For years, Lynn Saville has photographed cities at night. Her book and current exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery feel like a coda, documents of an urban era about to end, or maybe already gone. Saville’s Night/Shift photos are of New York City’s former dead zones; once-seedy places where shadows and strays roamed the noir streets. With the city now marketing and developing areas like the Gowanus Canal and Long Island City for young professionals, artists, and displaced Manhattanites, Saville is cataloguing the city’s lonely blank spots before they become awkward sites of visible transition. She and BOMB Managing Editor Nick Stillman exchanged emails about her new photos.
Nick Stillman As a resident myself of one of the industrial areas you show in the Night/Shift images, I take issue with Arthur Danto’s characterization of your photos “treating danger as a spice.” While the effects of the recession probably haven’t reached their nadir, the condo-loaded New York City of 2009 is still as safe as the city ever has been. That includes formerly forlorn areas like the Gowanus Canal, Red Hook, and Dumbo, all of which are heavily photographed in your book. Artists and the subsequent waves of gentrification forever transformed the cultural landscape of those neighborhoods, even if physical landscapes are harder to alter. To what extent are your images nostalgic for a grittier, tougher, disappearing New York?
Lynn Saville One of the reasons I photograph industrial zones in the New York area is that they are going through a period of intense change. Many of the buildings still look industrial from the outside—where there’s gentrification—it is more obvious in the interiors. It’s the physical landscape, with its many layers and imprints of very old, moderately old, and today’s transformations which interests me. I love the city like a spouse … watching with intense interest as minute and sometimes bolder changes occur over time. I think many places are still pretty gritty. I’m attracted to the true grit of stone and metal and weeds combined with elevated highways and truck depots; it’s all still part of this metropolis. I am photographing them as fast as I can before the wrecking ball of some developer demolishes whole blocks and replaces them with contemporary structures.
As far as “treating danger as a spice” I must admit that I am attracted to the sublime … in city parks at night, especially. I may have a heightened sense of danger because many years ago I was mugged at gunpoint on 15th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues in Manhattan, but I was not photographing at the moment.
NS Considering the opposite side of New York’s architectural coin, how might you photograph this new layer of city architecture: the aforementioned “contemporary structures” that reek so mightily of the millennial building boom and subsequent foreclosure and mortgage crisis?
LS The new layer of city architecture can be fascinating in its own way. I would look at the building and find what kind of lighting and glow might emanate from it … seeing if there are sleek, reflective surfaces such as glass or metal shining in colors or spectral whites. Sometimes the way the trees are positioned can add to the image. How well-coifed are its weeds? Because many of these buildings are so very tall, I might try different lenses to come in closer for more detail or a rooftop angle to get a stacking of these structures against the sky. It’s fascinating to observe such a new structure’s juxtaposition with neighboring architecture. Sometimes it might even be humorous to behold the contrast in scale.
NS In post 9/11 New York, police have become pretty paranoid of anyone who photographs architecture. A straightforward document of a building can so easily become a threat in their eyes. You’ve said that your project wasn’t politically motivated in respect to the NYPD’s condemnation of photography, but how much did that variable affect your process, especially since your sites aren’t generic tourist ones?
LS The place I had the hardest time with the police was in the Meadowlands area, where they would see a car and soon find the photographers with tripods. It affected my process because I couldn’t photograph openly in that area, probably because there is a power plant nearby. I would be very stealthy or bring a friend who could talk to the police (get them chatting about fishing or something to make friends with them so they don’t bother us). They often just said no. My method of working in such a case is to try not to be seen by the police. Working fast, quickly put away my tripod so it’s not clear what I’m doing. When photographing in New York City, I try to work quickly and don’t walk around with my camera on the tripod. I shoot a few digital images with a hand-held camera and when I like what I’m getting, I set up and work with the tripod, hoping police might not notice. I usually wear very nondescript clothing and go out alone or with just one other person so we don’t attract attention.
Oddly enough, other places I have had problems with the police are Times Square, Rockefeller Center, and near the World Trade Center site … where authorities are ready to pounce, and just feel that they are right, no matter what you say.
I often find surveillance lighting interesting because it creates offbeat colors, sharp shadows, and, sometimes, depth. Some places have motion-sensitive lights and I work with the layering of the colors and patterns to create abstract shapes on the ground or concrete surfaces, adding dimension.
NS It’s funny, I’m actually holding in my hand right now a document outlining the rights of photographers in New York City that my girlfriend got at a Jem Cohen screening last night. Authority loves to control imagery, doesn’t it? You mentioned surveillance lighting; some of the Night/Shift photos (like Dupont Street or Under the Manhattan Bridge) have a radioactive glow about them. To what extent do you manipulate light to heighten drama? Did you scout these locations like a film director?
LS Yes, I scout locations like a film director. It works best if to go scouting at night because the lighting changes the scenes completely. There is a variety of light sources in the urban environment … single incandescent bulbs, colorful neons, greenish fluorescent lights, mercury vapor lights, and others. I believe that color differences in these light sources adds to the drama. I don’t add any lighting to the space I am photographing; rather, I carefully select the time exposures to include a particular combination. Motion sensitive surveillance lights create a light/shadow pattern on the urban landscape. I carefully time my long exposures to include the imprinting of these eerie colors and shapes of light … so my manipulation happens through time.
Lynn Saville’s book Night/Shift was published by the Monacelli Press and her exhibition of the Night/Shift photographs will show at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York through August 28, 2009.