We are fortunate to be able to visit New York City from time to time — perhaps once a year and occasionally more often. To anyone who thinks of me a “that landscape photographer guy,” it might seem a bit odd that I also love the intense urban environment of such a place — but I do. Although it can become overwhelming eventually — as almost everyone says, “I love to visit, but I couldn’t live there.” — it is also energizing. There is so much to see and do, whether or not it involves photography.
I always photograph when I visit New York. I photograph in a different way than I do when I’m out in the American West. For example, I work with handheld cameras and tend to work while on the move. But I think that I also see the place at least a bit through the eyes of a landscape photographer, and I think of the city as a place to photograph the “urban landscape.” Although I’ve done night photography for more than a decade, recently I’ve gotten more interested in handheld urban night street photography. This photograph of a little evening street scene with pedestrians walking in and out of the light pools cast from business windows is one example.
Star trails above the Manifold, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California.
Because I was there with Patty Emerson Mitchell, who had not been to the park before, it was important to make it to some of the iconic locations during our early April visit to Death Valley National Park. On our final morning we went to Zabriskie Point and stood in line with the other photographers in the early morning to wait for dawn. To be honest, dawn at this place IS special, though I mostly shot small vignettes of nearby formations, since I already have almost all of the Zabriskie photos I’ll likely need!
We arrived a bit after some of the other photographers had arrived and we went to the “usual spot” below the main overlook and found an opening in the line-up of photographers where we would have a clear view of the surroundings and not interfere with others who were already there. At one point I was working out some compositions with a very long lens pointed down at some little gullies below our position when a fellow (who shall remain nameless, though I later found out that he is someone who should know better) must have become interested in what I was doing. Either very interested in “my” shots or else completely oblivious to anyone else, he wandered over right in front of my camera and stood there looking and taking handheld photographs!
There are several ways to respond to this. Shouting “What the hell!” might have been one of them, but instead I just thought it was funny. I suppose if the light had been truly astonishing I might have yelled (or mused about simply pushing him over the edge! ), but with fairly static light at that moment I simply chuckled a bit and pointed him out to my wife.
I have so many photographs in the queue right now that I have decided to do something a bit different and post some of them in collections. This first group features night photography from the historic Mare Island Naval Ship Yard, a location where I have been doing night photography for about a decade now. As is often the case, this visit was with my friends from The Nocturnes, the San Francisco Bay Area night photography group.
A street light illuminates tracks running down Railroad Avenue at historic Mare Island Naval Ship Yard
This is probably one of the iconic views of the nighttime environment at Mare Island, as it was made in a location where many night photographers start, whether it is their first visit or their fiftieth time there. The spot is near the Mare Island Museum, which holds many objects and photographs from the long history of the place as the first important west coast naval ship yard. The tracks – obviously! – given this street its name. The tower is the chimney of the old power plant, and off in the distance more of the old ship yard buildings are visible.
Red light behind the door of an industrial building at the historic Mare Island Naval Ship Yard
I was interested in the windows, doorway, and wall of this building for several reasons on this visit. First – and night photographers will understand – Mare Island has recently started to see an update of its lighting. As newer and presumably more energy-efficient types of lighting become available, the older lighting gets replaced. Some years ago the move was to the intensely yellow sodium vapor lights (which you can see in other images in this set), but today it is to what I understand are LED systems. Since the ambient light is tremendously important to night photographers, we notice that this produces a significant change in the mood of photographs made here since the LED light seems to have a much more subtle coloration that is closer to what we might regard as daylight. The new lighting has been installed by this building, so I wanted to see how I could use it to make a photograph that still captured the feeling of the night. In addition, I noticed some subtle red interior lights behind the doorway that seem to suggest something a bit mysterious in this scene.
A green tinted shadow falls across the front of a yellow building, Mare Island Naval Ship Yard
There are several things I like about this photograph of the side of a tall building and a lower section casting an odd green shadow. In much night photography we create photographs of things that we actually cannot see – essentially we are making photographs of what the camera sees. Standing in front of this scene it was very, very dark and the details of the building wall was barely visible at all. However, after shooting this stuff for some time I can recognize what might happen with an exposure long enough to make this scene visible. The old sodium vapor lamps are still installed along this street, and I knew that their yellow light would have a powerful effect on the colors of the scene. I also know that where there is a shadow that is not illuminated by sodium vapor light, the shadow will take on the colors of other kinds of ambient lighting – in this case a relatively green type of light coming from a nearby open area. In the end, without actually doing any light painting (the process of using colored lights and gels to illuminate the subject) I was able to make a photograph that is “naturally” just as wildly colorful.
Metal wall with white doors, window, and Reserved Parking sign
The plain and simple geometry of this building and its front wall has attracted me for several years, with its vertical lines, square forms of the door and the shadows, and the surprising orange highlights – and I have photographed it before. This building is now also lit by the newer lighting, so I had to see what I could do with this new coloration. I made two photographs of it. This one is a simple, straight-on view that is “about” the angular and square forms and the thin lines of orange paint and asphalt, with the only curves coming from the shadows in the window and a bit of broken-off pipe near the bottom center.
Ambient light, shadows, architecture and vegetation on a night photography shoot.
In November 2012 I joined my friends from The Nocturnes, the San Francisco Bay Area night photography group, for a get-together and shoot at the historic Mare Island Naval Ship Yard. Since this was an “alumni night” event, there was a certain ritual to be followed. Folks who were new to Mare Island arrived early to tour the site – the first west coast naval ship yard, with history going back well over 150 years. A bit later, the “veterans” arrived to join everyone else for events that began with sharing of photographs, continued with pizza, and then led to a night of, well, night photography nearby.
The weather was not promising. We knew that a weather front was on its way, and we hoped – though we probably knew better – that it might hold off long enough to complete some photography. (Those of us with smartphones, checking the weather radar updates, knew better.) The tell-tale south wind was rising as we headed out, and within moments of starting to photograph an old wooden building the rain began. At first I continued to shoot under my umbrella, but soon it was just plain too wet to stay out. Fortunately, we had arranged for access to one of the historic officer’s quarters buildings and photographing inside and around this building quickly became the fall-back plan. I ended up on the front porch with Mark Citret and Tim Baskerville where we intermittently talked photography and made a few shots of things that didn’t require us to stand in the rain. At one point I parked myself near an end of the old porch and made this photograph of the shadow of my rig falling the wall of the building.
Studio Nocturne 2012 Open Studio returns for the tenth year to Fort Mason Center for San Francisco Open Studios, October 13-14, 2012, 11am-6pm – with a Preview Reception on Friday, Oct. 12, from 6-9pm. This year, ten intrepid Night Photographers (“NPrs”) again participate in the event (PLUS twenty Bay Printmakers!) once again showing in the huge “Fleet Room” in Landmark Bldg. ‘D’ (ground level). This annual event is always fun, free – plan to attend! See the link for more information.
Yes, yours truly is one of the photographers whose work will be on display. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and wonder what my work looks like in print form… come on down! While a good portion of my 15 prints are of night or near-night subjects, some of my natural and urban landscape will also be shown.
Moon, in full lunar eclipse, drops behind the Golden Bridge South Tower, San Francisco, California.
Very (very!) early this morning I joined the surprisingly large throng of photographers out to shoot the lunar eclipse in the San Francisco area. I was up and out the door shortly after 4:00 a.m. and heading toward San Francisco. My first thought was to see if I could get an interesting composition with the moon over the San Francisco skyline by shooting from Treasure Island, in the bay between the City and Oakland. I arrived there while it was still very dark and found that lots of other photographers (and a motorcycle club!) were already on the scene. The photographers included to semi-astronomy types with the really, really big lenses and plenty of others.
The problem was immediately apparent. Even though the moon was still fairly high in the sky, it was apparent that it was going to set far to the right of San Francisco. I might have been able to find a workable spot on the island, but I still wasn’t sure the moon would be in a good spot once it got close to setting. At this point I decided to try a “plan B,” and I felt that there was a pretty good idea that I could make something work in the Crissy Field area. So I hopped back in the car, passed through downtown San Francisco, and arrived at the Crissy Field area…
… only to find out that I was most certainly not the only photographer thinking of using this location! There were hundreds of tripod-lugging photographers lined up a long the shoreline! My main idea at this point was to find a location from which the setting moon would pass above and then behind the bridge. So I headed off quickly towards the area where I thought this juxtaposition might be available. Soon I found it, and just as the sky was beginning to lighten up a bit and shedding a bit of natural light on the bridge. It was still quite challenging to get even a workable shot. The wind was blowing stiffly, making the necessary long exposures a bit tricky. In the end I think I got one or two that are interesting.
A vertical format version of this scene is posted here – I still haven’t decided which I prefer!
After I posted the link to this article earlier today I got word that two of my prints have been selected for inclusion in the show. Hope to see some of you Bay Area photographers at the reception!
San Francisco’s SFGate web site has an article on night photography and especially on the history of the medium in the San Francisco Bay Area:
“Before this eccentric genre emerged here in the 1970s, only a handful of shutterbugs shot in the dark. At the turn of the 20th century, Alfred Stieglitz conjured images of an evanescent New York. In the 1920s and ’30s, Brassaï captured lustrous scenes of Paris a la nuit. And O. Winston Link glorified American modes of transportation against the backdrop of night in the 1950s.
But night photography didn’t become a codified style until a group of Northern Californian photographers (including Richard Misrach, Arthur Ollman and Jerry Burchard) started tackling nighttime as a major theme in their work.”
The Bay Area has been fortunate to be a bit of a hot spot for night photographers who have “gone over to the dark side,” and this continues. The Nocturnes, the Bay Area night photography group, is celebrating its 20th year with a series of exhibitions this year, including a recent show at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard (which is, in many ways, ground zero for area night photographers) and an upcoming event:
The Nocturnes 20th Anniversary Photography Exhibit: Reception 6:30 p.m. Nov. 9. Through Dec. 3. Free. Harvey Milk Photo Center, 50 Scott St., San Francisco. (415) 554-9522. harveymilkphotocenter.org.