Night is an ideal time to photograph in black and white because darkness hides all but the upper register of whites on the tonal scale. In any given scene, with only the strongest highlights creating lines and shaded areas, geometries become apparent that are barely noticed in the light of day. This image of a metal barn roof shows how the suppression of detail results in simplicity. Attention becomes focused and the sensibilities of atmosphere and mystery are enhanced, inspiring poets, songwriters and others to write about night, moonlight and stars. A principles of visual aesthetics suggests that there is “mystery” in the shadows. Indeed, our eyes want to penetrate the dark areas, to see what’s there. The more information we can glean from an image, the more we can make sense of it. In photographs taken at night I find there’s a subtle pleasure in the searching, if even for a moment, followed by an acceptance that it’s okay to not know the details. In allowing there’s a release of tension, a kind of satisfaction.
I used to photographed at night more often than I have in recent years. At some point, probably due to the content of local television newscasts, I became wary of going out alone at night, especially walking around with a expensive camera gear. Incidences of crime are higher at night, as are vehicular accidents and deaths. Still, on my little overnight excursions I will shoot until the sky becomes dark. And I always get up before first light so I have at least a little opportunity to photograph in the dark.
There are still some places in the world where the night sky is so bright it takes your breath away. I had that experience at Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle a few years back. The lodging facilities turned off their generators at 10 o’clock to conserve on fuel, and by eleven o’clock the kerosene lamps in the cabins were all out. It had been raining hard all evening. I awoke around 2 AM and it sounded like the rain had stopped. I turned on my penlight and poked my head out the door to see what the conditions were like. Now I’ve worked in darkrooms all my adult life, but I’d never experienced such stark blackness. It actually startled me. It was hard to believe. I walked about ten paces from the doorway, shining the light on pavers, careful not to step on a scorpion.
When I turned the light out I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. And then I looked up. I’d never seen very much of the Milky Way, but now in spite of high clouds, it stood out brilliantly, a tremendous arc of stars above the dripping canopy. There was no moon, but after about ten minutes my eyes became accustomed to the starlight and I began to see quite a bit of detail in the jungle. I knew that the night sky played a principle role in the development of the ancient Maya’s cosmology and calendar, but it wasn’t until I saw it for myself that I understood why. They observed and recorded the movement of the stars and planets for over a thousand years. For me, one night was all it took to feel the cosmic immensity and awesomeness. I felt like I was riding a planet.
Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There is something haunting in the light of the moon; it has all the dispassionateness of a disembodied soul, and something of its inconceivable mystery.
No sight is more provocative of awe than is the night sky.
ABOUT THE BARN ROOF IMAGE
Title: Barn By Moonlight
Location: Waynesville, OH
I’d spent the day photographing with film cameras and, because the sun had gone down, was driving toward home when I saw this barn lit by moonlight. There wasn’t enough light to hand-hold the smaller camera, so I got out the 4×5 view camera. In the time it took to fix the camera to the tripod and open the shutter, the highlights on the roof of the barn had diminished because the moon had moved. Even with my head under the dark cloth I could barely see enough of the barn’s roof to focus.
So I repositioned the camera to anticipate the point at which the roof would be fully illuminated, set the focus on infinity and stopped down to get some depth of field. One thing great about photographing by moonlight is that on a clear night the luminance doesn’t change. Also, it’s very diffuse—part of the reason for the lyrics “Moonlight becomes you…” I made a time exposure, probably around two minutes, pleased that the movement of the faint clouds would blur slightly. For me, the image is one of my top five night shots.
A special “Thank you!” here to Paul Kennedy, my friend and roommate at RIT, for requesting this theme. He and I camped out on the beach at Lake Ontario one night to take the following image of star trails. I believe the time exposure was around two-to-three hours.