|Describing Darkness: Scott B. Davis Night Photography|
(First Published The Summerset Review Winter 2012)
About eight p.m. under a fading turquoise sky and clouds with watercolor-grey outlines, the night photographer Scott B. Davis angles his black Toyota truck with camper hull into a strangely beautiful but noisy promontory in San Diego's Balboa Park. It's nothing more than an empty parking lot off Golf Course Drive—where I feel commanded by the wide-armed view of the city skyline and the red-lighted Naval Medical Center and where Davis, a nocturnalist, sees something else entirely. The something he sees is not there or barely there or quickly receding from whatever thereness it had.
At thirty-nine, Davis is by day the director of the Museum of Photographic Arts exhibitions and design. By night, he grows a new fur, becoming a visual poet of abandonment, of reluctance, of the murky edge. He likes a cloudy night since he's uninterested in rendering the stars. He works against the traditional night photo: stars and skylines, the iconography of known places, street lamps highlighting the recognizable: the San Diego Padres home, PETCO Park at two a.m. "What I'm after more than anything is a sense of absence." In his photos, "there are large voids of no information." It's a redundancy but I get his point. His minimal pieces filter the cerebral through the emotional and vice versa. This "confrontation with absence," he hopes, "in meditative silence . . . becomes a kind of self-reflective act."
It's very personal—his looking for an image "that lacks a subject but has some poignancy or interest that draws me to it." Davis also photographs the desert in light and darkness, "unspectacular places," or "what I like to say: places that were overlooked in the quest for national treasures." Davis—who has razor-cut hair, à la Criss Angel, moderately untidy with dagger points around his ears—is also an ironist. But he's artist-complicated. His personality, more meditatively grave than self-obsessed, is as keenly existential as his picture-taking style.
Davis says of himself that he has "carved a reputation as a night photographer. And I'm okay with that." In terms of his subjects, he steers clear of the icons, though he did photograph the Hollywood sign, which is unlit at night. He liked the paradox of those darkened nine letters in a studio-lot milieu with its glitzy, fake, backlit scenes. He likes to fight against this need in photographers (and galleries and museums and viewers) to have shown to them what they know, what's digestible, photography like pop music. "How do you tell a story of this place [So Cal] without describing the place as everybody knows it. I'm more interested in shedding new information than in telling the story that's already known."
In 2007, Davis's first solo show in Los Angeles caught the attention of the Los Angeles Times. A reviewer wrote that his platinum print pictures "are quiet [and] careful," conveying "a sense of the fundamental mechanics of light with unusual immediacy and clarity." In 2008, a solo exhibition in New York was also trumpeted. The New Yorker said Davis's "noir twist. . . renders the deadest of dead ends . . . weirdly seductive." The Village Voice wrote of his "sharp eye for inanimate drama . . . the shadowy flip side of sunny paradise," and The New York Times noted Davis's "eye for scenes of evocative and vaguely suspenseful emptiness. . . His images are so perfectly composed and technically fine-tuned that they turn out richly picturesque." A new show of his work opened November 2011 at the San Diego Museum of Art.
At our first stop, Davis shines his truck headlamps on a scene: a "field of poppies and wild mustard grass blowing in the darkness." A locked red gate is submerged in this growth. He likes to look at this scene "and think about and wonder," hoping to "convey that weird, eerie sense of not-knowing, of mystery. Does this describe San Diego to most people? No. Not at all. Is it an integral part of San Diego? In my opinion, yes." How so? Because it's open park space, undeveloped or reserved, under the flight path, a spot for city maintenance vehicles maybe. It's very Scott-B-Davis paradoxical in that the place's non-identity is yielding an identity of absence that catches his eye, that is, at least, "less literal" than what we know but "as literal" as what's there—all of which he hopes to capture on film.
Davis's instrument is an eight-by-ten-inch view camera, commonly used in the nineteenth century, this one built in the 1950s. These cameras are part of a long tradition, from Matthew Brady through Ansel Adams, "arguably the gold standard of the 20th century" photographer. Davis places the tripod, pulls out the accordion-connected viewer, babies its rickety age with big binder clips, and companions big box camera and scene. We're strictly analog here, though he does use digital cameras and accepts digital's speed and versatility in the new world. He's shooting directly onto eight-by-ten-inch sheets of film, doing long exposures, then processing them in a platinum-printing process: the handmade blowups may reach twenty-by-twenty-four inches.
"My seeing," he says, "has developed by using this camera." Its viewfinder is the size of a small television. The lens reduces the light of the image to one-eighth of what we see with the naked eye. As he works, as the night begins to go blue-black, Davis talks out his process. The scene with its "wild" flora, he says, has "a weird sense of overgrown nothingness." He resets the tripod, gets what he wants, puts a small square cloth over his head and the back half of the camera (reminiscent of the photographers who shot our grandparents' portraits), then presses the little black rubber ball to start and stop the exposure, which may run to three minutes.
Suddenly a man with a dog on his leash emerges into and through the "scene." This little disturbance is common, Davis says. He's often had brief encounters with people at night where the default position is, If you're out here, you're probably up to no good. Encounters appear threatening. He wonders, seeing the man go back to his car and sit inside with the light on, "Now who's the bad guy: him or me?" He says, "More often than not, I'm asked to leave," especially if he's piqued a security guard's wariness who thinks Davis can't possibly have a benign purpose in contemplating the edge of a barely lit parking lot.
Talk about listening space. Three sounds intrude as he works: the roar every five minutes of a plane passing overhead, the screeching yips of coyotes in the canyon below, and the devilish flaps of a barn owl hunting along the field's periphery.
No sooner is that photo done than he sees a patch of rain-broken-and-crumbled pavement that intrigues him. By day, he says, "I would know what this is. At night, I don't," so he's taken by it. Such serendipity is what he loves. All that "is ultimately what hooked me." And being alone in the "meditative space," looking at a scene and "wondering whether there's a photograph here."
Hooded by the dark cloth, he has to let his eyes adjust; nothing's very clear: "They're just fried. What I see and what I don't see changes under here," he says, his voice muffled. "Everything is visible; everything's also upside down and backwards. It's a pretty imprecise science." Before letting me have a look, Davis says, "You'll be surprised at what you can't see."
Under the cloth I peer at the image and see the most minimal of inky shapes in an inkier tableaux of flattened space. The subject it seems is darkness or the moodiness of the dark, and in a sense, without overtly recognizable subject matter, a Scott B. Davis night shot shares an organizing theme: whatever is there is fighting with and losing to the darkness.
We stop a third time at a pair of date palms, a senior and junior side by side. Davis calls it "an iconic, anonymous scene in Southern California." These trees are Arabian imports, which, he notes, have nothing to do with California except that they're everywhere. Davis loves these "hardscrabble, rough places, with weeds all around. It's not the pretty California everybody comes to expect." Such untidiness—this dense growth of unmanaged palms lit faintly by street lamps—is "an important part of my story—sharing with people what people aren't looking at, what people choose not to look at or aren't concerned enough to look at. By pointing a camera at it and making a still photograph, I'm forcing you to look at it."
With this image, he says, "I'll make it a lot more dark and moody and mysterious than what we're experiencing right now." A pause, and "to tell a story that you're not seeing."
I like all the conundrums a night out with a night photographer poses. On one hand, Davis says he loves to wander; he doesn't know what he's looking for. But he also has his eye on those messy, moody, unshaped spots he returns to, broods over, waits for, until the time is right. Some nights he'll venture out as long as four hours and, though he thinks about merging what's evident and what's hidden behind the evident, he comes up empty. No mystery appears. (Photography is a reductive process, he says. "Here's the world, and I'm going to extract this little square or box from it." Painting is additive. The adage goes, "one makes a painting and one takes a photograph.") "Night photography," Davis continues, "is catch-as-catch-can. You can't wait for the sun to move from behind the clouds. You can't predict a kind of magic hour and it'll go golden over there with deep shadows in the storm clouds." Most scenes remain what they are (nearly impenetrable) all night long.
So what's he seeing? Again, this koan: that which he's not seeing, what intuition tells him is or may be there. Ultimately, it's an exercise in "giving up control" of the photographer's compositional craft.
All this puts me in mind of Geoff Dyer's essay about Idris Khan. Khan is a young Englishman who photographs iconic books and classic photographs, overlaying page on page or image on image, to render a whole text or a collection of images all at once. The result is a blurred mass with a fascinating texture and idea of photographic wholeness. "Working in a medium wedded to the visible," Dyer writes, "photographers, perversely and inevitably, have been preoccupied with photographing the invisible." Khan layers the visible so many times that it produces an object as opaque as it is revealing. It's there but it's not there. The question is, what's being revealed? For Dyer, it's a "visual corollary," but of what? A collection of pages or images? If all the pages of the book are being superimposed upon one another in a single photograph, then you see the whole book at once (you look down through it) but you can't make it out. Is this an invisible quality of the whole made visible? Show me what it is you can't see. Or is it just Khan's peculiar "method" of producing a new image so we'll argue about its veracity as an image of what's "not there"?
Why is this important? For me it conjures up the so-called perversity of seeking the invisible in—or through—the visible. Yes, the photograph is over-wedded to what it sees, its actuality: it takes what it sees. But this is not exactly what Davis's photos are after. I don't think that the "less" or the "barely" or the "tiny bit" seen—that which is "barely seen" in the night—renders the invisible. To be "preoccupied with photographing the invisible" is to go against the photograph's donnée: to show what has been seen. It's double-barbed: we are stuck between what is invisible and what is not normally seen because it is not normally photographed. In this sense, it is invisible ("You'll be surprised at what you can't see," Davis says) until it's seen, that is, photographed. Once it's there, voilà! We see the invisible.
This is the Area 51 I think Davis is working in.
I'm reminded of Wallace Stevens: "To behold nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." To crack open the door to Sartre and existentialism, my undergraduate philosophy teacher one day cupped his hands and asked: "What am I holding in my hands?" We were mum. "Nothing. And now I'm going to show you." He uncupped his hands and said, "See, here it is: the nothing I was holding in my hands." It may pay to render these koans over and over again.
A photograph of a night scene, with more night than anything else, reduces an image to the elemental. There's just enough light to illuminate the darkness so we see the darkness and its many shadings, much less the lighted night (a distinction in the history of photography I will draw presently). What is unseen can be seen—that's what is meant, in part, by "photographing the invisible." To photograph what isn't seen is to photograph what is implied—a tone, an emotion, a sudden deepening or darkening of texture, any of which may have escaped the viewfinder but, perhaps, not the exposure. The camera saw it; not the cameraman. Davis's night work hinges on this implication, as much an act of faith as the outcome of hard work. Indeed, an act of faith is reminiscent of the Biblical, "the evidence of things not seen." Here's the conundrum: That which is not seen possesses some evidence that it is there, otherwise all night photos would be completely black. In Davis's work, the photograph seeks to capture the slightest evidence of night. And often the image taken is one that shudders from view, is withdrawing, escaping, hiding, and, ultimately, not materializing. The truly invisible cannot be seen. But that very impossibility has lured photographers for more than a century.
Imaging and imagining the shifty zone between what is and is not there was a primary concern of photography's pioneer, Alfred Stieglitz. Case in point, his Equivalents (1922-1935), the cloud photographs. These sky views were shot for their abstract and atmospheric qualities, their equivalencies referring not to the thing itself but the emotion in the viewer. Though taken by day, Stieglitz emphasizes the darker elements. The images are dusky, penumbral, often like a night sky, highlighted or haloed by the moon. More than anything, they are abstract. Essential to these shots is the idea that clouds are not obscuring the light as much as the light is making such obscurity visible. Stieglitz seems to be describing something that emerges out of the darkness or retains its dark and dusky quality as its chief identity. Light is always indirect. We are drawn to the light because it will light that which we want to see, which is rarely the light itself. With Stieglitz we get something wholly original, elemental, and paradoxical: the cloud, illuminating the light. Cloud suffuses the light, revealing the abstraction.
Night, of course, has one natural light source, moonlight, and the two most famous (and priciest) shots in American photographic history are Edward Steichen's "The Pond—Moonlight" (1904) and Ansel Adams's "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941). Both images have much in common: they are landscape portraits, lighted by rising moons and fading suns; they are evening images; they include the loss of day as much as they do the birth of night, more welcoming than disturbing; and they are romantic and pastoral, almost photos-as-paintings. The pair is popular less for the mystery, I think, than for the symmetry, plein air visions that impose daylight recognition upon the nascent nighttime scene. I especially like the Steichen photo because its technique is evident; it was a black-and-white shot, as are all of these night photos, but Steichen, like some early photographers, added "light-sensitive" gums in a multi-layered printing process to produce the "painterly" effect. That effect leeches into the print, giving it an abrasive texture and uniting the imposed image with the physical process. Ironically, what is a "real" night scene or night-coming-on scene in the Steichen looks much more constructed by hand than taken from nature.
Of objects lighted for their nighttime drama, we have O. Winston Link, a commercial photographer fascinated by trains. Link, a poser of his material, said that since he "couldn't move the sun," he staged his environments at night by using dozens of flashbulbs, firing simultaneously, and thus, burnishing the power of the locomotive, especially the last of the steam engine trains. In "Train No. 17, The Birmingham Special, Gets a Highball" (1957), we behold a stopped (still idling) train, a Hopperesque station with windowed/radiating light, a station master holding up a bright lamp—in all, an ordered, symmetrical, safe world which the dark feels a mere viewer of, and nothing more. And yet something else is communicated—the undeterred, commercial force of the railroad, as active by night as by day. The photograph celebrates the brawn of American industrial power, conquering darkness.
In "Giant Oak, Max Meadows, Virginia" (1957), we see another lighted night scene with a jarring mix of two elements: one, the parallelism of a wire fence, power lines, a locomotive rushing forward, and its steam plume streaking back, and two, the jumble of a massive oak, most of its leafless branches against the night sky, worming their way toward and out of the cropped top of the photo. The contrast is emotionally cacophonous and visually balanced. The image is precise: it both melds and distinguishes its elements. Here the night has its opacity; the distance from foreground to background is remarkably closed. This is one of Link's few night photographs in which he captures the dominance of night. The foreground of the shot may be lighted but this light withers against the big-shouldered dark, alive in the flattened tree branches and in the train's streaking distance. The thing not seen (but now seen because Link has arranged for us to see it in the photo) is a kind of impenetrability (a corollary, if you will) between the undoctored wildness (the oak) and the straight-lined efficiency of road, fence, power lines, and train (civilization). Despite the force and omnipresence of that efficiency, it cannot compare to the wild tree and the darkness as brethren.
Brassaï, the Hungarian photographer, whose reputation rests on the night images he made of Paris and its night dwellers between the World Wars, is the most famous of the dark crew. Gyula Halász, whose pseudonym is Brassaï, studied painting and sculpture, and he emphasizes the latter in his light-and-motion heavy portraits of Paris at night. Mentored by fellow Hungarian, André Kertész, Brassaï knew the city's lustful night persona. There's a robustness and an intimacy in his photos, almost like a cultural record of the artistic side of Paris, after the gas lamps came on. Henry Miller, a friend and nocturnal rogue, wrote a laudatory essay, "The Eye of Paris," for Brassaï's first book, Paris By Night.
Seeking Brassaï's viewfinder is the fog and streetlamps mingling, sentry-like, above a Roman bridge over the Seine; the coated back of a prostitute in the cold waiting to be hustled into a darkened corner; a glossily wet and S-curving cobblestone gutter snaking around two black trees; and several caped or robed men whose sculptural mass solidifies the lastingness of the French character. For all its effects, it is a world you want to inhabit, a world of buoyant desire lust, sans guilt, sans inhibition. Nothing to fear, everything to notice, to partake in, to be exposed to. A good Brassaï night photo, often of people who work at night, has an intimate corporeality. The human universe is grounded, fleshy, freed. No matter what flagstone path or rock stairway in Montparnasse, the photo is taken with just enough fog-shrouded light to illumine the way, which is toward an adventure in the dark, not toward a dark adventure. Like Link, the dark casts a dramatic backdrop in which the darkness is a co-conspirator, protector and voyeur of what we think may be illicit.
Brassaï codifies night photography—dramatically-lit landscapes, the play of dusk and textured surfaces, the invitation to peer. His vision continues because we are creatures who, once we have seen and remembered collectively, want to see what we have seen again and again. In this respect, Brassaï is the most formidable of the night photographers because he was the first to seize the moment when Paris unbuttoned in the dark, a ceremony of lust waiting for him to photograph. Virginia Woolf once wrote that she expected a poem to give her an insight she didn't expect, feelings and ideas she hadn't encountered. As opposed to what most poems offer: the regurgitation of known sentiments. Why not expect the unexpected of the night photograph as well?
In Camera Lucida, photography's aesthetic gospel, Roland Barthes compares language (his art) to photography (the art under his microscope) and reckons the latter has a status all its own. "Language is, by nature, fictional," he writes, "the attempt to render language unfictional requires an enormous apparatus of measurements: we convoke logic, or, lacking that, sworn oath; but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself." As Barthes plays the two arts off one another, he coaxes out a big idea: that the photograph authenticates rather than represents ("exceeds the power of representation"); the photograph says this image, taken at this time and place, travels across time, possessing the past (history) and our engagement with the past (memory).
Such actuality, Barthes argues, language cannot achieve. Language is merely representative, a simulation, not the thing itself. There is, for example, a photograph of my brothers and me taken, July 19, 1955, which authenticates that day: the Adirondack bench behind my grandparents' home on which we three young children sit, in matching shirts, and the shadow of our mother, casting itself onto the lawn, who takes the photo. Any words I write cannot show this moment better. Words show only themselves; what is their nature is symbolic: a s-t-o-n-e in language is not a "stone" in nature; it is a graphic representation. We get the grapheme and fill in the rest. The photograph gives us all that, plus its reality, with no requirement that we must be convinced it is reality.
So if a photograph authenticates a time and a place (even the shadowy picture-taker) and a photographer like Scott B. Davis is moving as far away as he can from an authenticating image of a time and a place (though I concede he can't get that far away from photography in a photograph), isn't Davis pushing the photograph toward the status/condition of language, which, in Barthesian terms, is a fiction, something invented, something inauthentic?
Is darkness, whose infinite manifestations Davis is trying to describe, the ne plus ultra of photography? And if photography's meaning is to authenticate what has been and what continues to be, then how are we to look into Davis's work and find something authenticated?
I have no ready answer for these queries. With Davis, I wonder whether his desire for darkness is a desire for the least authenticable aspect of the photograph. And yet, as he tells me, that's not the road that took him to the dark. Early on, he was enchanted by the "landscape tradition" of photography in which he "came to terms with acknowledging what you see in front of the camera, a kind of truthful recording—not to romanticize things." This lead him to photograph "scenic viewpoints in the daytime and then, simply to ask, what does it look like at night?" Landscapes and the night led him to study Stieglitz, Link, Brassaï, but more to enquire how his sensibility differed from theirs. It wasn't long before he discovered his interest: to inhabit places under-photographed at night. He went east of southern California's mountains and into the desert.
There, from his camper truck, he found that the "night truth" of the day landscape goes unacknowledged once "everyone walks away when the sun goes down." He cites Harry Callahan, a mid-century urban photographer whose minimalist poetic images, mostly in stripped-down daytime evocations, Davis feels close to. "I'm working partly in [Callahan's] tradition, using a very quiet language in photography to describe what is arguably a universal message." Primarily, though, it was the West and its dark textures that captured Davis. Born in Maryland, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico. The state, he says, is "known for light and, ironically, the place I really discovered darkness. There's two million people in the state," so it's largely avoided the human stamp. He loved New Mexico's night, "the many absolute voids of inky blackness. I found that quality of dark inspired me."
How to distinguish the dark of New Mexico from the dark of California? "The darkness of New Mexico," he says, "always felt to me like a vacuum, like [the night] absorbed light." By contrast, the night in the Borrego desert, east of San Diego, is "just darkness. I don't think I've ever fully reconciled those two different skies."
Speaking with Davis about the night in the night, I feel from him that he wants to commune with the dark and the photograph's relationship to the dark. I sense he wants to authenticate nature and art whether the photograph says it or not. Davis seems closer to the dark than most people. He seeks its mystery by living in it and not avoiding it. Why is this his calling? I ask, as we repair to a loud Mexican restaurant for food and further talk. He says being drawn to the dark would be more common if human evolution had not made us less dark-adaptive. Blame it on electricity and the lighting of the night.
"I think that the loss of our sensitivity to night," he says, "and to our circadian rhythms are socially induced. The light and the racket we're sitting in right now is new ... One hundred years ago this didn't exist." For centuries, he says citing one example, mariners navigated the sea by starlight and by knowing the prevailing winds. When such traits are lost, Davis notes, we replace our once-deep instincts about the dark with a "fear of darkness." With the noisy Mexican music and the daylight-bright light, designed to push the night away, "we lose our connection to darkness."
Davis finds "a joy, a great peace," being out at night, whether in a desert or a city. Even in Tijuana, just over the border from San Diego, he says the tallest buildings are unlighted after dark; for him they become mysteriously massive and photographable shapes. "There's a real cultural difference for you. Being in Tijuana at night is not an experience Americans have." Our architectural norm is to show off a beautiful building in the dark, from within and without. Spotlights on San Francisco's TransAmerica pyramid building, for example, make it as much a day as a night icon.
Last year, Davis spent a few weeks, under the auspices of the museum, teaching photography to teenagers in India. He stayed in a small rural village of just a few thousand residents. Except for an isolated generator, powering some wealthy person's home and TV, the town was lacquered in darkness. One night he and a colleague went for a walk, though they were, as Westerners, cautioned not to. "You couldn't see your feet. It was the kind of walk where you wanted to hold the one you loved. There was," he continues, "the expectation that we should be able to see more than we did." But he and his friend couldn't. Still, they adapted. Despite gingerly maneuvering around buildings, cows, pot holes, people, cars, camels, he says that "imagining darkness and imagining absence taught me to appreciate" the strange Indian night.
We are a night-avoidant culture and yet not a night-avoidant people. Davis says that thousands of years of human evolution "cannot be erased by iPhones and electricity." He notes that all these new self-nestling technologies make people wary. "I'm frequently asked, 'Aren't you afraid to be out at night? Aren't you scared of being in the desert alone?' My response is, 'Of what?' I guarantee you that within one hundred feet of where we are right now [in the city] somebody's got a gun. And somebody's going to get angry and then bad things will happen. In the desert, chances are nobody within ten miles has a gun. My point is, these little shifts we make with culture and technology, the way we communicate, and the loss of our pre-twentieth-century DNA—I don't think it's that far gone. I think this," and he does an all-around hand wave to indicate the mad luster of the Taco Shop and the insufferable Mexican salsa music, "makes us think it's far gone. But it's not. The night is still with us."