Interview with Tom Paiva
To start the new format, my first interview is with professional L.A. night photographer Tom Paiva. I first interviewed Tom six years ago when I made my night photography documentary film, "The Night of the Living Photographers "(parts one, two and three on YouTube). Tom specializes in architectural and industrial photography and shoots large format for his personal work.. You can see more of Tom’s work on his website.
Tom, how would you describe your background and night photography style?
I’ve been shooting at night for well over 25 years, and have tried most every type of camera, film, format and subject. My current style is a more precise, contemplative type of shooting, therefore why not shoot and get the biggest negative you can? I work with available light 99% of the time, and enjoy the bizarre mixture of artificial lights in our modern urban and industrial landscape.
Why do commercial work at night?
When I do commercial architectural and industrial work, most buildings look their best at twilight and at night, because the semi-darkness hides flaws, peeling paint, dirt and the like, that is revealed at mid-day. Also, modern buildings have a lot more creative lighting than just twenty years ago, which I like to accentuate.
Why use a large format camera?
All my commercial work is done in digital capture, but I still enjoy the color, texture and different artificial lights at night that are rendered very differently on film than digital. Commercial work is all about time and money and getting the job done well, as soon as possible. For my personal work, I have more of a choice of what, and how to shoot. Because of my careful placement of the camera for the best composition possible, and the perspective adjustments I use in almost every shot, the view camera gives me that option. It’s not an easy type of photography to do, but when everything comes together, the final image says it all. I also like to make large prints, and the large negative enables that with excellent tonality, color and sharpness. There’s virtually no film grain or noise in a 30x40 inch print from a 4x5 transparency.
The view camera uses a large negative to capture extremely high
resolution, along with the ability to correct for perspective while shooting.
What were you photographing before you got interested in night photography?
I was shooting most everything and especially liked close-up macro work, and like most amateurs, I enjoyed the landscape. I realized early on that shooting the right time of day can be the difference between a good shot and a great one. I also like the last few minutes of the daylight just before the sun sets. Twilight is still my favorite time of day.
Do you remember when your night photography projects went from being just a passing interest, to something that you were passionate about?
When I was back in art school taking a class on night photography, I realized that the man-made world with it 24/7 energy (and lighting) was simply more interesting at night. I was able to get images shot at night that were so different than how most people shot them in the daytime. That got me excited. The work of Brassai shooting in Paris at night in the ‘30s also inspired me. He had a wonderful eye and a love of the night. Brassai was really the first person to do a study of the urban night and his landmark book, Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night), published in 1933 was the first book solely of night photographs. He photographed buildings and streets in all sorts of weather, but also shot many people, including workers, the wealthy elite and street walkers. I feel his night work is some of the best ever done. The mystery of a "film noir" type of lighting, typical in 1940’s movies, interested me, too.
Can you talk about your time in art school?
I enjoyed my time at the SF Academy of Art, but it was a lot of work, especially since I worked full time and went to school full time. The discipline of having to shoot, process and print weekly for several classes, whatever the subject or assignment, is excellent training to become a professional photographer. Some say it’s not worth committing to four years of college art school, but like any other discipline, it takes time to develop the work habits, techniques, and most important, "the eye" in how to see and make images that work. Good imagery is not 'snapped', but created with forethought. Art school also helps you develop a personal style, no matter if you are shooting reportage, food or fashion. That would be difficult to develop without the guidance of the college professors. Another aspect of art school is the constant viewing of others work, be it students or established photographers. I had three semesters of art history - including other disciplines such as painting, sculpture and architecture, along with photography. It is important to see what has come before.
How worthwhile is a fine art degree to someone who wants to make photography a profession?
You get what you what you put into college, no matter what you are studying, art or otherwise and I got a lot out of it because I applied myself. Many did the minimum to get by, but I’m sure they are not professional photographers today.
And you studied under Steve Harper back then.
Steve Harper is a talented teacher and a bit unorthodox in a positive way. Unknowing to us students, he stretched our capabilities with his assignments. I also had a class on Environmental Portraiture with him and he made me think outside the box. That’s why I think he enjoyed shooting at night--at the time, it just wasn't done.
You were also involved with formation of The Nocturnes.
It was the mid-90’s and the internet was in its infancy. Tim Baskerville, Lance Keimig and I were shooting both together and alone, but wanted a time and place to share our images and to find like-minded photographers. Going online was this new idea and has spread way beyond anything that we could have imagined. We thought we were working in a vacuum until we saw other photographer's work from Europe, Asia and around the world working similarly. TheNocturnes.com has pulled together literally thousands of photos and photographers worldwide to share our night vision. In the late ‘90s, I moved to L.A. and Lance moved to Boston, but the website is a way for all of us to stay connected, and we all still do our own night shooting.
You're a professional photographer. What sort of clients do you work for?
I have worked with many large industrial companies and organizations, such as BP, Mitsui MOL Shipping, the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Francisco. Most of my clients are medium-sized corporations that very few people have heard of in the oil, chemical and shipping industries.
What sort of requirements do they have?
They want photographs that are technically correct, well composed images of their "widgets" and workers. Most of the work is very straightforward and needs to tell a story--their story. I always ask what the images will be for and what they want them to say. This may seem obvious, but a bit of technical background on the industrial plant is necessary when staging shoots.
Do they specifically want night photographs?
No one asks for night photography commercially. That is my choice, and I usually do it in addition to the day shots. People don't know to ask for night shots, because the average person does not know that they can be done. I tell clients, "If you can see it, I can shoot it". Virtually all of the industrial and night work on my website is shot on my own, after hours at various places that are almost impossible to get access to.
Most people are familiar with the work you've done of industrial sites along the West Coast, particularly large harbors such as Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Since I live on the west coast, why not shoot there? I have traveled all over the country on business, andalways have a tripod--even if I am going to shoot an aerial--just in case. Some of my best known night shots were done while on assignment for a client in another city. Getting access is the most difficult part. Security is very tight, and when asking for permission, they simply say, "No". You have to have a reason to be there. If I have to shoot a ship unloading cargo, why not stay later and shoot some at night? That is when I do my best work, and I can wander around with no pressure, usually without supervision. In the end, more often than not, they use the night shots for the print media.
(Port of Long Beach, by Tom Paiva)
Some photographers prefer to keep searching for new locations. But others often revisit previous locations and rework them.
I’m always looking for new locations, but also enjoy revisiting the 'regular locations'. I have a few places in the L.A. area where I can make a phone call and get access that night to do what I want. That’s a privilege that I don't take lightly, and never abuse.
How do you think your style has changed over the past few years?
My style has become more subtle, and I feel I have refined my art of composition to a high degree. Also, I find I enjoy the mixture of different types of light rather than fighting or balancing it. I make fewer images per night than I used to. Typically, I shoot 5-7 images instead of the 10-20+ I used to. In the end, I’ll get 4-5 images I am happy with for the night, virtually the same as what I got with smaller formats. I spend the time really looking for the right vantage point and the best light. Too many people use the 'machine-gun' approach to shooting. More is not always better.
I’m still trying to figure out how night photography fits into the world of fine art photography. Does it appeal to a wide audience, or a smaller, cutting-edge niche of people.
I wish my night photography would appeal to a very wide audience! I don't know if "cutting-edge" is the right word for night photography. Different, yes. Unfortunately, most people don't understand what I do in the industrial landscape and that it is an art form. I have a 'patron' who buys a few of my images now and then, but his wife does not like them in the house. They’re in his offices. Just today, I was showing my portfolio to an industrial client, showing mainly night work. They don't know what to say when they look at them. In the end, I’ll be doing a daytime aerial shoot for them. They had no use for night images of their plant.
Your brother, Troy Paiva, is well-known among the urban exploration crowd. You shoot industrial locations. He shoots ghost towns in the desert. You prefer large format film cameras. He shoots small-frame digital. I could probably go on forever. The only thing you two seem to have in common is that you often shoot at night.
We have more than that in common. We both come from a family of artists of some sort (on our mother's side) and we share those genes. We both also love the desert, and I get out there whenever I can, but rarely shoot at night out there anymore. Troy went night shooting with me back in the late 80s and, like me, fell in love with night photography.
His style of colored light painting has become very popular among night photographers.
Troy's work seems to appeal to the younger generation, with his cartoony, surreal colors. He has brought "painting with light" to a new level.
I remember looking through a box of your 16”x20”prints of your night photographs of the new Oakland Bay Bridge (Oakland-San Francisco, CA). Some of your shots were taken from the top of the new span, some were taken from the ground below the new span, and a few were taken from a platform below the new span.
I’ve been working on the Oakland Bay Bridge project for two years now, and there are two or three more years to go. I decided I wanted to shoot the Bay Bridge as an art project, not simply to document the nuts and bolts (they already have two photographers that do that.) It was a difficult pitch, as few understood what that meant.
(San Francisco Bay Bridge #1, by Tom Paiva)
How do you get access to those sorts of locations?
After a few months, I got access for one night (two hours) with two escorts, where I shot five 4x5 twilight and night views. All were a big hit when I made some 16x20 prints to show. I was lucky in that I found someone fairly early on in the maze of the bureaucracy that appreciated what I was intending to do. After a few escorted evenings, I was able to get a body of work for a corporate show where many of the management team saw them. It takes perseverance to take on a project like the Bay Bridge and the four state entities I have contracts with. Also, you have to know your craft to know you can do it. There’s no time for experimenting on a project like this, especially on the first two hour evening. You screw up on the first night, and it's all over.
Were you using the large format camera when you were on that platform under the bridge?
Yes, the Bay Bridge project is all shot in 4x5. I originally thought a big project should be shot with the big camera! In reality, I wanted the control of camera movements, as a major bridge is like a piece of architecture.
Is there a lot of room on this platform.
It's a steel mesh platform hanging from the bottom of the bridge. It has about a five-foot vertical clearance. My back ached after half an our there, because there is no where to sit or stand upright (you're taller than me and you would hate it.) I have to maneuver through a three-foot crawl space to get to the platform
I also remember your large format night photographs of a large factory in China. What was going on in that place? And how did you manage to get in there?
The state authorities commissioned me to shoot in China, based on my earlier work. I took the 4x5 to Shanghai, China to shoot the construction of the Bay Bridge's steel roadways, tower and cable manufacturing plants. They were made in a huge plant on an island in the Yangtze River that operated 24/7 with a workforce of 30,000. There really is no facility like that in the U.S. anymore. I was instructed to shoot in my own style, of what I thought was important and interesting, with some guidance, of course. It really was a dream job, as difficult as it was. I was there two weeks, at my day rate plus all expenses. The days were twelve hours long in very dirty environments. I also shot digital of the details, but it was the 4x5 work that motivated me. The digital work was used in brochures and such, but the 4x5 work has been in two shows.
(Shanghai #17, by Tom Paiva)
Do you ever shoot black-and-white at night? Or are you a color snob?
Color snob? Hardly, as I love black-and-white and respect the many photographers that shoot it. My work is more fitting for color, as I like to balance the tungsten, neon, mercury- and sodium-vapor lights. When I was talking with Michael Kenna about the problems of balancing industrial lighting, he jokingly said, "why not just shoot it in black-and-white?" Also, I haven't had a commercial job requested in black-and-white in twenty years and I don't have a wet darkroom any longer.
I heard an interesting story that you once told about the incandescent street lights in L.A.
A few years ago, I was at a cocktail party and when I asked this guy what he did for a living, he said he was with the LA City Lighting department. When the conversation went to the reasoning of mercury-vapor vs. sodium vapor street lighting, everyone else simply walked away. I mentioned that I knew of a tungsten streetlight (they are very rare in any city or town worldwide) on Sepulveda Boulevard, he said he was well aware of it and mentioned another one a mile north and two more in East L.A. Four for the whole city of L.A.! They’re in "acorn lamps", lamps that are strung across an intersection and hang in the middle. He told me they don't make a mercury- or sodium-vapor bulb that fits them. That was a weird esoteric encounter! And yes, I have shot under them, with tungsten film making the light perfectly white.
A lot of cities are switching from high-pressure sodium vapor street lights to LED.
The city of LA is changing the sodium-vapor and mercury-vapor streetlights at the rate of 1500 per day to LED. That will change night photography, as those lamps are daylight balanced. No more weird orange, green and blue cast. That will be good for some and bad for others.
Is anyone else shooting large format film at night?
There are a quite a few large format night photographers on Flickr. I like Thomas Birke's work, who shoots in cities all over the world with an 8x10 camera at night! That’s hard core, as you have to carry an 8x10 camera, film holders, film and at least one lens through security at the airports. Even I have not done that! I usually FedEx my film ahead to my hotel when shooting large format and send it back the same way, as the airlines have become so difficult lately.
What other photographers do you think are producing good work right now?
I’m a big fan of Edward Burtynsky, as he tells a great story in large format, and is quite methodical in his way of working. I’ve been to two of his shows, have three of his books and a 16x20 of one of his ship breaking series on my wall.
There's a very active community of night photographers in the San Francisco Bay Area. What's the night photography community like 400 miles south down in Southern California?
I don't really know if there is a community of night photographers in L.A. I am friends with Helen Garber, who shoots in a "LA Noir" style, all handheld digital black-and-white. I know one guy, John Smith, who shoots urban L.A. at night in 4x5 black and white. I met him when he and I were in a group show in L.A. Otherwise, I don't know anyone else who is that dedicated to night shooting.
The only night photographers from L.A. who I can think of, who have some recognition in the fine art world, are yourself, Helen Garber and Amanda Friedman. Where's all this L.A. creative genius that we all hear about?
There is tremendous genius here in L.A. when it comes to photography, but not specifically night shooting.
Did you ever meet Julius Shulman. He shot large format all over L.A. And he was no stranger to night photography.
I never met Julius Shulman, but I did hear him talk at a show opening of his ‘40s and ‘50s commercial work (now, as art) here in L.A. a few years ago. He was a character, for sure. He did night shooting, just like any architectural photographer has to, but I would not consider him a night photographer.
(Howard Hughes Center, by Tom Paiva)
I know that you like to perfect the shot while you're shooting, and you like to do as little in post-production (i.e., PhotoShop) as possible. You even use graduated filters! How long do you typically spend setting up for each shot?
I’m a very fast photographer. In the daytime, I can set up a 4x5 camera, choose the lens, meter, insert film and shoot in five minutes. Edward Weston bragged that he could do it in 2 minutes (in 8x10). For night shooting, it can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes all according to how complex the image is. I use flashlights (in the image, as pinpoints of light) to focus, and many times, you can't even see the subject on the ground glass. Polaroid helps, but I have been quite frugal with it, as my supply is limited and there is no more. Metering at night is the toughest for most novices, and that is where you have to improvise and use the years of experience.
(4x5 at work at a power plant)
You cannot meter shadows at night with any meter.
Do you ever shoot digitally?
Yes, I shoot digitally, but mainly for commercial work. I just had my first digital image in a show in Santa Monica a few months ago. It was printed as a 16x20 of the Playa del Rey beach area at night. It was well received.
What is the role of PhotoShop in your workflow?
Workflow is such a digital age word! That applies more for digital capture in RAW imagery, which is what I shoot commercially. For my personal large format night work, PhotoShop is a tool, and I use it after scanning for density correction, color balancing, minor dodging and burning and dust removal. That's about it for the 4x5 scans. The original negative has so much latitude that it really does not take much to make a beautiful print. Any tool, such as PhotoShop, is an addition to what we can do, but I personally don't do anything fancy with it.
A lot of urban explorers say they enjoy the adrenaline rush of sneaking into a location, and then trying not to get caught.
First, I don't consider myself part of the UrbEx community. Years ago, I did sneak into all sorts of places to shoot, but as I get older, it is SO much easier to have permission and know you won't be mugged and if something happens, there is help nearby. In this post-911 time, security in places like chemical and power plants, and petroleum facilities is so tight, that you will get caught very quickly and they will prosecute. About seven years ago, while shooting with Lance Keimig in Lowell, MA, I climbed a 15 foot iron fence with spikes on top. We tossed our bags over then climbed. While straddling those spikes 15 feet up trying to swing my leg over very carefully, I told myself, “NO MORE!”, and have not done such crazy things since. I did get some great shots in that 100-year old rope factory, including a first place contest winner in a show. I'll leave the UrbEx excitement for the younger guys.
(Rope Factory, Lowell, MA, by Tom Paiva)
Your first book was Industrial Night (2002). How did that book come about? And how did you decide which photos and stories to include in the book?
That book came about from a portfolio review with a gallery in LA. The curator, George Neykov, said he really liked my night work, and could I call him in a week. I did, but found that he left. Figuring I had lost that lead, I forgot about it. Two weeks later, George called me and said he had a contact at a small publisher and was I interested in doing a book. George wound up doing all the editing and sequencing for the book which took several months. I gave George complete control of the images, as I was too close to them. It started out with about 3000 images, which I had to have printed--George hated viewing images on a monitor. There were many rounds of culling to the final 50 that are in the book. An artist friend of mine here in L.A. got me connected with the former editor of ArtWeek magazine who agreed to do the forward. I did the writing myself, with the help of Lee, my wife (an excellent writer) and a few others.
(Available at Amazon.com)
Are you going to do a second book?
Yes, I’m working on that now. The Bay Bridge project is a likely subject and I have had interest from two publishers. Funding is an issue in this economy and many book publishers are just trying to hang on. George has since moved to Paris, and the publisher, The Image Room, folded years ago.
I'm amazed that night photography has become so popular over the past few years.
It wasn’t that popular 20 years ago, but now the public is used to seeing it in publications everywhere. Also, digital has made it much easier to shoot at night, with the instant response of the monitor for density and color, and exposures in the seconds instead of minutes or even hours.
Do you think it will last?
I didn’t think it would last ten years ago, so I'm not the one to ask! People will always want to look at good imagery and night photography lends itself to beautiful, moody, powerful images.
In the past you've taught night photography along with Tim Baskerville (The Nocturnes) and Lance Keimig (Mono Lake Workshops), now you're teaching workshops in Los Angeles and teaching photography at the college level . What do you find interesting about teaching as opposed to shooting straight commercial assignments?
Commercial assignments are frequently like anyone's work. Does Tiger Woods play golf on his day off? Probably not. With my personal work, I shoot what I feel and what excites me. With teaching, I like being around other photographers who are willing to learn and experiment and try new things. With all the years of experience I have, I feel it is my duty to pass it on to the next generation of photographers.
What was it like teaching photography at the junior college level?
The top 10% of the students were very creative and engaged. They applied themselves, just as I did when I went to art school. I went to art school when I was in my thirties, so I was more focused (no pun intended). The bottom third had to be babysat. They did almost nothing all semester and I found that part depressing.
What do you have planned for the upcoming year?
I am sailing on a iron ore ship across the Great Lakes to the Atlantic to shoot stock. It is at my own expense, but I think I will sell images afterward. That's what it's like being an entrepreneur. I hope to teach again in the spring (cutbacks laid off about 15% of teachers this semester).
One last question, Tom. Since you know all of the creative people in Los Angeles, can you introduce me to Kat Von D the next time I come down there?
Who? Okay, I Googled her. Yikes, not in my circle of friends!
Tom and I will be leading a three-evening night photography workshop on Oct 1-3, 2010, in Los Angeles. Please visit our workshop webpage for more information.
Tom Paiva is a professional, freelance photographer based in California where he has had his business for over 15 years. He specializes in large format photography of industrial and maritime settings, as well as architecture and interiors.
Tom has over 70 cover images for various Trade Magazines to his credit.
He has published a book, Industrial Night, containing 46 color images of industrial settings at night.
His long term passion is night photography and he loves to create images of urban settings and moonlit landscapes on film.