L Y N N     S A V I L L E
P    H    O    T    O    G    R    A    P    H    Y

January 5, 2003


in the crepuscular universe of Lynn Saville's photographs, things are mercifully not what they seem.

The pale companion beside two Brooklyn ducks is not a ghost but the evanescent trail of movement captured by a slow camera shutter.

The nude silhouetted on a Manhattan rooftop is not a wayward reveler but a statue, made flesh by moonlight.

And the brute scape of some industrial outpost is not forsaken after all: an intrepid photographer is there to record its spartan beauty.

It is the trompe l'oeil of post-twilight, when shadows work like makeup to erase a city's blemishes (sidewalk cracks, stoops strewn with matted leaves, the unseemly peel on otherwise handsome facades), that attracts Ms. Saville.

"Then everything becomes so much more beautiful," she says, explaining her preference for this hour, for going to work when others go home. "I'm not interested in danger," she adds, in the sprightly voice one somehow fails to associate with a night crawler. "But I am drawn toward darkness, especially those settings that seem questionable. If there's a locked gate, I want to climb over. If there's a desolate area, I want to see what's there." Back alleys, abandoned factory zones and the shadowy infrastructure of urban bridges (where "darkness creates especially interesting forms," she says) are among her favorite locales.

Following well-received shows through the 90's, Ms. Saville brought her singular perspective to a wider public with the 1997 book "Acquainted With the Night," for which her husband, the poet Philip Fried, selected texts. A Frost, a Rilke, certainly a Baudelaire were appropriate echoes for the exercise, which mixed pictures of the city with those of rural sites, where nature serves as architecture, and small towns, where after-hours desolation reigns.

Examples from her next book, "Night's Edge," are on view at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in Chelsea this month. As the title suggests, night remains a constant, but the pictorial focus has shifted toward the abstract possibilities of darkness, of unidentified shapes emerging from the density and others dissolving into monochrome and away from mass-appeal picturesque.

The label attached to Ms. Saville, 51, who works chiefly in black and white but has begun experimenting with color, is urban-night landscape photographer. Like the pictures she considers most successful, this somewhat risky calling came by accident.

After undergraduate studies at Duke University in her native North Carolina, Ms. Saville moved to Brooklyn to attend Pratt Institute, where students were encouraged to go out after class and shoot whatever they found interesting. At that after-school interlude, between day's end and edge of night, she came to know Brooklyn like a thief. Along with her tripod and trusty Leica, she carried into the vacant reaches of the borough mental snapshots from masters of nocturnal imagery like Brassaï and Hitchcock. At a given spot, she waited for the picture she felt was there to happen. Safety was a passing consideration.

"If I saw someone, which was rare, I started talking to them," she says of her self-defense. The resulting portraits reveal the intimate life of a place apart from its inhabitants, the quiet drama of empty streets, sometimes inclement weather and traffic signals that plays out mostly unseen.

Eventually Ms. Saville migrated to Manhattan, where she now lives and works, while extending her research abroad. Even in pretty cities (Paris, Venice) she sought that untried angle that brings out something unsettling amid the splendor. The prints in "Night's Edge," titled simply by location, provide a travelogue of recent expeditions.

Here are the old lamplights of Montmartre that at some final hour shine for no one, or the filigree of festival lights that in the distance look like snowfall, strung over the Rialto Bridge. Or again, Brooklyn, where Ms. Saville regularly returns to familiar spots where, she says hopefully, "some new element — a headlight, an open window — can single out objects in a different compositional dance."

But often, once that bit of serendipity is documented, she lingers behind the lens — because even when the lights go out, there is something there.  

Ginger Danto is a writer living in New York who previously covered the arts from Paris.