the social compact through their location, population and social mandate.”


Robert Adams, another American, spent six years shooting at night in the communities around his home in Longmont, Colorado, near Boulder. Adams captured moonlit streets, the shadows of trees on white tract housing and the glow of streetlamps on asphalt [“Under a Street Lamp, Manitou Springs, Colorado,” 1981] –offering up work that is simple in its profundity, while the nighttime seascapes of Japan’s Hiroshi Sugimoto reflect infinite depth and a near absence of light.   


These images are beautiful in their own right, but when all is said and done, night photography remains the domain of the urban street artist who takes as his canvas the unseen realms that only a city can communicate: the glow of fuzzy neon and car headlights streaking through blackened avenues, steely skyscrapers looming like clinquant palaces, the distorted faces of humanity frozen in time after the daily bustle, the chaotic cacophony of commerce, have finally given way to the serene underbelly of night.

Night Vision: Photography After Dark

Through September 18, 2011

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Howard Gilman Gallery, 2nd floor

New York, NY


Writer and photographer Christopher Moraff (www.christophermoraff.com ) is a news features correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and a contributing writer for the magazines Design Bureau and In These Times, where he serves on the Board of Editors.  His photography has been shown at exhibits around his hometown of Philadelphia. A selection of his street portraits (2008-2011) also appears in Highbrow Magazine.





Sid Grossman (American, 1913–1955)

Mulberry Street, 1948

Gelatin silver print    



Alvin Langdon Coburn (British, born America, 1882–1966)

Broadway at Night, ca. 1910


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