Night Photography Lexicon IV: Excursion On A Wobbly Rail

Recently a night photographer friend emailed me a draft of his new artist statement for feedback. Unlike most run-of-the-mill artist statements, this fellow cut deeply and directly into some delicate issues about night photography. He mentioned the 2007 Night Photography Lexicon series as being helpful in his writing [Part I, Part II, Part III]. The crux of our conversation about his statement was how many night photographers share certain traits. I hope we can pull the curtain back just a little bit, and start to explore some discussion topics. My goal here isn’t to make this excursion into Night Photography with the DSM IV, but I have noticed a few interesting patterns in the world of abandoned places night photography.

Danger, Risk, and Location Access Methodologies

How much danger do you face in your daily life? Crossing the street? Eating FD&C Yellow #5? Gaining access to abandoned places can sometimes require an above average tolerance for danger. Why do people climb Mt. Everest? Why do we sneak into abandoned buildings in the middle of the night to take pictures? This is the “why” question of an artist statement. The hard part.

But let’s ask some different, related questions right now — do you get off on danger, and what is your risk tolerance? Are danger and risk major elements of how you tell the story of your photography? I’ve certainly indulged in my share of storytelling with other photographers over a few pints, but I’ve grown more careful about mixing personal stories when showing prints. A small amount of information about the location is enough, let the work do the rest.

While not directly related to night work or abandonments, Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar is a stunning example of photographs made even more powerful through well balanced information in the captions. From a location access standpoint alone, this book is an amazing achievement. While some of the locations certainly involved a degree of danger (e.g., nuclear waste, hibernating bears), her approach to access has given me ample food for thought. If you’re pondering the “why” of your photography, seek this book out. Taryn Simon gained access to unique locations, and brought back images that speak on many different levels.

A General Outline of Risk Tolerance Variations by Decade

Let’s talk a bit more about risk [insert Parker Brothers joke here]. Risk tolerance when you’re in your teens and 20′s can be extreme. When I was in my late teens, a friend had an encouraging one-liner for dangerous situations — he’d say: “Dude….we CAN’T die!” Sometimes I believed him. This type of youthful confidence can certainly cross the line into arrogance that leads to trouble. And adventure. Your 20′s can be a time when boundaries are pushed and defined.

By the time you’re into your 30′s, there’s work. And more work. Depending on the path you’ve chosen, work may still leave you energy for occasional adventures. Or you may have that glimmer in your eye that craves more frequent adventure. What may be seen as youthful bravado in some explorers, does not dissipate for others in their 30′s and 40′s. What kills this fire? What fans the flames?

As I approach 40, I’m trying to be healthier. Eat right, drink less, exercise more — those older and wiser than I have told me these are normal considerations. But perhaps curbing any traces of the self-destructive behavior of youth is bad for my night photography? As I’ve gained more experience negotiating legitimate access to interesting locations, the thrill of trespass has started to fade just a bit. But the thrill of photographing has not. Pass the tofu.

Misanthropic Threads

Many night photographers I know have a rather dark sense of humor and world view. Goes with the territory. If Brazil or Children of Men are on your list of favorite films, you know what I mean. Let’s go to Wikipedia now for an illuminating quote:

Misanthropy can often be characterized as disillusionment with what is perceived to be man or human nature. The misanthrope, having grown to expect man to assume a romantic and simplistic ideal, is consistently confronted with conflicting evidence. On the other hand, the object of a misanthrope’s dislike may be a pervasive culture which is perceived as denying human nature. In both cases, the misanthrope may view himself as somehow distinct from a majority of the human species.

Are we getting at the difference between a beautiful sunset over a golden meadow, and a crusty decaying building in the middle of the desert in the dead of night? Happy people take happy pictures. Night photography of abandoned places is for the mad ones.

Sad and Beautiful

So let’s run down the list so far — love of ruins, a healthy appetite for adventure, above average risk tolerance, smooth negotiation skills, and a misanthropic world view. This whole night photography thing sounds like quite a party! Did I leave anything off the list? I went back to Camilo Jose Vergara’s essential book American Ruins for some answers — the mystery seems to boil down to how a photograph can be so sad and beautiful at the same time. Cue up the Karen Dalton video at the top of the post. When was the last time an experience made you feel the feeling of being alive so strongly that you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or both? The Thunder Moon is waxing. Be safe, and have fun out there singin’ the blues.

Update: It finally struck me that the “sad and beautiful” phrase had been bouncing around in my head from somewhere. Roberto Benigni’s character says “It’s a sad and beautiful world” in Jim Jarmusch’s classic film, Down By Law, and then Tom Waits starts singing the phrase:

3 thoughts on “Night Photography Lexicon IV: Excursion On A Wobbly Rail”

  1. All UE/NP/LPers are misanthropes. We’re cynics. We’re scofflaws. We’re viewed as ‘not normal’ by the general population. These are common traits among artists in any media. Do not feel alarmed or different, for we are normal in our abnormality.

    No question, the older you get, the more likely it is you will not do the stupid, high risk things we do. Why? Simply put, careers, marriage and children make people age. When you are responsible for supporting others, especially children, your tolerance for risk plummets. I’ve seen it firsthand, countless times. I’m closing in on 50 and most of my peers think I’m nuts for still doing this. Most people my age think I have ‘Peter Pan Syndrome,’ that I refuse to act my age, but I look at them and see people who are living vicariously thru their children at best, or are already dead inside, at worst.

    At my advanced age, I would much rather have permission to shoot a location than sneak in as well. Why? It’s just easier. I don’t have to concern myself with being sneaky and not using lights. I can lightpaint with abandon. Plus, if I ever decide to publish or show the work, I don’t have to worry about legal issues. Sneaking in still provides a thrill that’s a lot of fun, but at some point, as young photographers become older photographers, they realize that the reason they are taking pictures in these places is to take good pictures, and the first step towards taking good pictures is to not concern yourself with the logistics of not getting caught.

    The mystery of sad and beautiful at the same time? It’s about pathos–most of these places are innocent in their abandonment. It’s not their fault they’re abandoned and forgotten, so it’s easy to pity them. It’s also about feeling your mortality, if these structures and places of man that were seemingly ‘built for the ages’ are crumbling and decaying, what does that say for our transient flesh? These places make us ask the ‘big questions’ of ourselves. Yes, it’s sad and beautiful. Poetic, even.

    Can’t wait to see the statement. I know who you are.

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