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Pleasure in the Dark

Night Vision: Photography after Dark
Reviewer # 1
Broadway at Night by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Source: metmuseum.org
Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Broadway at Night" c 1910

If you can work your way past the painfully stylish crowds waiting to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, you will find a nearly perfect gem of a photo show in the Howard Gillman Galleries. Night Vision: Photography after Dark, is not a comprehensive show, nor really much of a thematic show, beyond the minimal requirement of being a night photograph in the Met’s collection. It is really just an enjoyable ‘best of’ show with enough new names and unseen pictures by well known names to keep it lively.

The show doesn’t include any of John William Draper’s 1839 photographs of the moon–the earliest night photographs made. Rather it picks up the trail at the turn of the twentieth century when several different developments brought photographers out into the dark. This was a time when there were rapid improvements in photo-emulsions and processing chemicals. Also, more portable cameras were making it easier for photographers to venture out into the night. The real spark, however, was the rapid spread of electric light in cities around the world. Only three of the forty pieces in this show were shot with entirely natural lighting: an early Edward Steichen woodland scene from 1899, a Bill Brandt view of London during a World War II blackout, and a superbly beautiful seascape by Hiroshi Sugimoto from 1990. In between, the bright city lights were an irresistible draw.

Ionian Sea, Santa Cesarea by Hiroshi Sugimoto. Source: metmuseum.org
Hiroshi Sugimoto, "Ionian Sea, Santa Cesarea" 1990

Alfred Stieglitz was there early on, and the show includes a photogravure of the 1897 gas-lit Plaza hotel with waiting horses. But soon the electric world is all around us: Alvin Langborn Coburn focusing on Broadway in 1910, Knud Lonberg-Holm photographing the brilliant billboards of Detroit, Gordon H Coster capturing the brilliantly out of focus lights of 1930’s.

In Europe Brassai, Kertez and Bill Brandt roamed the streets at night, photographing lights and shadows.

But New York shines brightest in this show, and we get one shot each of the whiskey and cigar soaked images of William Klein, Sid Grossman, Weegee, and Robert Faurer. Berenice Abbott, the sole woman in the show, is represented by the classic “Night View, New York” of buildings and lights seen from above on a clear winter’s night. Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and John Cohen carry the New York banner up to 1960. Possibly because the show limits itself to black and white, there is only one New York image after this date - a 1980 Peter Hujar portrait of an anxious looking man, sitting atop a park bench.

Elsewhere in the world photographers were still heading out into the semi-darkness. Particularly in Tokyo. We see an evocative grab shot by Daido Moriyama of two women in a car and a picture by Kohei Yoshiyuki from his series on peeping-toms who follow amorous couples into the dark recesses of Tokyo parks.

The show has only a few pieces after the 1970’s, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascape being the real standout. The newest piece in the show, dated 2000, and the largest, was also the only disappointing one. A 16 image grid by David Deutsch, it pictures houses in Los Angeles at night, lit from above by the light of a police helicopter. The images may be evocative to backyard-curious Angeleno’s, but left this New Yorker nonplussed.

Overall, thirty-nine out of forty is not too bad. After stumbling out of the midnight blue gallery, and passing the now even longer queue for Alexander McQueen, it seemed to me that this had been a very pleasurable hour in the dark, indeed.


Night Vision: Photography after Dark


Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.
UES         Map

212 535 7710
metmuseum.org

Tuesday, April 26 to
Monday, September 5, 2011
Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.
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