This post “City At Night” offers observations on night time photography of urban scenes. So far the post elaborates on three main subjects.
- Isolation as a mood and black being the principle means to achieve the mood.
- The shape of light. Unlike day light, night light is confined and limited in range.
- The fluidity of color perception.
Clearly I am not the first to enjoy photographing urban scenes at night and for anyone interest in truly professional work I recommend Todd Hido “House Hunting” .
Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting “Nighthawks” is possibly the best known example of a painting depicting an urban scene at night. It always struck me that the individuals in Hopper’s painting appear to be emotionally disconnected. These night hawks appear to be out well after social life has seized. At this hour the bar tender is busy cleaning not serving. It is this sense of isolation which is so typical for urban scenes at night and after hours. The image below attempts to convey a feeling of isolation. The people passing under the light are walking in different directions which suggests no interaction took or will take place, they are effectively own their own.
Loss of purpose
Another aspect of urban scenes at night is that after social life has retired the illumination of restaurants, store fronts, bus stops have lost their purpose and street lights keep changing with no traffic in need of direction. Like a stage with no actors such scenes quickly assume an absurd quality, even buildings can look isolated. The flower store below is possibly a normal view for New Yorkers but most towns simply don’t provide us with flower stores operating at 2am in the morning.
The key quality of light at night is its limited range. Tungsten or neon, regardless of the source the reach of artificial light at night is limited, the origin is well defined and hence night light is always confined in range clearly framed by darkness. It is the darkness which therefore isolates in an almost harsh fashion and forces the viewer’s eye and attention to focus on what is illuminated. It is an extreme example of the principle that the minds attention goes to the bright region of an image.
Loss of reference, the ambiguity of color at night
The source of light does of course matter a great deal when we turn to color. Yet with white balance properly set or in post processing we are told we can recover “natural” colors. My personal opinion is that at night there is no such thing as natural light. Our mind becomes extremely tolerant and works hard to justify and accept different color renditions as ‘natural’. For me this is a liberating fact because without alienating the viewer I can play with color tones creating additional contrast where and when it serves my desire to enhance a mood or an impression. As an example see the flower colors in image 2. If the subject is a flower shop, then the flowers need color, hence I boost their colors and differentiate them from immediate surrounding. Similarly I toned the stairs in image 3 deliberately warm to set them apart from the cool gas station blue. In image 4 below you see seemingly free floating windows. Luckily at night free floating windows are considered the norm. In fact the windows to the right were added for purpose of balance. The street and windows were originally in a warm yellow but I changed the color tone to cooler to create additional separation from the warm store and traffic light. Why? Simply because the light and the store are typical for New York, the windows and street are merely decoration. The fact that all these manipulations are not immediately rejected as unnatural proves to me that our color perception at night is extremely tolerant and our mind will bend over backwards to find reason and accommodate different color tones.
All of the above combined
The final image combines many of the above aspects and it is my favorite.
The gentleman in a blue suite faces a window not a person. Yes we understand he awaits the delivery of his order or waits to get someones attention. Either way he is in limbo and left on his own. His blue suit is in contrast to the warm color tones of the retail stand which further isolates him. The lights are all confined by surrounding darkness and like stage lights only the essential elements are illuminated. As a result it becomes increasingly difficult to judge if the scene was staged, coincidental or digitally created. I believe this ambiguity engages the viewer which makes this a picture worth sharing.
A related poem
Rilke has a beautiful short poem on people at night:
Menschen bei Nacht
Die Nächte sind nicht für die Menge gemacht.
Von deinem Nachbar trennt dich die Nacht,
und du sollst ihn nicht suchen trotzdem.
Und machst du nachts deine Stube licht,
um Menschen zu schauen ins Angesicht,
so mußt du bedenken: wem.
Die Menschen sind furchtbar vom Licht entstellt,
das von ihren Gesichtern träuft,
und haben sie nachts sich zusammengesellt,
so schaust du eine wankende Welt
Auf ihren Stirnen hat gelber Schein
alle Gedanken verdrängt,
in ihren Blicken flackert der Wein,
an ihren Händen hängt
die schwere Gebärde, mit der sie sich
bei ihren Gesprächen verstehn;
und dabei sagen sie: Ich und Ich
und meinen: Irgendwen.