This small show is dimly lit. Soft spotlights gently envelop each photograph and, aided by pale mats and thin black frames, draw each image out from the darkness of charcoal colored walls.
In the show’s approximately forty photographs by American, European and Japanese photographers, the viewer can look into the night through the eyes of Brassai, André Kertész, Edward Steichen, Robert Frank, Bill Brandt, Josef Sudek, Hiroshi Sugimoto and others.
Night photography didn’t really exist before the turn of the century. The equipment and materials did not allow the recording of images under low-light conditions. With technical innovation, cameras became less cumbersome to haul around and set up, the film became faster and the flash got brighter. These developments made it possible to explore the world of shadows and varied light: the threshold of darkness in Faigenbaums’s Portrait of my Mother and Sudek’s The Arrival of Night; the mellow glow of street lamps in Brassai’s Morris Column in the Fog and Coburn’s Broadway at Night; the radiance of illuminated high-rises as in Kertész’s Skyscraper at Night and Berenice Abbott’s Nightview, New York; the sheen of billboards in the photographs of Knud Lonberg-Holm and the scintillation of neon signs in the pictures of Werner Martz and Marcel Bovis.
As the camera evolved, it became possible to venture out in the rain, snow or fog and chase reflections, alter egos, and apparitions. A man in a dark coat has paused next to the Morris column in Brassai’s picture. A ghostly figure is running across the street in Robert Frank’s 1952 London. A phantom silhouette is walking past the wall plastered with posters in Otto Steinert’s image. A weightless shadow-like character is up on the ladder working on a theater marquee in William Klein’s 1954 photograph. Steiglitz’ Reflection: Night, New York arrests flickering lights and creates an antithesis to Pim Van Os’ night street scene in which the layers of reflections and shadows seem to shift subtly and constantly as if disobeying the stillness imposed by film.
Edward Steichen describes the call of the lightless:
What a beautiful hour of the day is that of the twilight when things disappear and seem to melt into each other, and this great feeling of peace overshadows all.
The Met installation is nothing like Steichen’s twilight – each image is carefully separated and brought to light; yet to me it conveyed a similar feeling of peace. As I walked from photograph to photograph, from one vision to another, from one glimpse to the next, and despite a number of disconcerting images, life in its multiplicity and the knowledge that somebody was able to look, to see and to record it, filled me with peace. The presence of a witness gave a gift of continuity. Life did not simply disappear into darkness even if it originated there; life endured, if only on paper and in fragments.
The darkness brought into focus a different kind of witness - unwelcome, accidental, and unknowing. Daido Moriyama glanced into a car with two young women. This photograph is untitled, as if the photographer acknowledged the limits of his knowing. Without reading the label, it would be hard to guess that a glittering row of candle-like lamp posts in the middle of what looks like a small sleeping town in Stephen Tourlentes’ picture Avenal, California, is a row of high-powered searchlights at a high security prison. The viewer is asked to acknowledge the limits of his or her vision. Bill Brandt’s Soho Bedroom is a staged shot; his brother is playing the role of the lover, and the photographer – the role of the witness. Yoshiyuki’s untitled photograph of 1971 is a snapshot of covert nocturnal sex life in the Tokyo parks in the 1970s, a time in Japan when premarital or gay sex was not accepted; young people lived with their parents and had no space except parks for any private life. The subjects of Yoshiyuki’s photographs in this series are the peeping Toms who watched (and sometimes participated in) the lovemaking. The photographer was witnessing the witnesses.
What is a night vision? Bill Brandt who photographed London during the Blitz blackouts described the change:
The darkened town, lit only by moonlight, looked more beautiful than before or since. It was fascinating to walk through the deserted streets and to photograph houses which I knew well, and which no longer looked three-dimensional, but flat like painted stage scenery.
One of my favorite observations is Leo Steinberg’s “that major stylistic changes in art alter art’s interaction with the beholder.” Correspondingly, the ability of the beholder to alter his or her customary perspective will change his or her interaction with art.
The photographer is simultaneously beholder and artist. His or her act of looking coincides with a camera click. Night photography changed that blend of artist and beholder in the photographer. Darkness, after all, always implies the possibility of not being able to see. So night photography compelled the artist to interact differently with the world, and the beholder with the art, since world and art came together in the act of looking.
Night photography was not the first instance of night vision in visual arts. Many paintings set in darkness come to mind; Rembrandt, for instance. Yet, the night vision in photography, because of the simultaneity of beholder and artist and a chance of sightlessness, can explore a different ground. It can be more than a look at the world after sundown. It can be more than a creation of images in which light and darkness are the leading means, both formally and spiritually. Because darkness can blind, it can take the photographer’s act of looking to its limits. Darkness can’t engulf a painter; he or she paints it but not in it.
Of course, not all night photographs, and not all photographs in this show, challenge the act of looking itself. Many are visions of the world in darkness or with the lights turned on; others are explorations of light and its formal possibilities. But remember Steichen’s twilight in which things slowly vanish. Consider Brassai’s 1934 A Pillar of the Corvisant Metro in which a short, starkly lit column blocks the view. Can one move it with one’s eyes and witness the darkness behind? Look at Frank’s photograph: The small dark somewhat hazy figure is crossing the road in the fog; he is looking away. Our gaze follows the man as he scurries off the paper in the upper right part of the photo. There are other blurred silhouettes and streetlights in the murky background. Diagonally, across from the rushing figure, in the lower left corner, there’s a word - “look” - impressed in the pavement. The slightly tilted perspective makes the word comparable in size to the figure. The beholder’s look concentrates as if it must immobilize the hurrying figure to not let it run off the paper into darkness.
Can one behold darkness? Is light a condition for seeing? What’s darkness like without light? Sugimoto’s Ionian Sea, Santa Cesarea, 1990, is an image of the sea at night. There’s no light source in this photo; the darkness is almost complete. To me this is the most fantastic, most unreal image in this show. When you think about it, the state of absolute darkness is almost impossible in our universe; there’s usually a source of light, whether from a lamp or a star. Unless the dark night of the soul falls; this internal night can dim all light, and I wonder if such darkness can be made fully visible. Or eyes can’t see or are forever closed. But blindness or death would put one beyond light or darkness. Even though it is set in almost complete darkness, there’s still dichotomy in Sugimoto’s picture. The horizon is visible. Perhaps it is a visual tribute to what I grasped in the night of this show as a true photographer’s credo: I see therefore I am. Darkness inevitable.
Night Vision: Photography after Dark at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
New York, NY 10028
 I found it curious that sometimes passport rather than sensibility defined the artists. For instance, Hungarian born Kertész — who lived in Paris for years, immigrated to the States in his forties and struggled to be recognized in this country — was labeled American. In an age when citizenship and homeland are complex and rootlessness is common, it should be obvious that artists don’t belong to a country. Mentioning the locations of birth and death should suffice.