Night photography lexicon

Ghost descending a staircase -- by Joe Reifer

Ghost descending a staircase — by Joe Reifer

Taking pictures is the fun part. Figuring out how to talk about your photography is hard work. Maintaining an awareness of photographers both past and present whose work is related to yours is crucial to understanding how to position your photography.

Lance Keimig‘s history of night photography on The Nocturnes site is certainly a great list of influences up through the mid-90′s. But is there a more elegant way to canonize the “photographing of abandoned places under the full moon, sometimes with the addition of supplemental lighting.” This sub-genre of night photography is now widely practiced in the digital era, but does not seem to have a title that fits.

I’ve had a few discussions recently with my friend Troy Paiva, a well known night photographer who works in this genre. His book Lost America has been quite helpful in understanding the road trip, junkyard, full moon, hairs standing up on the back of your neck while you walk around painting with light inside your own photograph experience.

Troy is working hard on a second book that positions his work within the context of urban exploration. There are only a small handful of books on urban exploration, with Julia Solis’ New York Underground as a well written standout in this category.

The are two crucial books in my collection with superb writing on abandoned places in the daytime. I consider Steve Fitch’s Gone to be one of the most cohesive projects on the topic, with both superb images and great essays. And while Camilo Jose Vergara’s photographs are more documentary, his absolutely essential book American Ruins shows an unparalleled depth of understanding in discussing modern ruins.

Last week I had a breakthrough moment in understanding the connection between conceptual art and photographing abandoned places when sitting down with John Divola’s recent book, Three Acts. In the 1970′s gallery on his website, you can view images from the “three acts” that are in the book: Vandalism Series, LAX NAZ, and Zuma.

There are some parallels in Divola’s work to conceptual artists John Pfahl and Ed Ruscha, both of whom have been an influence on my photography. Divola spray painted the interior walls of abandoned buildings and then photographed the sites, sometimes using flash to illuminate the dark spaces. The conceptual thread that struck a chord is the mystery of where the original space and intervention of paint intersect.

The night photography parallel is the intervention of light. This light may be due to accumulation during the long exposure, or through the addition of light by flashlight or strobe. There is a certain mix of control and indeterminacy that come together to make a great night image. But once we’ve captured the image, how do we talk about it?

I’d certainly be pleased if any other night photographers would like to join the discussion of how we might help gallery owners, book publishers, art directors, and art collectors understand the importance and value of “photographing of abandoned places under the full moon, sometimes with the addition of supplemental lighting.”

15 thoughts on “Night photography lexicon”

  1. Excellent passage, Joe. I’m with you on this. The inclusion of light in long exposure night photography, in my mind, adds “life”. When God created mankind, he began with “Let there be light”. Light brings life and without it, only dark, somber, empty can flourish. Without any light, all photos would be just empty black frames. It is the “camera” that captures light and with artificial lighting, it tells a stronger story…a better story if you will.

    I’ve certainly grown fond of light painting…all forms of it. I’ve learned a lot about creativity, telling the “story” that I want a photo to tell (or “aiding” it to tell it), and I’ve learned a great deal about patience, not to mention photography itself.

    I only hope I can continue to capture abandoned places in photography and that they are not desecrated by the hoards of vandals and people who really don’t see the beauty in night photography. It’s a tough balancing act. How do you tell the “stories” through your photography without showing someone the canvas that speaks the words?

  2. Basim, The hoards of vandals are part of the process. Abandoned places get wrecked. It is what happens, whether from vandals, copper thieves, or just the elements. Time is just not good to abandoned places. You can’t stop it, nor should you try (and if you DO want to try, then you are no longer a dispassionate “urban explorer”, you become a “preservationist”, and that’s not a BAD thing, just different.)

    This ephemeral quality, the fact that your time will be limited with this location, is a HUGE part of the emotional content and pathos of the finished photography.

    Joe, this subject has come up between Todd Lappin (writing an intro essay), my editor at the publisher and I, but we have yet to really get our heads around the concept. Clearly, there are UrbEx elements combined with night photography elements. so something like “UrbEx Night work” or “UrbEx Light Painting” comes to mind.

    Should you have some sort of revelation as to a short slang name for “photographing of abandoned places under the full moon, sometimes with the addition of supplemental lighting”, please let me know and I’ll be happy to use it in my book. Generally I tell people I do “night shooting/light painting in abandoned places.” it’s a little shorter, but still too long and literal. How about “Doing a Troy” since I did seem to invent this goofy, Frankenstein “Reeses Peanutbutter Cup” hybridized style of photography. I’m kidding . . . kinda.

    It’s funny, you mention the positioning of my next book as having an UrbEx context, but the reality of it is that “Lost America©®” was also very much an UrbEx themed book without ever actually mentioning the term.

    “Gone” is a great book. “American Ruins” was a bit too academic and political for my taste. I make no claims as to ever understanding the point of Divola’s work. It’s really just a mess, isn’t it?

  3. Photographing abandoned sites at night is a very complex subject to explain at times. I have found that many people, gallery managers included, do not understand the process and the result of our type of photography. ‘Time’ is an aspect that I find myself explaining a lot. The obvious is the comparison between the length of time compressed onto a single frame of film or silicon and the age of the object being photographed. Stars arching across the sky or clouds feathered out due to the timed exposure create a visually pleasing photograph as the result of long exposures at night. I get more confusion about the star trails from the unfamiliar viewer than great looking clouds. I guess this is because the stars movement is unfamiliar to people who spend very little time appreciating the night sky.

    When I present my photography, I try to avoid the ‘Time’ correlation and I emphasize the over all feel that only a night photograph can convey. The light of the full moon is softer than harsh daylight as we all know, but it is the deep shadows and secretions of pure black that express an emotion for these abandoned objects that I look for. Despair and isolation are the words I hear the most from people. Personifying an object is not my intent, but instead, I rather want to spark the intrigue in the viewer to want to mentally walk into that photograph and discover what is beyond the black barrier framed in the doorway. These black holes of mystery are meant to gravitate curiosity to explore the unwritten back-stories of these abandoned sites.

    There is no real political slant to my photography so I avoid engaging into any path that leads that way. I feel that we are a little out of time with night photography of abandoned sites and we will not attain the recognition that we all wish we could have, until a large majority of these places are but distant memories. In my opinion anyone, and there very well might be right now, who are photographing old China or any other developing culture for that matter, will have a viable market to present their art work in a few decades.

  4. Hi Troy – In some ways the connection to UrbEx fits well, but I still haven’t puzzled out the feeling that it’s not an exact fit. There certainly is a market in the book world for a better UrbEx book. I suppose a definition and history of UrbEx would be a good place to further explore this question — I’ll be curious to see what direction this goes with your book.

    I know you don’t care for conceptual work like Divola and Ruscha, but there is definitely a connection to “photographing of abandoned places under the full moon, sometimes with the addition of supplemental lighting.” My revelation with Divola is that his Three Acts work is an exploration of an abandoned place that involves a conceptual interpretation of the space that results in a photograph. Divola was painting with paint, we are painting with light.



  5. But seriously…

    I have a hard time explaining my night photography because, for me, there’s such an obvious, emotional buzz from just standing out there at night, under a full moon, in these awesome locations, and the whole time I’m wondering why none of my friends want to join me. To take it a step further, when I show people my work (especially non-photographers), they often remark that it looks *SO* beautiful, then they ask, “But is it worth it going out there at night to get these pictures?”. Of course, if I wasn’t interested in photography, I’d be thrilled to be out there, anyway.

    When I first saw night photography on-line, such as Troy’s work, eight or nine years ago, I didn’t need any explanation, or any convincing. I just immediately “got it”, and I knew I needed to start going out there and becoming part of the scene. I guess your original question is, “How do we explain it to people who don’t immediately ‘get it’?”

    As for the vandalism/deterioration thing, it sucks. But it really does light a fire under my butt and motivates me to photograph these locations sooner, rather than later.

    Just my two cents,


  6. I like everyone’s take on this. It shows how varied the actual activity is, and each person brings their own experience to the subject.

    I find myself in the middle of Troy’s and Basim’s take on the matter. On one hand, I understand the ephemerality of a location and accept its imminent demise. On the other, I do all I can to protect the location for as long as possible. Why? Simply because the location (whatever it is) hasn’t been appreciated enough and its history (whenever or however it’s interpreted) is still unwritten.

    It is up to us, as photographers (who I hazard to say deserve the opportunity because of our unique skills), to record these locations.

    Why we do it at night depends on who you talk to. For me, it’s partly convenience, partly an ability to condense my photograph into its bare-bones/focus on what’s important, but mostly to portray the very fading nature & demise of the place — to highlight its importance in our collective conscious as Americans.

    Night gives us the ability to go places we can’t go during the day, it allows us to use our lights as tools to capture what’s important in a frame, and it ultimately gives an abandoned location a fresh look. All of thesngrained in their mind, something they can tell others about, and something that will (hopefully) inspire them to protect locations like these, especially when they hold such cultural significance.

    As far as a name, I can’t really help with that. What got me started in this hobby, and what keeps me doing it, is beyond what words can describe.
    e things give the consumer of our images something that will remain i

  7. “My revelation with Divola is that his Three Acts work is an exploration of an abandoned place that involves a conceptual interpretation of the space that results in a photograph. Divola was painting with paint, we are painting with light.”

    It looks like he painted the location with spray paint. It’s tagging without words. What I do is not permanent. The big difference is in that “not leaving marks” attitude that Jon mentioned above.

    It’s important to understand that while I have this zen “let it go” attitude about the locations, I think we all have a preservationist streak- ie: I won’t be e-mailing maps to New Almaden to anyone. I’ve never said how I got into Bethlehem Steel.

    BUT, if people want to get into anyplace, they can. I’ve seen Jon do some crazy stuff to get into buildings. Cracks in New Alamden’s fence are all over the internet if you care to look for it. Hey, if I can drag my fat, lazy, old ass in, anyone can.

    Understand, I’m not advocating that these places get wrecked, but I just accept it as inevitable. Like ambulance drivers, UEers learn to accept this different form of death, or they don’t last. As Andy said, get out there and shoot it because it won’t be there for long.

    PAPUFMSWASL is not easy. It’s slow and methodical. It’s easy to get frustrated by the smallest thing. It can be ultra-boring. Even the simplest seeming location is dangerous, and some places are very dangerous. Squatters, copper theives, wasted hoodlum teenagers, they are all out there, ESPECIALLY on full moons! Toxins, asbestos and mold are everywhere. And then there’s sleep deprivation, especially on the 3rd night in a row that can make it that much harder. Trespassing is illegal. We can be fined and arrested at any time. We have to talk to irritated cops a lot. The smells! The bugs! The bats!

    We have to REALLY love these places because normal people would NEVER do this. The quiet and solitude of these places . . . the spirit echo, not “OooooOOOOOoooo ghooooostssss” but ghosts none the less. It’s very difficult to put into words . . .

  8. Hi B (ShadowOfLightProject),

    The explanation of cloud movement and star trails does seem to come up pretty often when showing work. At an opening earlier this week a few of my images were called “morbid,” and much head scratching ensued.

    Some of the best studio lighting advice I got from Joe McNally was “don’t light everything.” The mystery of the dark spaces in an image can leave something for the viewer’s imagination. Unfortunately, there’s no accounting for what’s in their imagination.

    I’ve discussed with Troy that perhaps abandoned places night photography’s time in the art world is not here yet. I’m trying to find creative ways to help speak about the work in ways that will trigger the light bulbs for people of influence in the art world who may be able to help speed up this process from decades to a few years.



  9. Hi Andy,

    I don’t think PAPUFMSWASL is going to quite cut it. Glad you’re in agreement that the process of exploring these sites and shooting the images is a natural high — I got it right away, too.



  10. Hi Jon,

    You make some important points about night providing access and lighting possibilities that enable unique images. These ideas may help convey what’s special about night work to people that are not familiar with this type of photography.



  11. Hi Troy,

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on Divola. Perhaps Pfahl is a better example as his work with temporary materials like tape and string doesn’t cross over into vandalism. If a place is slated for the wrecking ball soon, I don’t have a problem with paint. Heck, if you look at Gordon Matta Clark’s work, then Divola’s impact on the doomed housing development seems small.

    I’m in agreement with your ruminations on the temporary nature of the locations, and the commitment necessary for accessing them.



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