Thursday, August 25, 2011

Interview with Troy Paiva

The fourth interview in this series is with Troy Paiva. Troy is well-known to many photographers through his monumental website Lost America, where he has been showing his night photography of abandoned buildings and junkyards for over ten years. Troy is also the author of Lost America: The Abandoned Roadside West and Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration. In this interview, he discusses his background in night photography, as well as the workshop series that he leads with Joe Reifer.

How’d you come up with the name Lost America?
That came about even before I started doing night photography.  I had read a two-book series at the library back in the late '70s called "Lost America," about interesting and important buildings in US history that had been lost, either by demolition, dereliction or fire.  They were cool books that fit right in with my nascent obsession with all things abandoned.  I loved the aesthetic that the name conjured and filed it away in the back of my mind.  When I started to photograph these subjects and needed to name the body of work something, it fit perfectly.

Wouldn't landscapes and cityscapes be easier for people to understand than junkyards and abandoned buildings?
I understood early on that shooting things that few people know exist, let alone think of photographing was a good way to get your work to stand apart from everyone else's. I don't really care about the masses, I'm not trying to be Thomas Kincaid here.  It was never my intention to create this work for anyone other than me.  I started out as a pure amateur in that regard.  Even with all the publications, shows books, lectures and teaching, I still consider myself an amateur in spirit, because this work has always been personal, It's never been done with commercial intent.

Cockpit Shell - Green by Troy Paiva

So, what’s the whole back story behind Lost America?

The progression goes like this: I've been attracted to, and explored, abandoned places since I was a child.  It started out on road-trip-based family vacations where we would just drive across the desert for days on end.  We visited Bodie in 1973. This was before it was a well-known tourist spot.  When we arrived you could just drive into the center of town and park.  No one else was there, we had the whole place to ourselves and I wandered around in that town alone all afternoon.  My impressionable thirteen year-old mind was blown that a whole city would just be discarded like that.  I was totally hooked.

All us Paiva's love the open road. My brother Tom and I have both had long-distance driving jobs and our father was a pilot.  We're descended from countless generations of fishermen, so helming vehicles across vast expanses, under huge skies is just built into our DNA.  As a teenager my friends and I would take three-day, 1,500 mile drives into the southwest.  I learned at a very early age that the journey was frequently more interesting than the destination.  This driving obsession led me to lots of little traveled places in the middle of nowhere.  Remember, this was the late '70s, when the last remote stretches of interstate were being opened, so there was lots of freshly abandoned stuff to see out there.  By the time I had reached my late teens I was a full-blown road-tripping ghost-towner and ruins nerd.

Did Tom’s photography career have any influence on your photography?
In 1989 Tom was finishing up his photo degree at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.  I was 29 and deep into a career as an illustrator and designer for Galoob Toys.  Painting and drawing for a living, I was searching for a way to create personal art as far removed from painting and drawing as I could.

One of Tom’s classes was Steve Harper’s semester-long night photography program.  When I saw some of the work being done by Steve, Tom and some of the students like Tim Baskerville (eventual founder of “The Nocturnes”) and Lance Keimig (eventual author of Night Photography: Finding Your Way in the Dark) I immediately saw night work’s potential for capturing the haunting souls of the ghost towns and junkyards of the West that I’d been drawn to since I was a child.  

Steve let me audit a classroom lecture by Michael Kenna and tag along on some class shoots in the industrial section of San Francisco.  I immediately jumped on the bandwagon, bought a junky old 35mm Canon FX, my first real camera, and started my photography career making 8-minute exposures of abandoned Route 66 buildings, under the full moon.  

It didn’t take long for me to come around to the idea of adding light during the time exposures. I began experimenting with strobe and flashlights to add details to the shadow areas.  For a long time I really did just sorta wing it, throwing light out there without a lot of thought. 

Right before the turn of the century, I began to work with some early 3D modeling and rendering software.  It was quickly apparent that effective lighting was the key to good 3D work and I concentrated on studying the nuances of artificial lighting and its effect on mood and emotion. It had an instant impact on my photographic lighting–it began to have intent and context.

"Trad'r Rix Tiki Island" by Troy Paiva

Who were the big influences on you at the beginning.
When I first started night photography and light painting back in early 90s, I was working at Galoob.  Tom and I would hang out for hours, over pizza and beer, talking photography and all kinds of art.  He was studying many photographers at the time and we talked about all of them.  But O. Winston Link, Chip Simons and William Lesch, with their finely developed lighting aesthetics, were the ones that really stuck with me.  They all had a strong impact on developing my own style.

O. Winston Link blew both our minds.  Even as a non-photographer, his subjects: trains, cars and a sped up modern world fueled by postwar technology, all hit me right in the sweet-spot.  Here was another layer of Lost America–a lost world of highballing locomotives, gravity feed gas pumps and drive-in theaters.  More proof of concept for me.  But then you dig into his process and that’s where his work really gets miraculous.  

Photo by O. Winston Link

He did some really complicated setups.
Man, I’ll say.  Working at night, with huge hardwired lighting arrays and several assistants, he'd freeze speeding trains in a massive burst of light, while including complexly lit foreground scenes. He'd use dozens of lights and miles of wire.  His total control over the light was amazing.  AND it was a one shot deal too, the next train was tomorrow night.  The guy must have had brass ones.

And Chip Simons.  Didn’t he photograph dogs?
Yeah.  He did tons of magazine work back in the day, and most of it was lit in very colorful and creative ways.  But I always come back to his goofy and lurid dog work.  Playful without overstating the fact that it's playful.  While the mechanics of how he lights, using traditional studio techniques brought outside, is totally different from my hand-held continuous-source light painting, I really keyed on the theatrical and surreal nature of his lighting.  I loved the way he embraced imperfection and his use of location too.  Chip's a funny guy, a pro's pro, with a career spanning decades.

Photo by Chip Simons

William Lesch’s photographs always appeared to be so simple, at first look. Then when I look at them more closely, I imagine tons of complex planning that must have gone into each shot.
Tom and I would sit there for hours deconstructing the light painted cacti in his book Expansions.  Was it flashlights or strobe?  Is it a double exposure with both dusk and night images?  It made me see that any of those techniques could be used to achieve these mysterious-looking results.  I just saw so much potential for putting these techniques in a totally different context.

Photo by William Lesch

What was your history at Galoob Toys?
I started in 1986 as a design department gopher.  By the time the company was liquidated in '99 I was a project manager on a $50 million toy car line called Micro Machines.

Was there a connection with toys and night photography for you?
The first ten years I photographed the ghosts of these places and things, I made toys that glorified them.  Closing the circle, I guess.

I was a good fit to work on Micro Machines because it was an area I was really knowledgeable about already.  Along with literally hundreds of cars, I also designed a whole pile of playsets of car washes, gas stations and restaurants too.  In many ways it fulfilled my childhood desire to be an architect, without requiring all that pesky engineering and math knowledge.  

Does drawing and painting influence your photography?
EVERYTHING influences me.  Painting, drawing, architecture, industrial design, movies, music.  All these things influence everything I do, probably more than photography does.  

Who are some of your favorites?
Storm Thorgerson, John Hench, Eero Saarinen, Raymond Loewy, Todd Schorr, Robert Williams, Roger Dean, I swear, I could list names all day long of influential artists I admire.  

Click to see larger

I know some musicians have shown an interest in your work.
Quite a few, yeah.  I have a friendly, symbiotic relationship with (Wall of Voodoo founder) Stan Ridgway.  I've given him some CD cover images and he wrote the intro in my first book (Lost America: The Abandoned Roadside West).  Most of the musicians that approach me are American-roots-based and country artists.  Not my bag (and they always seem disappointed when I tell them I'm really more of a Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa man), but I understand the perceived connection.

Sometimes I’m surprised that so many people find your photographs of junk so appealing.
I’m not surprised at all.  Humans have always been romanced by ruins, how else do you explain the attraction of Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat, Pompeii or the Pyramids throughout history?  The ruins I shoot are modern and less permanent than those classic locations, but the spirit behind why they are compelling to us is exactly the same.

You don’t see many people going out and photographing junk themselves. 
Not true.  There is a whole subculture of ruins photographers and urban exploration in America today that didn’t exist even 10 years ago.   It’s way more popular than you give it credit for. I think it’s a generational thing, most people that do this are under the age of 30, and most over the age of 40 don’t really get it.

Eon 66 by Troy Paiva

Why is that?
The love of ruins has been largely missing from the American zeitgeist because we're such a young country–we haven't had any real ruins to call our own.  But by the end of the 20th Century it changed, as technology and infrastructure evolved so quickly over the course of the last 50 years.  Today, American kids seem to be obsessed with the ruins and decay of the "American Century."  The whole UrbEx thing has become a pop-culture phenomenon.  My god man, The Onion recently did a piece lampooning Detroit UE art. You know it’s hit the mainstream now!

A lot people say they love looking at night photographs, but are intimidated by the complexities of the process.
It’s OK to just look.  Everyone doesn’t have to do night photography.  

Even though most of the things that made night shooting technically difficult have been simplified by the invention of the DSLR and digital darkroom, you still have to go out and brave the elements.  You still have to spend hours out there, just to get a couple of finished images.  You still have to deal with cops and property owners.  You still have to make the effort to find something interesting to shoot. 

In today's sped-up O.C.D. culture, there are very few people with the patience to sit back and relax, spending 30 or 45 minutes doing a series of 4-minute exposures to get one shot.  Everyone today wants to do everything with one click of the camera, one click of the mouse.  This is why almost no one paints, or plays a musical instrument anymore.  No one wants to put in the time to become really good at something.  It's tragic, really.

You’ve always been an obsessive woodshedder, haven’t you? 
Yeah, I've always been attracted to complex and difficult art projects and love disappearing into them.  When I did that 3D work, I would spend 80 hours creating enormous set-piece images that pushed far beyond anything the designers of the program had in mind.  In '04 and '05 I spent countless hours in my home studio, making music.  I wrote, performed and recorded hundreds of songs. I'd sit there all night long, adjusting the snare drum sound to get it just right.  Looking back at it, the amount of time I put into it was staggering.  If I had been born 100 years earlier, I would have been that nut-job who made a ten-foot-tall Eiffel Tower model out of toothpicks.  I just love getting so lost in the creative process that you lose all sense of time.  You sit down to get to work at 8PM and what seems like a few minutes pass, only to look at the clock and see that it's 3AM already.  Night shooting is another of those ways for me to get lost in the process.

A lot of people said you were their inspiration for getting interested in night photography. 
Well, that's deeply flattering and frankly, a little scary.  Sometimes it feels like I accidentally started a sort of peaceful and artistic form of "Project Mayhem" in Fight Club.  I started doing this because I didn't want to sit there night after night, watching TV, I wanted to do something that would make me feel alive and viscerally human.  I wanted to work outside the realm of commonality.  Now when I travel, there seems to be a cult of people doing this in every city I go to.  It's spread like wildfire and now there are people doing it once or twice removed.  They're doing it because they saw someone else doing it and have no idea that even exists.  Similar to the Ed Norton character at the end of the film, it's all out of my control now and it makes me feel a little squirrelly.

So what do you think the attraction to night photography is for all these people?
In this rigidly controlled society, where most people willingly march in lock-step with everyone else, from cradle to grave, they are constantly being told what to think and how to think it.  There are millions that long for something else.  Something that they can do that rebels against this corporate-controlled hive mentality, something outside the norm that makes them feel empowered.  Trespassing in the middle of the night to take pictures and make art depicting the fragility and failure of that corporate world, scratches that itch for them.

How important is the act of trespassing to you and your work?
For a lot of people, the thrill of trespassing is part of the pleasure of doing this kind of work.  Many of the locations where I work can only be accessed by trespassing, so it will always be a part of the process, but the older I get the less exciting trespassing becomes.  

Upstairs by Troy Paiva

Why’s that?
I would much rather have permission to shoot a site than not.  It's just easier to work if you don't have to always be hiding or worrying if someone is seeing your lighting.  Plus I want to publish the images and not worry about property owners coming after me, legally.  I have seen other photographers get in hot water by showing work from places they've snuck into.  I'm not interested in those kinds of "hire a lawyer" hassles.

When I first saw your website back in 1999, you said that almost everything was shot on the same type of film, usually at the same aperture and same exposure. Didn’t you find that process too limiting? 
No.  Steve Harper provided his students with detailed exposure and film syllabus for night shooting.  He did all the hard work for us already, figuring out the reciprocity failure formulas and exposure data.  I experimented with a lot of different films and exposures early on, but long before 1999, I’d figured out that Steve's "Moony 8" rule on tungsten film gave me the look and tone that I wanted. By working inside that simplified film/exposure framework I was able to expand its limitations in other ways: by lighting and subject.  

What’s the “Moony 8” rule?
Kinda like the “Sunny 16” rule, only for night.  For digital: Full moon, F/8, ISO 100, 4 minute exposure.  You may need to adjust for conditions, but if you start with that, you’ll get a workable exposure.

Wouldn’t black-and-white film give you more of a mysterious look?
I've always been a colorist–most of my other artwork is very colorful, too.  I knew early on that I wanted to work intensely with color, so I never went the B&W route.  Besides, most of the historic fine-art night shooters were B&W shooters and I wanted to be different from them.

I’ve seen some of the cameras you used before you switched to digital. Some of them were one step away from ending up in the junkyard themselves. 
I originally approached photography as a drawer and painter first.  As such, it's always been about creating mood and atmosphere, an emotional response, rather than taking technically perfect pictures.  That skronky, grainy, color shifted early work was all shot with junky old cameras, usually on out-dated film.  Yeah, it was appallingly crude by today's standards, but the methodology of shooting with broken down equipment suited the broken down subjects.  

The fact that all my early work looks so grainy, vignetted and color shifted, presaged today's iPhone "Hipstamatic" and toy camera craze, has amused me to no end.  Nowadays I see people putting Holga lenses on $2000 digital bodies, so it's come full circle and people have embraced and understood the aesthetic.  But yeah, back in the '90s and early '00s, I took a lot of flack from the rest of the night shooting community about my crappy gear.

Las Vegas Club by Troy Paiva

You never stuck me as someone who cared too much about taking flak from anyone.
Fair enough, but truthfully, by 2004 I was pretty frustrated by it myself.  I had gone as far as I was going to go within the limitations of that gear, so I was more than ready to make the switch to a fancy new DSLR and concentrate more on the technical aspects of night shooting.

Is there enough urban exploration material in the Southwest to keep you busy?
Absolutely. More than I can cover in a lifetime of full moons.

Ever think of exploring more beyond the Southwest?
Sure, I'd like to shoot some of the rustbelt locations and Kirkbrides on the east coast.  I'd love to shoot outside the US, in places like Buzludzha, Chernobyl or Gunkanjima.  The list is endless, really. Ultimately though, I love the desert.  The quality of light, the huge skies, the desolation.  I will happily shoot other locations as they present themselves to me, but I will always come back to the desert.

Are we ever going to run out abandoned locations to shoot?
I get this question a lot.  Locations inevitably come and go, but there will ALWAYS be other locations to shoot.  I remember when the Rock-A-Hoola water park was renovated in the early '00s.  I drove by it that first time thinking "Someday that place is gonna be abandoned and I'm gonna get to shoot it" and 8 years later, it came true.  Mankind has built and abandoned more in the last 100 years than in all the rest of history, combined.  We live in a golden age of ruins.  As long as the human race continues this insane quest to reinvent and replace everything it makes, as quickly and as often as possible, there will always be places and things for me to shoot. 

I know you’ve also worked at night in England and Singapore. How did you pull that off? 
Yeah, I just went back to Singapore again, in early August, to be a judge on season 2 of "The Big Shot" reality show.  In 2009 I was flown to London to give a lecture on my work for VIA-Verlag, a lighting design organization.  I’ll go anywhere and lecture or take pictures if someone pays me to.  In both cases I contacted local night photographers who took me shooting around their home turf on the one or two free nights I had there.

MS by Troy Paiva

Is shooting in the UK and Singapore anything like the U.S.?
My time in both places was very limited, so my comments are only generalizations, but both countries required a totally different style of shooting. It was summer in the UK, so there was only about five hours of darkness and it was always overcast and rainy.  It was virtually impossible to escape the glow of sodium vapor and other man made light.  Singapore too.  Everything in that tiny, densely packed country seems to have four spotlights on it.  In both countries I had a great time being treated to excellent hospitality by my guides, but the atmospheric conditions just didn’t lend themselves to moon-lit time exposure night shooting.  I think this kinda relates to why I love, and will always come back to, the moonlit emptiness of the southwest.

What’s your typical night shooting trip like?
Ideally, I like to head out by myself with 3 or 4 days blocked out, with a general area to shoot in mind.  I might do some research with Google Earth, or look up locations recommended to me, but I really like the freedom of going without any set plans or schedule.  

I will establish a base camp in a cheap motel, usually in a small town, out in the middle of nowhere.  I used to work out of a pick up with a camper shell.  I'd sleep for a few hours in it, a few miles down a dirt road, or behind an abandoned mine–someplace far from paved roads.  Over the years, I've found I do better work, and more of it, when I can get some sleep and a shower in an air-conditioned room.  Yeah, I've stayed in some terrible dives, but it beats sleeping in an oven with no running water.  

During the afternoon I'll drive out and start scouting locations.  I'll stop when I find something interesting, walk around, take a few pictures, see if anyone notices me.  I'll think about it in the context of night.  Will the location be bathed in ugly sodium vapor streetlight?  Will car headlights be a problem?  Neighbors?  If it's a business like a junkyard, I'll try to talk to the owner, show him some work and see if I can get in later that night.  I'll continue on, compiling a list of possible locations, in a 50 or 100 mile stretch, until dark.  Then I'll turn around and shoot my way back to the motel by 3 or 4 AM. Sleep 'til noon, grab a diner breakfast and repeat!

What’s the story behind Traveler’s Motel: 1957 Mercury
Travelers was shot about 1AM, the last shot on a cold winter night at the Big M Auto dismantlers in Williams California.  I was covered with mud and chilled to the bone and had one of those tubercular coughs that lasts all winter long. The conditions were miserable.

I used LED flashlight down the passenger side from the back of the car, just out of the frame.  Getting some light on the ground was important there too, giving the left edge of the frame some context instead of the car just floating in black space.  Then I crouched behind the car and used the LED on the motel sign, making sure to hit the further away top section a little more than the closer lower section, so the whole sign would look evenly lit.  Coming round to the front, I popped a red-gelled strobe where the engine used to be, through the grille.  There is also a snooted LED on the “M” logo and headlight from camera right.  Note that I also just touched the broken headlight with light too, only enough to catch a glimpse of the dead wires in the socket, but not so much that it looked lit.

Traveler's Motel: 1957 Mercury by Troy Paiva

And one more. How did you set up Monte Carlo Moonrise
Capturing the rising moon requires working quickly–it moves its own diameter about every ten minutes.  This was set up just as the moon was cresting enough to compose with, then I opened the lens and the moon rose into the shot.  I had one chance to get it right.  

This Chevy Monte Carlo was lit with lime- and green-gelled Stinger.  The intensity of that light meant backing about 50 feet away from the car, softening and spreading its area of luminosity to cover the entire car without moving it. This gives a smooth, even look to the light it casts. Note that I lit from a low, shallow angle and included the foreground, again, to give the car a sense of place and weight  I also used a tumbleweed as a gobo to cast a shadow on the rear fender.  The red interior was done with an LED pointed at the camera from the far side of the car, blocked by the roof’s rear sail-panel.  I rotated it around inside the car so the dirty glass would diffuse the light.  In post, I used the clone tool to tidy up some slight lens flare and get rid of a distracting point of light on the horizon.  There was a little dodging, to pull some details out of the moonlit background areas, too.

Monte Carlo Moonrise by Troy Paiva

There’s already a ton of night photography workshops out there, what made you and Joe Reifer decide to offer another one?
Yeah, you can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting someone that teaches a night photography workshop.  Many of these workshops are taught by people that have been doing night photography for only a few years, since the switch to digital, when the technology opened up night photography to the masses.  

See, it's easy to teach a night photography workshop because there's actually something to teach; equipment that people aren't familiar with, unusual exposure formulas and other hard factual data.  

But it's difficult to find a night photography workshop that goes beyond the technical and dives into why you take photographs.  Most of these other workshops just teach you how to take night photographs.  Our workshop teaches you how to take good night photographs.

But what’s so unique about your workshop?
In a workshop scene filled with the same old city scenery and nature locations, the idea of doing a workshop in a functioning junkyard is totally unique.  Especially one filled with movie prop vehicles, heavy equipment, aircraft parts and freeway signs.  The owner even crushed a couple of cars for us as an afternoon matinee!  Day or night, there is no other workshop like this on the market.

Isn’t three nights in a single location a bit restricting for some people?
No, three nights in Paul's Junkyard is less restricting than other workshops.  The fact that 50% of our workshop attendees are repeat customers is a testament to that.  Most workshop locations give you a handful of set ups, but with a huge junkyard filled with 100s of vehicles, structures and wildly varied debris, the subject-driven possibilities are literally endless.  

At Paul's there's no down time driving from location to location. You can become immersed deep in the work and can be highly productive in a place that's totally off the map where only a handful of people have ever taken pictures. We had one student come home from one of our three-nighters with 47 amazing time exposures (David Evan's photos from the Paul's Junkyard workshops). Granted, he's an experienced night shooter working with multiple cameras, but try making a body of work that big and cool at any other night photography workshop! 

Many workshop instructors are struggling to fill their workshops. Getting repeat customers is impressive.
Exactly.  While September still has spots open, I was able to fill a private, alumni only workshop at Paul's for October in a couple of days.  See, the alums already know.  When you come to one of our workshops, it's just such a surreal and weirdly inspiring great time, you just gotta come do it again.

To get more information about the workshop at Paul's Scrapyard, check out their website.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mare Island Night Photography Show

Four of my night photographs will be included in the Mare Island Night Photography show which opens on August 3rd. The reception will be in two weeks, on Sunday, August 14th. Mare Island was the oldest Naval base on the West Coast. All of the photographs will feature the buildings, homes, cranes and dry docks of the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard. The show will be held in the museum, which is located in an amazing former ship building factory.

(B1-5, B1-6 by Andy Frazer)

Mare Island is now part of the city of Vallejo, California, just half an hour north of San Francisco and Oakland.

August 3 through September 15, 2011
Mare Island Historic Park Foundation Museum
1100 Railroad Avenue, Mare Island, Vallejo [map]
Sunday, August 14 from 2 to 4 pm

The show will feature work from the following night photographers:

Harvey Abernathey
Tim Baskerville
Mike Browne
Tamara Danoyan
David Dasinger
Andy Frazer
Lenny Greenwald
Alan Grinberg
Ed Hamilton
Amy Heiden
Steve Jackson
Kim Kulish
G Dan Mitchell
Shawn Peterson
Joe Reifer
Deb Rourke
Greta & Manu Schnetzler
Marla Showfer
Richard Stough
Cassandra Wright

Saturday, June 04, 2011

L.A. Night Photography Workshop - August 26-28, 2011

Tom Paiva and I are excited to announce our second L.A. Night Photography Workshop will be held August 26-28, 2011. If you missed our workshop last October, this is your chance to work on your urban night photography at various locations throughout Los Angeles, California, including a trip to a special industrial site that is off-limits to the general public.

(Photo by Tom Paiva)

For more information, including times, dates, requirements, enrollment and photos from last year's workshop, please visit the LA Night Photography Workshop web site. You may notice that one change to this year's workshop features a snazzier web site designed by the very talented Susanne Friedrich at Red Princess Productions.

(Photo by Andy Frazer)
You can also email me (andyfrazer [at] gorillasites [dot] com) with any questions about this workshop

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Interview with Steve Harper: Part Two

This is part two of my interview with legendary Bay Area night photography pioneer, Steve Harper. You want to read part one of our interview before reading part two.

Did you get any of the technical issues, such as film and developers, worked out before the class began?
By the time my first class began, there was sufficient time for me to experiment with both black and white and color films in a number of locations with varied ambient lighting to be able to give starting guidelines . During that period I photographed every night, if possible. I was also refining my film development and printing choices. By the time the semester started, I had done an in-house gallery showing of night photography prints which caused quite stir, not only in the photographic department, but throughout all departments at the Academy of Art.

Head,Valley of Fire, NV. Photo by Steve Harper

Back then it must have been very interesting for everyone to see night photographs for the first time.
The first class was quickly over-subscribed as were subsequent classes, which at times, led to teaching two classes each semester.

I'm surprised the class was so popular back during a time when there wasn’t a popular night photography canon of work to get people hooked.
I think what excited students initially was that they were seeing reality transformed as they had never seen it before - images that compressed the passage of time, the very alive atmosphere and motion into a single image. I believe that anyone who has photographed at night will tell you that excitement somehow continues, beginning with your initial attempt through to the final print of each image. Even with long experience,each final result contains a revelation.
As with any art, practice and study and intuition tend to focus and solidify one's personal expression. In my classes, students were taught to photograph in every stage of darkness - from city lights to total darkness - desert skies, lit only by the stars. From the beginning, I had considered performance in front of the camera and the adding of light as essential facets of the teaching of night photography. Students were encouraged to go out together and photograph every time they had the urge. Some locations were close by and were varied enough to reward frequent innovation.  The Sutro Bath ruins and the China Basin Industrial Area, both at San Francisco's watery edges, were highly productive locations for photographing at night.

Every other week we met in class and critiqued all newly submitted work in depth, from the technical acumen to the varied ascetic viewpoints.

Speaking of "varied ascetic viewpoints", how did you come up with the idea of photographing yourself while you were asleep?
I had thought of photographing myself asleep in bed for a long time before I actually tried. It turned out to be a very technical experiment.

Photo by Steve Harper

I estimated/guessed using aperture f/22 for a four and one-half hour exposure. In addition, I attempted to match the inside light to the ambient light outside the windows by replacing the overhead light bulb with a five watt bulb, placing a 3" collar around the fixture plate, and capping the collar with five layers of tissue paper to further diffuse the light. I chose that bright pink bed cover precisely because of the color. In the initial thinking, I knew I should make this photograph on a night when I was very tired. As you can see by the poinsettia plant, it was winter, near Christmas, so it got dark early. I set the alarm to waken me after four and a half hours, and as I had hoped, slept through the whole exposure. Then I reset the alarm for three and a half hours and did it again. The four and a half hour exposure was the more successful of the two attempts.

The resulting image was from my first attempt. I did take the image again, replacing the five watt bulb with a blue one and using f/16 for three and one-half hours which caused a completely different sleep atmosphere.

Did the students have to present a portfolio or a show?
At the end of each semester, students were required to present a portfolio of their work. The portfolio could be of images outsiders might consider eclectic, i.e., a finished, matted print from each of the very varied assignments - or students could present a portfolio of prints made from images taken in a particular location or choice of lighting the student had concentrated upon intently.

In any event, by the time a student had gone through a full semester, having been exposed to nearly every degree of ambient lighting at night and seeing the experimentation of their fellow students, he/she could continue photographing and refining their vision in the lighting situation and location that was their personal choice.

Dome, Water Storage System, Death Valley. Photo by Steve Harper
Everybody seems to agree that your night photography courses laid the groundwork for the strong night photography community that still exists in the Bay Area.
I taught full semester night photography classes at the Academy of Art College for eleven years and did workshops for a number of years after that. All were fully subscribed so I introduced night photography to hundreds of students from all over the world. If you check Google "night photography classes and workshops" you can see how interest in night photography has spread and learning it is readily available internationally.  Many of these classes and workshops are taught by my students - and now, by their students and their student's students. California remains a west coast center of dynamic study of night photography taught by such notables as Tim Baskerville, Tom Paiva, Troy Paiva, Joe Reifer and yourself. And Lance Keimig teaches in Boston, and does workshops internationally. He has written a definitive and comprehensive text book entitled "Night Photography - Finding Your Way In The Dark" which should be read by all night photographers, regardless of their experience. I have learned something new each time I have opened the book. I highly recommend it.

It’s amazing to see the rise in popularity of night photography over the past few years.
A lot of this impetus in night photography is due to the advent of the digital camera and the Flickr website. The digital camera has facilitated taking images at night. Research is not as necessary to begin photographing at night and  progress and the creative processes are dependent primarily upon one's stamina and his/her innate talent - and the weather! 

What do you think is the special appeal of the night to so many photographers?
As I wrote in the Forward to Lance Keimig's "Night Photography" book:

“What impels many of us to photograph at night is our fascination with the transformation of reality by the passage of time; the compression of time into a single image. Motion, atmospheric changes, the unexpected and the unexplained all etch themselves upon the image during the long exposure. The resulting image, at times touched with poetry, suggests another dimension or an altered reality - usually one that is more beautiful and more peaceful.

Lightning Storm, Mono Lake. Photo by Steve Harper

“At night, in remote areas, while standing alone and focusing upon nature during a long exposure, you become aware of the universality of all things. The Earth is constantly turning in relation to the stars and the planets. The atmosphere around you becomes palpable whether it is totally still or on the verge of a storm. These elements, beyond your control, will alter not only the mood of the image you are exposing but its design and, at times, its ultimate meaning. Depending upon the direction you are photographing, the stars and planets will etch themselves upon the image as spirals around the North Star inferring motion and infinity, or they will make diagonal lines that at times, point directly at what your camera is focusing upon. The atmosphere, either still or moving, will mysteriously amplify the mood.”

“With so many imponderables as a constant, night photography will perhaps always remain a subjective art allowing wide-ranging latitude for creative expression.”

Night photography is also a capricious, playful, off-the-wall playground for the mind. The creative imagination is less jaded, more experimental and many times, playful.”

How do you think the creative process has advanced along with the tremendous increase in the number of people taking on night photography? Or do you think that many people are just enamored with the ability to record a well-exposed shot at night?
I see a lot of images that I wish I had taken myself. And I see some that I do not think advance the creative and technical processes.

Altamont Pass, by Steve Harper

One of the things I’ve always liked about night photography is how it can transform some that looks ordinary during the day time, into something so surreal at night. Shooting abandoned buildings at night has always felt like combining an excellent subject and excellent process.
During the day we tend to drive past them with little more than a glance whether they be homes or buildings that produced something essential to society, or at least, something essential to the well-being of their neighbors. At night, they take on the spirit of what has been and is no longer. In the quietude, the fact that someone has spent their whole life there becomes more tangible. Consequently, such buildings in various states of abandonment and decay represent either sadness or progress, depending upon how it effects you.

When I look at photographs of abandoned homesteads in the desert, I always wonder about who lived there, and why they left.
A former student of mine, Kim Stringfellow, who now teaches at the University of California, San Diego, has done an intense study of areas where people have moved on and left their homes to chance and the environment. She has turned it into a recently published book, “Jackrabbit Homestead”.

Night People Looking Out Over the Pacific. Photo by Steve Harper

Are there any current photographers who impress you or are doing interesting work?
I think all of you who teach have reached a technical level so that the images must be respected and admired for that alone - but you do not reach the level of being a teacher of night photography without your own personal experiments and creative sense.  I have come to admire your excellent sense of design and mastery of color.

Thanks, Steve. Are you just saying that because it’s my blog?
No. I also always watch Susanne Friedrich, Joe Reifer and Toby Keller because they experiment wildly as I tend to do and with a sense of humor, but the images are always iconic and technically acute. I admire Tom Paiva's research and mastery of the technical areas of night photography from the use of 8x10 film to his new, prized Sony digital camera [the Sony NEX-5, and consequently, his drawing the attention of commercial interest.

Lance Keimig has done very well introducing night photography to the community around Boston.
I greatly admire Lance Keimig. He is not only one of the very best teachers of night photography, he is the curator of Darkness, Darkness, a meaningful, traveling show featuring notable current night photographers. He also did a great job writing his book: "Night Photography - Finding Your Way In The Dark", which I highly recommend to night photographers, regardless of their experience.  And close by, on Mare Island, we have Tim Baskerville's The Nocturnes . He has mastered the art of teaching, be it his legendary workshops in choice locations or at Bay Area colleges. Such organizational excellence has brought The Nocturnes to their upcoming 20th Anniversary and my congratulations!

Have you ever had any unusual adventures while shooting at night?
Usually I find the experience of photographing at night, the most profoundly peaceful part of my twenty-four hours, but there have been adventures that were somewhat unsettling.

Two rather dramatic incidents were both at Olmstead Point on Tioga Pass in the Yosemite National Park. Both incidents happened late at night as I wanted to get star trails in the perceived images. One incident happened around 11:00 at night. I brought a friend with me this time!  We parked in the Olmstead Point parking area and were in the process of taking the equipment out of the trunk and suddenly a rather piercing light appeared coming up Tioga Pass on our left.  It was strange in that it bounced up and down as if a person in a hurry were carrying it. Then, just as it fully rounded the curve so that we were totally in it's sight, the light went out and we heard the sound of a cascade of falling rocks, as if the person had suddenly turned sideways up the cliff. We kept looking for a few nervous minutes - all around us - and never did see the light or the "person" again. Definitely no longer in a creative mood, we repacked the equipment and headed back down the mountain to the Aspen campground near Lee Vining and Mono Lake.

This rock at Olmstead Point in Yosemite National Park has come to be known in the night photography community as "Steve's Rock". Photo by Steve Harper.

Didn’t you get chased out by coyotes one time?
One time I was alone and intended to rephotograph what has become known as "Steve's Rock". While I was well into the taking the image, I heard the yelp of a coyote to my right and behind me. Shortly it was answered by another coyote to my left and behind me. Then they began creeping closer on each side, one yelling and the other answering, until it finally unnerved me so that I just picked up my camera while it was still on the tripod and hurried back down the glacial moraine to the car, resulting in some bizarre star and planet trails as the shutter remained open.

Is there anyone out there on the Internet you’d like to mention?
A lot of excellent photographers who are on Flickr have grabbed the generous hints and bits of information accompanying images posted by night photographers and are having a go at it.  They readily produce images equal in quality to their excellent day time images. I highly recommend checking out Bob West, Lee McCain and Fort Photo.

Bob Fagella, by Steve Harper

Last question. You recently self-published a retrospective book of your night photography. At some point most photographers think of publishing a book. What made you decide to finally jump in and do it?
When you get on in age, you become concerned about what you are leaving of yourself. That concern is, of course, a primal urge that is very personal to one's self. Since Night Photography has been my primary expression for almost forty years and counting, I believe it most reflects who I am, how I think and how I see the world around me. Perhaps it reflects a fantasy world to most people because it comes from one who has gone through life, having always felt he is on the outside - looking in. But I believe the vision is more beautiful and more peaceful and that it considers the universality of all things.

You can order Steve's book here. You can see more of Steve Harper’s work on his website. You can also see an interview that I did with Steve on my short night photography documentary film which is available on YouTube (part1, part2, part3).


Friday, April 08, 2011

Photography Show in Memory of Warren Bates

The Las Vegas Review Journal and the Left of Center Gallery are sponsoring a photography show in memory of night photographer Warren Bates who passed away in April, 2010. All proceeds of sales from the show will benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The show runs from April 9th through June 4th, 2011 at the Left of Center Gallery (2207 W Gowan Rd, N Las Vegas, NV).

Needles 66 by Warren Bates
Warren's sister, Susana, has created a wonderful website which includes details of the show. There is also an on-line auction for an original, signed, matted version of Warren's popular photograph "Baghdad". Sales of prints from the show are all tax-deductible.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interview with Steve Harper: Part One

Steve Harper has been a well-known figure in the Northern California night photography scene ever since he taught the first college-level course in night photography at the Academy of Art College in the 1970’s.Steve is one of the few people who have had the opportunity to have witnessed the progression of night photography from the early days of personal experimentation, through the rising popularity in the “film era”, up to the recent popularity of digital night photography.

Steve and I recently talked at length about the early days of modern night photography, and his thoughts about how night photography have changed over the past thirty years.

Steve,you started out on the “other side” of the camera, and somehow ended up as a night photographer.
I began my experimentations in photography based upon perceptions gained while standing in front of the cameras of Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, Howell Conant, Horst P Horst, Richard Avedon, et al, during the ten years I was a model and television actor with the Ford Men's Agency in New York City from 1959 to 1969.

That sounds like a great way to get started in photography.
Not all of my perceptions were of a technical nature, : )! - even so, with the patient teaching by some of the darkroom assistants to those photographers above and other kindly New York photographers, I began to learn and to build an editorial fashion portfolio, photographing my fellow Ford models before leaving for California in December, 1969.

Photo by Clifford Coffin

Was that a good move?
Having moved from the middle of Manhattan to the small, isolated northern California coastal village of Mendocino was a profound artistic experience also. The purity of nature and the atmospheres created by the magical coastal light literally changed my conceptions and the direction of my interest in photography.

„The purity of nature and the atmospheres created by the coastal light“??? What does that mean?
I had just arrived in Mendocino from the middle of Manhattan where I always felt that I was just an image - always on the outside looking in. Until I left New York, I remained overwhelmed and overpowered by its multifaceted immensity. The buildings blocked out the sky and the hordes of people rushing past were alien to me and the whole was so alien to my own concept of living that in 1963 I bought a farm in Northfield, Connecticut, a four hour drive away unless I violated the speed limits, yet, until December, 1969 I was still with the Ford Modeling Agency - a long, dispiriting commute.

Mendocino must have been quite a place back then.
In 1970, Mendocino was a run-down community of locals and artists. At that time, there were few if any tourists. I could walk out of the back of my house, cross the open lands, and sit on the coastline watching the weather patterns form and sweep across me. Some formations were poetic in their fragility and the way they were touched with light. Some were powerful, dark and threatening. All complimented and dramatized the magnificent beauty of the untouched coastline. And it felt natural and pure to me. It was there where it occurred to me that I was a minuscule, yet very meaningful part of the universality of all things - no longer just an image.
Shortly thereafter, I experienced my first realization of the myriad elements involved in taking an image in light so low, that it involved an extended exposure, resulting in the compression of time onto a single piece of film.

Helicopter Rising from Behind Greenbrae, by Steve Harper

So, you had this moment of clarity somewhere on the Mendocino coast?
No, I was in San Francisco to connect with a friend I had known in New York. I was watching the changing of the street windows at the I. Magnin department store across from Union Square. No spotlights were on - only small incandescent bulbs provided the subdued light. The mannequins stood there bald and totally nude. Then a couple of men began rushing in and out carrying articles of clothing for the mannequins. They just hung each article of clothing on the mannequins shoulders in readiness to dress them. What I realized was that the men hurrying in and out of the scene - and each of their furtive seeming movements - would register as a ghosts on film, creating scenes at different stages of dress and undress with multiple interpretations.

You never showed us that photograph.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me. But that scenario has stayed in my mind seemingly as clear as it was that very night.

How did all this lead to your involvement with the Academy of Art College?
Gene Dennis, who headed the photographic department at Macy's in New York hired me as a model for Macy's from one hour to full day bookings almost every week. He moved from New York to San Francisco and soon began teaching Fashion at the Academy of Art College. He knew of my interest in photography and mentioned me to Paul Raedeke, Dean of the College, who checked out my portfolios, which by then included images from Mendocino. He was particularly interested that I had stood on both sides of the camera, so he hired me to begin teaching a number of classes beginning in 1979: Natural Light, Art Appreciation, Environmental Portraiture, and Figure.

Walking Figure, Valley of the Fire, NV. Photo by Steve Harper

How did the Figure Photography course work out?
The difficulty of teaching figure Photography at a school in downtown San Francisco is that you are almost automatically confined to studio work only; however, I combined the Figure classes with my Night Photography Classes when we went on camping locations, such as the one to Mono Lake and Death Valley, or up the coast, north of Bodega Bay.  Being out in the myriad choices of backgrounds offered by nature freed things up a bit insofar as student creativity. At the end of the Figure class nearly every student presented a Final Portfolio of images they had shot during those outside locations.

I had expected to have difficulty finding models for the class, but lucked out with both an outstanding male and female model who were free enough to go on those camping trips also.

Once you were at the Academy of Art College, why did you start a course in night photography?
Because of my interest and somewhat limited portfolio in night photography, Dean Raedeke also asked me to research and develop a structure for teaching night photography. My research evolved into the first college level semester offering of the subject of night photography. It was instantly popular with students and I taught night photography for two classes each semester, including the summer semester through 1990.
Persimmon Tree, by Steve Harper

How did you come up with the curriculum for that first night photography class?
When I was asked to teach night photography, it was near the starting date of the semester I was to begin teaching it. There was very little time to make an in depth search for guidelines as to how to begin. I did find Brassai's memorable atmospheric images of Paris, noting in particular how the misty air caught and augmented the ambient light. I also admired Jessie "Tarbox" Beal's New York street photographs for her similar approach. But I couldn’t find any images that were annotated with the times of the exposures, the apertures used, the type of film used, nor the film processing used, so I started from scratch.

Did you let the students shoot whatever they wanted? Or did you give them any structure?
Since night photography of its very nature is ultimately conceptual and conjectural, I felt that in order to teach it, there had to be some common denominators in order to "ground" it. To me, that meant, when photographing in color, the sky must be blue and the grass, green. Like most photographers who have a go at night photography, I started with daylight films, and even though some of the color shifts were interesting, the sky was an unrealistic green color. Then I tried Kodak's Ektacolor 160 Tungsten film which rendered everything at night a more natural color. And the sky was definitely blue. I had the film professionally developed successfully and it became the assigned color film.

Cloud Formation, Mono Lake. Photo by Steve Harper

Was it all about color film? Wasn’t black-and-white more popular in the 1970’s?
Yes. I had already used Kodak's Tri-X 400 black and white film at night with some success, I just needed to find a developer that reduced the contrast. I settled on Rodinal, using a strict regimen to further reduce grain and contrast.

Did you do all your shooting in downtown San Francisco?
Even though I could not find annotated images, there were further questions that needed to be settled before I wrote a syllabus and handed out exposure guidelines to my students. I decided rather quickly to teach night photography in all degrees and circumstances of the night. We would move progressively from photographing in the ambient light of urban situations - continually moving into locations with less and less ambient light.

Now you’re getting out into the boondocks.
That brought up the choice of locations to achieve such variance in exposures and that were sufficiently extensive so that fifteen students, or more, at times, did not get in each other's way and that each of them had a panoply of scenes to consider. I gave students guidelines for "city" images, fireworks, neon lights, etc. to experiment with on their on because if they made a mistake,they could readily correct it themselves without class involvement - except for critiques. As a class, we started in the China Basin Industrial area of San Francisco where the ambient lighting was considerably less and there were dramatic buildings, ships and the waterfront and plenty of room to move about.

"Self Portrait - Kief's Blanket - Sutro Baths", by Steve Harper

Did you take the students anywhere away from the downtown lights?
We went to the Sutro Baths ruins below the Cliff House on the Pacific coast. Sutro Baths ruins was a magical location because it was on multi-levels and there was a mixture of light predominated by the spot lights lights in the cliffs below the Cliff House which were mercury vapor. They lit the small islands close by. The street lights above were sodium vapor. But the main reason it was "magical" was that the exposures were truly time exposures - up to fifteen minutes, depending upon the aperture, the position of the moon and the ever-changing atmospheric conditions.

Other than the lights from the Cliff House restaurant, it can get very dark at Sutro.
We also went up the coast past Bodega Bay to a deserted beach. There was no lighting except for the moon and the stars. Students could do 45 minute exposures and begin to use star and planet trails as design elements.

Bodega Bay? That’s really getting away from San Francisco.
From there, we did annual week-long camping trips to the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Mono Lake and Death Valley National Monument. These camping trips were scheduled so students could begin working three nights before the full moon, and the night of the full moon.

Pyramid Lake, by Steve Harper

Did you do the research yourself, or did you involve the class?
Naturally, at first, I had to photograph these locations myself so I could give students guidelines for shooting, but also to show them how each location was usually very different insofar as the variances in lighting, exposure times and atmospheric conditions.

You mentioned leading your students through China Basin, which used to be part of the harbor for San Francisco. Now it's best known as the location of the AT&T Park and it's  quickly becoming yuppie-fied. What did China Basin look like back then?
China Basin Industrial Area began at the China Basin Building on Mission Creek and extended southward to he beginning of Potrero Hill. All buildings were unique and built for the purpose they served in supporting the San Francisco waterfront and the various shipping industries. To me, the most iconic of all the buildings was the Southern Pacific Train Garage.

Nearly all buildings were shuttered at night and many were empty in anticipation of the redevelopment plans underway for the whole of China Basin. The only lighting was from the glow of downtown San Francisco caught in the ever-changing atmosphere and from the street lights that were few and far between. There were many mysterious alleyways so one's creative imagination could run rampant. But the unique buildings and storage facilities were the main focus.

China Basin Building. Photo by Steve Harper

Was it safe to shoot down there?
It was very rare when I photographed in China Basin that I saw one other person, which increased the feeling of mystery.

Sounds like the perfect night photography location.
The first time I photographed the China Basin Building, 1979, I was suddenly surrounded by three police cars, lights flashing. As soon as I explained to them what I was doing and let them look through the view finder, we ended up as friends and any time I saw them from then on if I was with or without students, they waved and continued their routes. One policeman even posed for me, holding still for two minutes! as he guarded the piers that were awaiting the arrival of Queen Elizabeth's ship on a visit to San Francisco in 1984.

That area is completely different today.
I left the Academy of Art College in 1990 and I left San Francisco in 1994. I did not see the beginning of the tear down of those historic structures. When I came back to the Bay Area, I wanted to see the Giant's new ball park and, of course, drive through China Basin. I had not experienced the feeling before that the spirit of a a place could be made void by being usurped by a few bland, featureless buildings. Someone referred to them as  "yuppie kennels"

Southern Pacific Rail Station, by Steve Harper

There was still a lot of open space when I last drove through. The land where the magnificent Southern Pacific Railroad Garage was empty at that time.

There’s no open space there, now.
It was a very sad passage.

Steve Harper at Mono Lake. Photo by Joe Reifer

I'll post Part Two of our interview next week.

In the meantime, you can see more of Steve Harper’s work on his website. You can also see an interview that I did with Steve on my short night photography documentary film which is available on YouTube (part1, part2, part3).