Thursday, 30 October 2014

'And Now It's Dark, American Night Photography', At Lakeside Arts, Nottingham

Jack Delano, 'Proviso Departure Yard Of The Chicago & North Western Railroad At Twilight', 1942

This post relates to ‘And Now It’s Dark, American Night Photography’, - an exhibition I viewed recently at the Djanogly Gallery in the University Of Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre.  The show’s not on for too much longer, but is definitely worth a visit if you find yourself in the area and have the time.  My own interest derived, in part, from my attempts to take photographs after dark, (with somewhat mixed results).

The title tells you essentially what to expect, but it’s worth outlining that the exhibition is nominally divided into two main sections, the first comprising the work of three contemporary photographers, Jeff Brouws, Will Steacy and Todd Hido, all of whom have made a point of capturing images after dark, and a more general survey of work looking at that particular tradition throughout the twentieth century.  This loose, chronological structure appears to be undercut by an intent to demonstrate how a general sense of optimism or technological/societal celebration in many of the earlier images, is replaced by a sense of disillusionment or loss in those photographers working today.  ‘And Now It’s Dark’ may be a reference to more than just the lighting conditions under which the photos were taken.

Jeff Brouws, 'P.J.'s Lucky Strike, Elko, Nevada', 1995

In my own mind, the show actually divides into three sections, including a pivotal phase where this transition can first be perceived, - but more of that in a minute.  Here’s a basic outline of the exhibition's essential components, reversing the order in which it’s actually hung.

Early Work:

Mostly in Monochrome, (for obvious technological, as much as aesthetic reasons), the tone of much of this pioneering work is generally uncritical.  The main intention seems to be to document the wonders of the, increasingly artificially lit, Modern Age, and the technical wonders of an ever more confidant American society in the twentieth century.

Samuel HermanGottscho’s ‘New York City View: Times Square To The South At Night’, (1933), is a fine example of this.  It’s a beautifully framed, focused and exposed document that attempts little more than to catalogue the brightly illuminated spectacle of that famous site in all its novelty and wonder.  It also demonstrates that, as far as this show is concerned, the tradition of American nocturnal photography is primarily engaged with the effects of artificial lighting, from the earliest days.  Unsurprisingly, given the very nature of the medium, nocturnal photography is as much about light as it is about darkness.  What really distinguishes it is the highly controlled nature of that man-made light.

Theodor Horydczak, 'Waffle Shop On 10th Street: Exterior Of Waffle Shop With Neon Sign', 1950

The other notable themes running through much of this earlier work are that of conspicuous consumption, and of America’s pursuit of happiness in its most material aspects.  Theodor Horydczak does this very stylishly in his ‘Waffle Shop On 10th Street: Exterior Of Waffle Shop With Neon Sign’, (1950).  Again, it is a simple, beautifully composed description of its subject, but one with a distinct appreciation for the high commercial aesthetic of the period.  This delight in its Pop-SF styling and glorious typography, so typical of the era is, of course, only accentuated by our own retro-fascination with such tropes.  This was a period, after WWII, when ‘The Future’ still looked both plentiful and sexy, (Atom Bomb not withstanding).

Jack Delano, 'Activity In The Santa Fe Railroad Yard, Los Angeles', 1943

Jack Delano’s images demonstrate how such visions of American positivity, (or at least, wartime stoicism), derived as much from Government sponsorship as from private enterprise culture.  Produced under the aegis of the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, during the 1930s and 40s, they are somewhat heroic, Romantic visions of America’s will to abide.  They also mark the introduction of colour into the proceedings, and are not without their experimental aspects, despite their documentary intent.  Time-exposed light trails are hardly novel to us now as a photographic technique, but it’s impossible not to be attracted by Delano’s use of them to imply nocturnal railroad activity, back when they probably seemed a daring manipulation of the medium.

Transitional Work:

Though the curators choose not to make a formal separation, my own feeling is that the whole show actually pivots around a group of images, created in middle of the last century, (and amongst my favourite things in the show).  These are the first intimations that, however bright the lights, there is also a darker side to the illuminated American Dream.

William Klein’s ‘Broadway By Light’, (1958), extends the remit of the exhibition to include moving imagery.  Klein’s short film is a high-energy celebration of the electrified entertainment spectacle that is Broadway between dusk and dawn.  Almost abstract in one respect, but full of text, signs and symbols, it’s a whirling cavalcade of chasing, pulsing lights, brand names and invitations to be entertained.  The film is drenched in colour, and movement, and utilises rapid edits and alternating long shots and close-ups, to inject a new level of vitality into those similar subjects from earlier in the exhibition.  Nonetheless, behind its enjoyable Pop aspects, and psychedelic hyper-reality, lie certain more critical implications.  There’s a suggestion of migraine overkill and visual ADHD about it all, and of a leisure society running off the rails and under unstoppable momentum, towards terminal decadence.  When humans appear, it’s as the silhouettes of electricians and sign-hangers, lost within a polychromatic inferno and seemingly enslaved by it.

What happens when that society actually blows a fuse can be seen in René Burri’s suite of photographs, ‘Blackout New York’, shot during the massive East Coast power outage of 1965.  These startling, decidedly existentialist images show New Yorkers huddling claustrophobically, (or for comfort?), in still-illuminated vehicles, or emerging like torch or match-lit partial apparitions from the profound blackness.  A palpable sense of vulnerability,  and paranoia, illustrates how easily security and self confidence evaporate once the lights flicker and we return to the cave.

Images From: Rene Burri, 'Blackout New York', 1965

Contemporary Work:

Here the work of the three chosen contemporary photographers is extensively showcased.  It’s fair to say that, to a greater or lesser degree, the cracks and defects in America’s reverie about itself are made manifest in these images.  That’s not to say that the themes of abandonment or collapse that suffuse many of these images aren’t also often full of sumptuous visual poetry or dark, urban romance.  Indeed, this may be one of the show’s main dilemmas. Despite the story of general decline in the living condition of many sidelined by the pragmatic realities of Late Capitalism, there’s no denying that the juxtaposition of coloured light and atmospheric shadows remains an largely pleasurable experience, visually speaking.

Jeff Brouws:  This is perhaps best exemplified by Brouws’ images, harvested on a series of road trips, and exemplifying marginal situations in a changing economy.  Some of his shots attempt to demonstrate how mainstream, (or Main Street) America must increasingly confront the sleazy or morally questionable, (the brothel or X-rated book store) to scrape a living or find diversion in a world of reduced options.  Elsewhere, his marvelous, desolate shots of sections of road create the sense of being truly lost out on some forgotten highway.

Jeff Brouws, Coffee Shop, Battle Mountain, Nevada,' 1993
Jeff Brouws, 'Exit 24 Off 1-90, Erie, Pennsylvania', 2005

Despite all this, the clichés of Americana haunt many of these pictures.  Brouws’ illuminated gas stations are clear descendants of Edward Hopper’s whilst ‘Coffee Shop, Battle Mountain, Nevada’ (1993), looks like an even more lonesome version of that artist’s famous Diner once even the Nighthawks have left.  Repeatedly, the kitsch beauty of glowing neon, or a sense of delicious melancholy, undermine the real bleakness he may seek to convey. On the plus side, he is, rather good at incorporating signage into his images.  ‘North Wilson Street (MOTEL), Vinita, Oklahoma’ (1991), depicts the lights of a motel reflected a little too beautifully in wet tarmac but, pleasingly, the puddle-mirrored ‘MOTEL’ sign can be misread as ‘WOLFE’.

Jeff Brouws, Details Unknown
Jeff Brouws, 'North Wilson Street,(M O T E L), Vinita, Oklahoma' 1991

Will Steacy:  Steacy undertakes a conceptually more intriguing form of journey to capture his images.  His project,‘Down These Mean Streets’, involves him walking from Airport to Business District in various cities, documenting the abandoned properties, impoverished neighbourhoods and evidence of distressing events he often encounters along the route.  These are carefully assembled into a conscious narrative, although it does feel like his bloodstained gutters and bullet holes in glass are possibly over-melodramatic, and a sinister, faceless Hoodie just seems too carefully posed.

Will Steacy, (Details Unknown)
Will Steacy, 'Condos, Chicago', 2008

Despite these caveats, ‘Memorial, Philadelphia’ (2009), is a truly moving image, depicting a street shrine to a fallen brother against waste ground, debris and a discarded car wheel.  ‘Condos, Chicago’ (2008), effectively captures a fenced off vacant lot with a developer’s impression of a proposed building, - priced, (one assumes), beyond the reach of many.  ‘Someplace Else, Detroit’ (2009), depicts another tract of weed-strewn ground overlooked by a drab cinder block wall on which that particular legend is spelt out in bold lettering.  I’m drawn to it for all sorts of probably obvious reasons.

Will Steacy, 'Memorial, Philadelphia', 2009
Will Steacy, 'Someplace Else, Detroit', 2009

Todd Hido:  Of all the work in this exhibition, it may be Hido’s which most evocatively tells the story of lives thwarted and prospects denied.  His are also the images with the highest proportion of human content and least dramatic visual chiascuro, (although everything is clearly shot at dusk or under unattractive artificial light after dark.

Todd Hido, (Details Unknown)

The images from ‘Excerpts From Silver Meadows’ show Hido returning to his own childhood home in suburban Kent, Ohio, to document a society in banal decline.  There’s nothing as dark or gritty as Steacy’s imagery, but a distinct air of disappointment or sordid drabness.  His somewhat painterly landscapes often dissolve into mist, scattered wintery light, or just a lack of focus, but feel more like abandoned places in which one might become lost, rather than anything more picturesque.  Hido’s wintery motel, (His images are untitled, emphasising the loss of clear identity), is colourfully lit like Brouys’, but also dissolved by the filter of raindrops on a car window.

Todd Hido, Details Unknown

Once Hido’s lens moves indoors, it documents a world of scruffy, featureless decor, abandoned interiors and distressingly stained carpets.  These may be the soul-sucking motel bedrooms or soon-to-be foreclosed homes occupied once life is reduced to mere existence.  The young women often populating them attempt a listless simulation of allure, but really hint at cheap, uninterested sex entered into as a transaction, or because there’s nothing better to do apart from drink.  For me, the best image amongst them, (and possibly the most distilled in the entire show), is a small, badly lit, close-up of a grimy white phone.  Ghostly and disconnected, it sits on a pale carpet before an obscure expanse of dreary, patterned wall.  It feels an awfully long way back to those early, confident images of nocturnal Manhattan.

Todd Hido, Details Unknown

'And Now It's Dark, American Night Photography', continues until 09 October 2014, at  Djanogly Gallery, Lakeside Arts, University Of Nottingham,  University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RD.

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