All images are (c) by Lynn Saville
Night Shift Book Cover
Kentile With Fence
Warehouse, Brooklyn Bridge
For many years, Lynn Saville has been a good friend and colleague whose night photography I have admired in exhibitions at the Yancy Richardson Gallery, which represents her and Night/Shift, a black and white photography book of her night images. Last year Lynn asked me to work with her in sequencing a book proposal of her night photographs, which are in color, and The Moncelli Press (division of Random House) published it this year under the title of Night/Shift. Recently, I spoke with Lynn about her fascination with photographing at night.
Robert Schaefer: Your new book, Night/Shift is composed of images taken at night. How did you get into night photography?
Lynn Saville: I love to take long walks and explore the city. Sometimes I walk south along Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to experience the changes of the New York block by block. Other times I go to quieter areas. At first I would photograph day and night...really all the time. Slowly, I began to admire the darkness with light sources glowing. I liked the affect of streetlights and the shapes of the shadows they create. The theatricality of artificial light in contrast to the natural light on the city's architecture at night attracted me.
RS: What is it about the night that makes you select it as the time to take photographs as opposed to other times of the day?
LS: Although I love the hustle and bustle of the city when it's crowded...I treasure moments of privacy and quiet when the city feels it belongs to me. I am enthralled by the looming dark structures...with light emitting from the windows and doorways. The presence of life seems more evident within the buildings at night. During the day, there can be an appealing evenness of light. I prefer the mysterious sights of darkness surrounding the lighted structures.
RS: Do you ever experience a location during the day and then return to photograph it at night, or do you scout out all your sites at night?
LS: I occasionally find a place during the day to return to at night. It is easier to sense a good space at night, though, when areas are highlighted and shadowed. Sometimes I might try dawn rather than twilight, for example. The contrast shifts from west to east and makes a different scene.
RS: Have you ever returned to a location you photographed at night and found that in the daylight it was completely uninteresting?
LS: Yes. I tend to prefer places at night. I suppose the artificial light creates a sense of narrative, which I don't find occurring the same way during the day. It's hard to predict how a place will be at night from how it looks in daylight.
RS: Francois Truffaut's film, "Day For Night" (titled in other languages as American Night) uses an American-developed technique of substituting the early evening for night. Do you ever do that?
LS: I think Francois Truffaut did a good job of creating "Day for Night." I would like to try it. I don't think it's that easy. One of the first night photographs, which attracted my attention is Ansel Adams "Moonrise Over Hernandez." I once saw a "straight print" of that photograph, and I was shocked at how dull and low-contrast it was! He printed all the tonality and contrast into that photograph! If you look carefully you'll see that there's an unexpected amount of detail in the ground and grave markers. The straight print looks like flat very-late afternoon light....but it has tremendous detail and depth of field. I would say that photo is day-for-night...but you'd never have guessed it because Adams was such a fine craftsman and had a clear idea what he felt he saw and wanted to recreate it in the finished print.
RS: Some of the locations you have photographed look quite desolate. Were you ever concerned about the possibility of an assault? Were other people with you?
LS: Knock on wood, I've been okay, although I've been to some desolate places. Years ago I was mugged at gunpoint but I wasn't photographing at the time, just walking around the city. That experience taught me to never space out. I keep alert at all times—if I hear footsteps, I turn around and look. Often I go photographing with students or friends. I often go alone too. The city seems safer than it used to be. People are living areas of the city which previously were industrial zones. So there are people walking around and it's not as empty as say the Meadowlands. It can be pretty creepy out there. One of my fears would be if I got locked inside a gate in the Meadowlands. When people approach me they usually ask about the photo and ask: am I using film? What do I see? Can I take their picture? I'm surprised by people who say they've never seen a film camera before!
RS: Tell me about your background. Were you interested in art and photography as a child? Was the night a special time of day as you were growing up?
LS: I was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina. I was interested in art at a young age. My professor-parents took the family to Italy for three separate years on their sabbaticals. Living in Rome at five years old, I was exposed to city life. We lived very near the Vatican. I enjoyed living in an apartment, walking out on the street and looking out the window onto the street to watch people and vehicles pass. It was fascinating how much activity there was at night. Back in North Carolina, the most you'd hear at night would be a dog barking, birds or the occasional car drive by. I believe I became intrigued by life and light at night. I also remember watching the car light beams creating moving shadows in my room when I was trying to get to sleep.
RS: Did you study photography formally?
LS: At Duke University as an undergrad, I studied a lot of art history, and at that time there was a one-credit course in photography. I took it. The professor was very strict, but I learned a lot from him. I also had an art teacher whose mantra was: "Exhaust the Possibilities." After graduating from Duke, I felt magnetically pulled to New York City. I decided to study at Pratt Institute. There I became an M.F.A. student, studying with Philip Perkis, Arthur Freed and William Gedney, and it was there I became very interested in photography.
RS: Many of the images in Night/Shift have the look of a movie still. Do you feel your imagery has been influenced by movies?
LS: Yes, I believe that my work is influenced by movies. I find it fascinating when an image takes on a heightened quality even when nothing obvious is happening. "Number 39" is a simple doorway to an old warehouse building....just as I was taking the photograph, a young lady wearing a yellow dress walked in to unlock the door; "Metropolitan Roof", I was trying to get a photograph with none in the scene...the person walked into my frame and paused then walked out of it; "Reservoir" has a city structure which was in the movie Marathon Man. I believe I noticed this structure because of the movie; "Huron Street" is a simple industrial space, normally hidden from view by a closed corrugated gate.
RS: Since 9/11, it has been increasingly difficult for photographers to shoot in the greater New York Area with a tripod. I assume you use a tripod for your work. Has this been a problem for you?
LS: I have rarely been asked to stop using a tripod. If a policeman asks me to stop, I might discuss why for a moment, but I always move to a different area. I don't want to have a problem with the police. I usually close up the tripod and put it in a tripod bag in between photographs...although it takes extra effort, I find it makes me less conspicuous....I try to be as invisible as possible when I'm taking photographs.
RS: You teach at both the International Center of Photography and New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Do you feel that your work with students implements your own photography? Does it ever detract from it?
LS: I love to teach. I love to experience their discoveries vicariously. When I teach the workshops, it adds to my creativity because of the dialogues and interactions.
RS: What equipment do you use?
LS: My current favorite cameras are all medium format: Fujifilm 6 x 4.5 cm (wide) rangefinder; 6 x 9 cm Fugi rangefinder; Mamiya 7 rangefinder and Ebony 6 x 9 view camera (with a roll film back). I use a GITZO reporter carbon fiber tripod with a ball head. I sometimes bring along a little point & shoot digital camera for "scouting."
RS: Do you foresee more night photography in your future work? Might you venture into other times of the day? What other projects are on the horizon for you?
LS: I'm still hooked on the night. I'm not adverse to other times of day. I am working on a few projects. One involves taking portraits at night, (some interior ones too) and working with figures subtly intruding into my photographs. It's easiest when it just happens, but I'm trying to encourage the intrusion.
RS: It will be great to see it!
Robert A. Schaefer, Jr. is a founding member of Photoworkshop.com, and has been a photographer for over 30 years. His work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, France. Most recently he had a one-person exhibition (November 10, 2007 to January 8, 2008) at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama his home state. He writes about photography for Double Exposure and The Photo Review in Pennsylvania and teaches photography in the Department of Continuing and Professional Studies at New York University. On May 9th he instructed a workshop on cyanotype printing at the Center for Alternative Photography in New York City. His work is represented by the Domeischel Gallery, Ltd. as well as Wm Floyd in New York City and the DeFrog Gallery in Houston,Texas. Robert can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.schaeferphoto.com
(c) 2009 Lynn Saville