Photography of the night sounds like a paradox given that the name of the medium implies the availability of light and that nighttime is generally dark. A photographer can always make use of a flash, but, in most instances, but only usually at the cost of losing the atmosphere. The most prolific photographers of the night are aware of this fact and work with available light so that images capturing the mystery of the night, even strengthening it for that matter, come into being.
Gyula Halász, better known by his pseudonym Brassaï, is most likely the best known photographer of the night. He arrived in Paris in the early nineteen twenties and fell in love with the city straight away. Brassaï already a visual artist, quickly got to know a -now world famous – generation of his contemporaries and started taking photographs of them. His portraits of Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti and Henri Matisse are highly regarded to this day.
Nevertheless, his breakthrough as a photographer was of a completely different character. Brassaï, who regularly took long night walks, was fascinated by the beauty of the city lit up at night. He started to photograph Paris in the available light. Brassaï photographed the boulevards lit up by streetlamps, the Seine and its bridges, stations, walls and facades, cafes, nightclubs and the opera house. The photos were gathered together for the book Paris de nuit in 1933. The photos were printed in heliogravure, a classical printing technique that makes the blacks as conceivably black as possible. The book was a huge success, the photos of Brassaï icons. The series defined the image of pre-war Paris to the extent that one journalist wrote that Brassaï '...has personally invented the Paris of the nineteen twenties and thirties.' Various publishers approached him with requests to photograph London and New York by night. But Brassaï turned the offers down as he had no need to fall into a rut.
In 1938 Londres de Nuit/A Night in London appeared, photographed by Bill Brandt. More interesting than the publication, for which Brandt was all too likely deeply influenced by Brassaï’s leading example, are the records that were kept at the beginning of the second world war of the British capital plunged into darkness. Later he wrote ‘The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since.’
Ed van der Elsken
After the war, the character of night photography changed. The photos taken by Ed van der Elsken between 1950 and 1954 for his celebrated ‘fotoroman’ comprise an affectionate history of Saint Germain des Prés, and are more personal and raw than those of the preceding photographers of the night. In the light of the café lamps he photographed his drinking, carefree, hash-smoking figures.
At the end of the sixties the Swedish photographer, Anders Petersen, spent night after night in a late night bar in the Hamburg red light district. He won the trust of the locals: a mix of alcoholics, drug users, transvestites, sailors, taxi drivers, prostitutes, pimps and other beings of the night. Petersen became a part of the furniture and could photograph the tables and their guests drenched in alcohol, undisturbed. In 1978 Café Lehmitz appeared in the book that marked the photographer’s international break through. Petersen was praised for not abusing the trust of the café’s guests. He concentrated instead on the intimacy and the warmth he encountered in the marginal establishment.
Antoine D’Agata is without a doubt the most extreme photographer of the night. Whether he photographs Middle America, Palestine, the United States, Japan, Lithouwen, Istanbul or his birth place of Marseille, his images belong just as much to visual language as they do to the choice of subject and the rawest strand of this genre. D’Agata allows us to experience a world where hard drug use and paying a visit to a prostitute is the norm. He photographs these scenes explicitly, nothing is censored. The photos are all taken using available light, painfully intimate moments alternate with stunning images of streets by night. D’Agata, who became full Magnum member this year, published five books of spine tingling, sinister beauty between 1998 and 2004.
The New Yorker called his book Invisible City, published by Ken schless in 1988, ‘Hellishly brilliant’. It is the photographer’s ultimate personal vision of his direct environment: the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Schles takes his photographs during the evening and at night, by hand, with long shutter times. His images make the vulnerability of life in the big city tangible. In terms of design and editing this book is unique, even if the message is quite pessimistic. The work of this post war night photographer is an embodiment of moral redundancy. A world that has lost its innocence, people shrouded in loneliness, hopelessly searching for a higher purpose. Luckily, for the viewer, it is told in mysterious, alluring imagery.
Ken Schles will be exhibiting at Noorderlicht until December 4th 2011.