And Now it Starts

Here’s a blurby blurb about the exhibition:

copyright Jeff Brouws
copyright Jeff Brouws

And Now it’s Dark: American Night Photography explores the ways in which light transforms the darkness, revealing what is hidden or drawing attention to the overlooked or unacknowledged. The exhibition brings together for the first time in the UK the work of photographers Jeff Brouws, Todd Hido, and Will Steacy (with René Burri, Jack Delano and William Klein), who have all been drawn to nocturnal places and spaces actively charged by the transformative power of light.

And Now it’s Dark charts an ongoing interest in photographing the world at night. It explores the ways in which American night photography has captured a decline in the optimism evident in America at the turn of the twentieth century. And it traces the shift in photography from more straightforward documentary of Delano to the more self-conscious documentary-style evident in the contemporary work of Brouws, Hido and Steacy.

The substantive power of darkness is related to the feelings it provokes: fear, trepidation, foreboding and presumed threat. Darkness offers cover for the illicit and the criminal, the voyeuristic and the perverse; it is a time for excess, passion, violence. But these feelings depend, too, upon the presence of light for their power over the imagination.

From blazing light that pushes darkness to the edges of the pictorial frame to faint remnants of dying light fighting against all-encompassing blackness, the photographs in And Now it’s Dark: American Night Photography reveal that light persists. The glow of streetlights, headlamps and illuminated signage, the dimmed lights of closed office buildings and factories, and the chinks of light escaping through blinds, curtains or open doors: all illuminate the darkness. As much as darkness threatens, a light in the distance offers redemption, safety, a return to the ‘real’ world free from ambiguity and uncertainty. Thus the transformative aspect of light in darkness sustains not only fear but hope, too.


The early photographic celebrations of a newly electrified environment, one which extended day into night and created the condition for the modern metropolis as a spectacle in itself, the architecture a support on which to hang illuminated signs, the streets a mobile auditorium for spectators, have slowly given way to a less exalted interpretation of the American city and landscape at night. The work of Farm Services Administration photographer Jack Delano presents an ebullient vision of America at night; the city and the factory seem not to sleep and the small town gas stations, lit like beacons, serve their communities through the night. While Delano is no romantic, the photographs are resolutely positive, especially those made during war-time blackout in rail yards, which portray a sense of stoicism, even hope.  Perhaps surprisingly for government-sanctioned documentary work, many of these photographs are experimental and suggest a relationship as much to Chicago School photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, as to Delano’s FSA/OWI colleagues Gordon Parks, Walker Evans or Marion Post Wolcott (whose Snowy Night, 1940, is included in the exhibition). Delano’s genre is straight documentary but his experimentalism shows what a flexible genre that had become by mid-century.

The trails of light in Delano’s work, and echo of those early photographs of Times Square, also appear in William Klein’s Broadway by Light (1958), but as moving image: Klein’s short-film combines presents an eye-burning blur of light, the sharp edits framing partial words and brand-names. The tone is distinctly critical, the spectacle gaudy and vulgar.

Made seven years later, René Burri’s Blackout New York is the antipode to Klein’s light-flooded Times Square. Burri was in Manhattan on 9th November 1965 during ‘The Great Northeast Blackout’, a power outage that left thousands stranded in darkness, with many trapped in elevators, office buildings and trains. The Blackout New York series of photographs create an intriguing set of narratives around the event; images of New Yorkers taking refuge in bars by candlelight, guided by torch-wielding police officers, or queuing for buses or phone booths seem purely descriptive, but Burri’s series also reveals panic and fear – of both individual peril and a collective loss of social order – as well as the fragile nature of a contemporary world inherently reliant on power to maintain itself.

Where Burri’s photographs convey the temporary calamity of the power outage, the work of Brouws, Hido and Steacy addresses a more enduring state of affairs. In all three, and in very different ways, there is a sustained interrogation of the American landscape, both real and imaginary, as well as an awareness of the history of photography that influences and shapes the approach each takes to the medium. Brouws’ peripatetic road journeys through the US, the trope of the ‘road trip’, plays a crucial role in his ‘mapping’ of a changing American landscape. These photographs capture the glow of headlamps and neon, the illuminated attractions and distractions of the American roadside, which combine to produce a troubling picture of commercial encroachment and the reshaping of the landscape.

Similarly, the photographs that comprise Will Steacy’s Down These Mean Streets present the culmination of a series of ‘night walks’ made by the photographer from a variety of regional airports to the financial centres of nearby cities. Steacy’s work confronts the economic hinterlands, abandoned places and ‘peripheral’ resident populations seemingly forgotten or ignored by mainstream American politics.

Todd Hido’s night photographs are imbued with a psychological tension and emotional drama that underpin the suburban American landscape. His landscapes, suburban scenes and interiors possess an ever-present sense that something has happened or is about to take place. Hido’s work is driven by narrative and memory, the ongoing relationships between the landscapes and places of the past and their contemporary significance.


Mark Rawlinson 2014








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