The Met Shines Some Light on Nighttime Photography 


Photography relies, by design, on light, yet since the late-19th century artists have used it to shoot what happens in the dark. Night Vision: Photography After Dark (through September 18), installed in a cozy, barely-lit and black-walled gallery at the Met, creates an atmosphere equally evocative of star-gazing and window-peeping, both very appropriate associations given the work on view. Because those subjects that most interest nighttime photographers are the exciting things that tend to only happen under cover of darkness or in the electric glow of spotlights and street lamps, voyeurism and wonder (and occasionally both) characterize the photos brought together here.

Sex, crime, and their encounters in images like the clandestine snapshot of a horizontal young couple surrounded by unwanted spectators in a Tokyo public park in Kohei Yoshiyuki's untitled 1971 photo, typify the most voyeuristic images culled from the Met's collection. Weegee makes an appearance, of course, with the Seven-evoking photo "Human Head Cake Box Murder" (ca. 1940) taken from a high angle as if the diminutive Hungarian-born crime scene photographer had been hanging from a street light. Fog-shrouded lamps are the only source of light in Robert Frank's playful 1952 "London," where shadowy figures trot across the street and the word "Look" in reflective letters embedded into the pavement at an odd angle catches the light and evokes a Lawrence Weiner mural.

The exhibition's grandiose urban spectacles, meanwhile, range from Gordon H. Coster's 1932 off-kilter shot of a bridge in Chicago lit like a marvelous tectonic phenomenon rising out of the street, to a young boy gazing at the lights of the San Gennaro street fair in Sid Grossman's "Mulberry Street" (1948). But Night Vision's most compelling pieces, in the end, are those that combine these urban and intimate scales. This tends to require a very sophisticated fluency in the semiotics of images that's more common among contemporary than modern photographers, but Robert Frank's arresting image of a young black man curled up sleeping alone on the beach at Coney Island on the evening of July 4th, 1958 certainly qualifies.

An even more radical inversion of the juxtaposition between the well-lit masses and the outcasts left in their shadows is Stephen Tourlentes' "Avenal, California" (1997). At the end of a quiet suburban block in the titular town—lit by a single street light right out of a staged Gregory Crewdson photo—a tangle of towers and lights glows like an alien spacecraft. Immense tension fills the dark stretch between the sleepy subdivision and the bright new penitentiary next-door. (Trevor Paglen's thematically similar series on covert military flights transporting high-level prisoners would have been a strong addition to this exhibition.) Though darkness conceals the clandestine, it also offers new territory to be colonized by systems of authority and control.

These issues of desired invisibility and inquisitive, encroaching lighting come together most forcefully in David Deutsch's incredible Night Sun series. Shot from a helicopter while shining a police searchlight on random suburban houses in Los Angeles, the images cast mundane homes in a suspicious, even accusatory light. Evocative of COPS footage and surveillance satellite imagery, the lighting and framing combine to turn the city into a giant crime scene. Deutsch reveals, as well as any artist in this rewarding thematic show, how darkness' exciting privacy can so easily be cast in an ugly light.

(images courtesy the artists, Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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