Phillip Jones  Shooting in the Dark

Phillip Jones talks about night photography at Pecha Kucha

Of course we usually take photographs at whatever time best suits us and the subject, but I seem to spend much of that time shooting at night.

I’ve been told that I like night photography because I can goof off all day, then take a few shots in the evening and call it quits.

There is that.  Actually, it usually takes all day to find the best shot and be set up when the diminishing daylight is balanced with street lights.

Modern equipment has eliminated the technical obstacles to photography.  Now a novice with a strong viewpoint can pick up a camera and take a great photograph.  The real challenge is still what to put in front of your lens.

I’d never set out to photograph cities or bridges or to drive around New Jersey for two weeks. I just walked out of the front door, got into the car and st
arted looking around.  This series isn’t photo-journalistic and has never been an assignment. The experiences I have while exploring guide my future interests and a visual language has emerged by trial and error.

I like to photograph things that I’ve never seen before, that throw me off guard and make me ask questions.  This seldom happens during the day.

I actually get to explain this work quite a lot but it’s usually to security guards whose main question is “How soon can you leave?”  The second question is “Does anybody buy this stuff?”  I suppose the most unsettling question I got was from a cop who yelled from a van, “Did you see a guy run by with a metal baseball bat?”

Each photograph represents hours of wandering and some trips result in only a few images.  But during the search I’m in a sharpened state of awareness, it’s like I wake up to my surroundings.  The camera snaps me back to the here and now. The final print reflects a long chain of decisions based on the experiences I had while working.

By using sensitive film and a long exposure the camera sees detail at night that’s unavailable to the human eye.  As the film collects photons, motion is recorded into the image.  Rivers becomes glassy, clouds and smoke even out into smooth tones and moving headlights trace the progress of cars.  Back in the darkroom I revisit the original experience but also discover all the things I missed.

As you delve deeper into a body of work it seems to take on a life of its own and it feels like you’re just feeding the series.  But the “been there, done that” syndrome can deaden your senses to something that you’ve never actually seen before and you learn to cut through the complacency.  By now people say to me things like, “Have you been to Hamilton, Canada?  There’s lots of ‘Phil Jones’ shots there.”

Night photography is nothing new and I’ve been
inspired by photographers like Bill Brandt and Brassai all the way back to Alfred Steiglitz who said, “If you can see it, it can be photographed”. There are now legions of night photographers, even clubs, but I’m not counting people who take snaps of their friends heading home after a party.  For me, night photography is, at least partially, about the nighttime itself.

There are many ways to record the world at night.  Some photographers set up their camera, open the lens and then walk around with a strobe, selecting each detail to highlight. This technique is called “painting with light”. 

Berthold Steinhilber, from Germany, plugged a headlight into a car battery and carried it around the ghost towns of the American west, spending hours on each shot and creating haunting color photographs.

Michael Wesley, also from Germany, takes VERY long exposures. He bolted four custom-made cameras on rooftops around the Museum of Modern Art in New York and recorded Moma’s new construction with three-year exposures. In one of his images the sun arcs across the sky a thousand times in slightly different positions as the seasons changed.

Hiroshi Sugimoto created a series of Zen-like seascapes by aiming his 8x10 view-camera at the ocean’s horizon and leaving the lens open each night.

Other photographers take the opposite
approach. They leave their tripods at home and load high-speed film or jack up their digital sensors.

Daido Moriyama has tramped around the back streets of Tokyo for decades, getting into all kinds of mischief.  His grainy, contrasty photos seem to capture the essence the city at night.

Night is when most of the world sleeps. I like finding shots of a busy world at rest.  Sometimes I bump into other photographers late at night in the middle of nowhere.  We usually exchange a few words and then shy away because we’re breaking each other’s magic spell.

I use medium-format film cameras because they record enough information to make a good 30-inch print but still fit in my backpack with lenses.  It’s negative is equal to about 500 megapixels and is stable for over 100 years.  I like using mechanical cameras at night because there’s no batteries to wear out during the long exposures.

People ask me if I manipulate my images.  Well, I take vast four dimensional vistas and transpose them into silver crystals on paper.  The adjustments I make along the way are attempts to recreate the original spirit of the experience if not an exact record.

One of the best times for shooting is the half-hour after dusk when flood lights are balanced with waning sunset. I took a cab to shoot the Ponte Vecchio, in Florence, during this twilight zone and six other photographers jumped out of their cabs at the same time.

It’s surprising how many chain-link fences around abandoned industrial sites have
holes conveniently cut open in the back.  You learn that it’s easier to apologize than get permission.  It helps to act cheerful and oblivious. One New York cop called into his supervisor and said I was like Woody Allen in “Sleeper” and everything turned out alright.

These industrial complexes that provide for our material needs have a wizard-behind-the-curtain feel to them.  You don’t know whether to fall to your knees or to avert your eyes.  Confronting a petrochemical plant at 3:00 in the morning is like being in a dream cycle.  I’m not particularly attracted to peeling paint and rust, it’s the heroic level of these scenes that draws me. It’s as if they were made by a ancient gods for obscure purposes. There are other motives for night photography, but, finally, it’s a licence to get out and see as much of the world as possible.

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