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."