Only by the Night by Darren Kelland
“There are truths which one can only see in the dark” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
Night photography is an interesting niche in the genre of landscape photography. There are many reasons why the vast majority of photographers steer clear of it – and this is one of the reasons why it so appeals to me.
Photography can very much be a solitary pursuit. Of course, you can join clubs and go on photography walks or book yourself on a workshop to join others. This has limited appeal to me. I enjoy the freedom of my own company and the meditative qualities of silently creating. I love film photography and, when life afforded me more time, spent hours in the darkroom hand printing from negatives. Those hours I find difficult to squeeze into an ever-busier life, but I still need some time alone.
Landscape photographers favour the times around sunrise and sunset for the beauty of the light available at those times. I always favoured sunrise, being more of a morning person, but also because there were fewer people around. I particularly enjoy the summer months when sunrise is very early. Standing by the sea watching the sunrise out of the water is a wonderful experience. Although I much prefer to photograph in black and white, I still love to witness the majesty of colours that accompany a good sunrise. Quite often, as the sun has finally broken free of the horizon, I am packed up and ready for home while the rest of the world slowly stirs from sleep.
So, why night photography?
The inspiration came from two photographers. Firstly, Michael Kenna, who has often spoken of his love for photographing at night. I was particularly struck by his ‘Full Moonrise, Chausey Islands’ photograph that I saw first-hand at a gallery in London. Mr Kenna spoke about this photograph in an interview with the gallery and explained that the exposure time was 6 hours long. That sparked my imagination. Long exposure photography had always delighted me, but back then I thought 8-10 minutes was pushing the boundaries.
The second photographer whose work I find inspirational is Todd Hido. His ‘House Hunting’ monograph has several photographs of American houses taken at night from outside. The beautifully composed images showing lights emanating from those houses brought back childhood memories of coming home on a cold winter’s night, knowing that warmth and safety lay in the folds of that glow. Of course, Todd Hido’s work often points to other sentiments and he has spoken openly about the types of houses that he sought out. In any event, the work struck a chord with me.
Like many of the photographers I find inspirational, both of those mentioned work with film photography but across different formats. Michael Kenna is typically medium format, black and white whereas Todd Hido is typically large format, colour. However, in both cases, their photographs elicited a feeling of something mystical, something unseen and of a portion of a story the rest of which was untold.
Night photography breaks quite a number of the rules of photography. Contrasts will be extreme, and it can be difficult to avoid loss of shadow detail and blown highlights. Most of the light is artificial and comes from strange angles. Exposure times can be extreme, as previously mentioned, and this means you lose control of several factors. Rather than seeing any of those factors as a problem, I see them as opportunities.
Photographing at night can itself be an interesting experience. Things look different at night. A simple granite wall takes on a strange beauty; the sea becomes inky and dense, and shadows and light are not in their usual (daytime) places. Like a child, my imagination runs riot and I have sometimes felt fearful while photographing at night. This is not because I was worried for my safety or anxious about what lurked in the shadows, more it was because I felt the presence of the dark universe surrounding me.
Being under a vast starlit sky for a few hours can be quite humbling. As a child, I marvelled at the realisation that by looking at the stars I was actually looking back in time because of the astronomical distances between us and them. I still feel this way as an adult and it is a reason why I venture out into the darkness. I often think the night has secrets and is not willing to give them all up.
Until recently, almost all my night photographs were taken on medium format film cameras, specifically a Mamiya 7 and a Hasselblad 501c/m. I had experimented with 35mm film cameras as I wanted something a bit more portable to heft around in the dark, but I found the results quite disappointing – no doubt because I was doing something wrong. As a mainly black and white photographer, I had often considered a Leica Monochrom but could never quite justify the cost of a camera that had no colour capabilities. Following the release of the M10 Monochrom (and having made a few personal sacrifices), I decided earlier this year that life was too short and ordered one. Luckily, I already had an M mount Voigtländer 50mm Nokton and the combination of camera and lens is perfect for me. One of the attractions of this camera was its much-lauded low light capabilities. Some photographs taken in full twilight could pass for those taken on an overcast day. As well as being much more portable than my medium format film cameras, the Leica handles the extreme contrast of night photography incredibly well. I have found that pushing the ISO to 12,000 or more is not a problem and I quite like the grainy nature of these photographs.
I fully understand that long exposure, black and white, night photographs (whether film or digital) will appeal to a very narrow audience. However, that is not the reason why I photograph. I care about how my photographs make me feel. I often think about photographing mood and atmosphere rather than objects. Night photography allows me an opportunity to express my need for creativity in a format that I find beautiful and therapeutic. So, I do it for myself, but if others can find a fragment of something pleasing in my night photography, then I will have exceeded my own expectations.