Night photography lexicon II

Thanks for all of your comments on the previous article. I think we’re beginning to get a little bit sidetracked into questions of why do night photography?, and differing philosophies towards location impermanence. That’s all fine and well, but the point of this exercise is to help further establish a language about abandoned places night photography (APNP) that connects this work to earlier precedents in the photography and art worlds.

My main purpose in this task is to help educate influencers in the art world and customers in order to better promote this type of work. The question is involves a combination of self discovery, art history, and marketing. Reducing the mystery of APNP down to more simple concepts that can be more easily understood by both the art world and the general public will benefit all photographers working in this genre.

I’m looking for clues to how successful artists in similar genres position and sell their work — specifically what language gets used — what is it, why is it great, and how come I should buy it? I’m not sure how positioning APNP in the context of urban exploration will go over in the art world. Telling the story of APNP in the context of conceptual art realm and including reference points such as well known photographers like Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson seems to be a stronger bet for adding an extra zero to the price of your prints.

7 thoughts on “Night photography lexicon II”

  1. I agree. Aligning photographs with anything urbex may not be the best move as an artist (except in the case of Troy, of course) :-P

    To me, aligning an image with its historical context is much more effective, and since you are an ardent subscriber to Bearings, you probably understand why.

    A while back, I interned at National Geographic (a lot less glamourus than you may think) and we talked with a lot of photographers and writers.

    One day, in particular, is in my memory. There was a photographer on one end of the table and a writer on the other. As an intern, I was allowed to pick their brains, so I asked them both to try to convince us that their medium was better.

    What came out of that question was incredible. Neither of them felt comfortable saying that their medium (writing/photography) portrayed an idea/place/culture better than the other. Both of them was able to list disadvantages and advantages of their own adopted medium.

    One could say that the writer would have equally been a good photographer, and vice-versa.

    This is how we should approach SELLING our photography. It should always be accompanied by a caption or we should always be prepared to tell a story in words.

    Even though a picture may tell a thousand words, that leaves thousands of others left unsaid.

  2. OK, now that I have a clearer idea of what you looking for, let me throw in another of two cents…

    First, I would expand the original categorization of 1) “abandoned places”, 2) “at night”, to include 3) “places that are going to be gone soon” (I’ll leave the word-smithing to those more qualified than myself). I know I’ve already bored many of you already with this story, but the big turning point in my photography came about ten years ago when I saw David Plowden’s books. Plowden’s mantra was “to stay one step ahead of the wrecking ball”. Many of his subjects were abandoned buildings (e.g., steel mills and barns), but many were not (e.g., small towns in the American west and midwest). Although I get off on the rush of abandoned places, I see abandoned places as a subset of places just waiting for the wrecking ball. Although some abandoned places such as Bodie, and the bunkers in the Marin Headlands, are supposedly protected, they represent a close connection to places soon-to-be demolished. In that vein, I see a connection between APNP and the canon of David Plowden’s work.

    Second, Plowden cites a connection between his work and Atget. I also feel a connection to Atget’s goal to document everything in his local because he knew it would be gone soone.

    Having said that, you mentioned Lance’s essay on the history of NPy prior to the 1990′s. Are you specifically looking for a connection between APNP and modern (90′s-00′s) art photography? If that’s case, I see a connection between APNP and Stephen Shore’s work. Even though Shore’s buildings are not often abandoned, there is usually nobody in them when they were photographed (or, he made it appear there was no body in them at the time).

    One modern photographer(s) who I do *NOT* feel any connection to is that German couple who photograph old buildings, head-on on uber-large format cameras (sounds like Brecht, or Bercht, or something like that). Too clinical for me, and I just don’t get it.


  3. Hi Jon,

    I agree that historical information about these sites is important, and can play a part in the story. But for me, the site history is only one part of the equation. I am arguing that abandoned places night photography (APNP) is much more related to conceptual art than documentary photography.

    In APNP, the current state of decay at these sites becomes the foundation of something larger and more mysterious when photographed at night. What’s preserved is not the thing itself, but an attempt to represent the spirit of the thing itself. Ultimately my question is who can write eloquently enough about this spirit of place to promote the images outside of what is currently a small community of night photographers and night photography aficionados.



  4. Hi Andy,

    The connection to Plowden makes sense, but APNP has a much different set of subject matter. When a present-day photographer is faced with a choice of subject, going down the path of black and white photographs of old barns can easily push into the realm of cliché. The connection between Atget and Plowden is clear — and interestingly, Shore has been referred to as “the Atget of the parked car“.

    The German photographers you’re referring to are Bernd and Hilla Becher — I wrote a bit about them back in April. Their 2002 book Industrial Landscapes may be something to help you reconsider their work in the context of APNP. Instead of their method of cataloging individual industrial objects, they take a step back in this work to show the industrial sites in the context of their surroundings. The connection to 90′s-present APNP in both choice of subject and compositional style is quite interesting.



  5. I think separating it from the context of UrbEx is wrong. As obnoxious (and perhaps misunderstood) as a lot of the UE community is, that is precisely what we are all doing. However, the hardcore UE community seems to want much straighter photography, less arty. I get the same thing from the hardcore plane spotter geeks about my boneyard work- “why didn’t you get the whole plane in the shot? What’s with the colors?”

    I agree with Joe that this particular approach (night light-painting) is definitely more conceptual than documentary. It’s why photography like this is such a hard sell. Too arty for documentary, too documentary for art. It has a foot in each world, unaccepted by either. Please note that that had I shot the abandoned food bank at night with light painting, it would have never been picked up by the news and made into a big story.

    What I’m doing is art first. Yes, it ends up being partially documentary (especially with the passage of time), but that’s really not my intention. I literally want to make “pretty pictures” first and foremost. What makes those pictures pretty and DIFFERENT from anything else out there is the night and especially, the light painting aspect.

    Like Andy, I also feel no connection to the Bechers. Too flat and documentary. The polar opposite of my work and my intention. Fact is, I feel virtually no connection to ANY of the photographers that have been listed.

    The reality is that I owe more to O. Winston Link, Bill Lesch, Chip Simons and Jan Staller than anyone else, yet none of those guys are abandonment shooters.

    I think the NIGHT and LIGHT PAINTING context is actually more important than the ABANDONED context when trying to name this type of work.

  6. Thinking harder now.

    Because of the added lighting and the whole “location scouting” aspect, perhaps it owes more to cinematography? I get a lot of Mario Bava comments. He did Italian horror movies in the 70s, lots of tight, wide lenses and colored lighting. Saw my first one recently and the similarity to my film work is uncanny at times.

    But maybe I owe more to Lynch, Deakins, Storroro, Juan Ruiz Anchía and a trillion more movie artists. I watch a lot more movies than I read photo books.

    I get a lot of comments about how the images look like screen shots from first person shooter video games too. I have some background in 3D modeling which requires the lighting of a scene. The similarities are undeniable. Heck, you can do UE in TGA San Andreas while you’re at it.

    I went to a lot of big rock shows in the 70s when I was a teenager, 15 years before I ever picked up a camera. The control of lighting, the moods and affects you could create with tone and color always made a big impression on me. That’s part of the roots too.

    I guess what I’m really trying to say is that the influence of this technique reaches outside of photography. For me it’s not as much a product of other photography that came before it as it is about ALL the controlled “stage lighting” style visual art that we’re subjected to.

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