Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

February 14, 2017

In the Still of the Night

Lynn Saville’s photographs capture the rare quietude in sleeping cities.


Art, Articles, Lynn Saville, Urbanism

When photographer Lynn Saville was a child, her parents had a cabin in rural Vermont. Fascinated by the dark, she’d stand on the back porch and stare into the dense woods. The bright pool of light created by a single porch light would gradually fade into the trees, until darkness eclipsed the view. “To see the one light source was … a refuge,” she recalls.

Today, Saville roams cities on foot between twilight and dawn in search of the perfect shot. Equipped with a couple of digital cameras (a Nikon and her new favorite, a Sony mirrorless A7r II outfitted with a Zeiss 28mm lens) that she tucks under her loose-fitting jacket, she searches for the uncanny quietude and sense of wilderness that comes overnight, when most people are asleep.

Based in New York City for some four decades, she’s devoted her artistic practice to photographing at night. Currently she’s working on a commission for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to document the west façade of Grand Central Station, revealed by recent construction and unseen for decades, which will be exhibited in the food hall this spring. True to her technique of using available light, she photographed the façade using only reflected light that bounced off the surrounding buildings.

She has also authored three books dedicated to overnight subjects. The most recent is Dark City: Urban America at Night (Damiani, 2015), which presents a shadowy world of empty storefronts and disused industrial sites. Given the time of day they were taken, you might think that the images would have a film noir or eerie feel, offering premonitions of impending violence or crime. Instead, her work is about the stillness found in a pool of electric light.

“In the city it is always busy, there’s so much happening, but at night it shifts and you can achieve some solitude—you don’t need to go to the country,” Saville says. Her nocturnal explorations are an adventure into territory made strange by the night. “The city is still there even though we are not out and about in it. You can get moments and places where you can be alone,” she says.

Saville first came to New York in the mid-1970s to study at Pratt Institute. She was smitten by photography, especially street photographers like André Kertész and Lee Friedlander, who snapped pictures during the day. But Saville connected with the nighttime. An introductory drawing class taught her about tonality. Her instructor had students cover a sheet of paper in charcoal and then erase, coaxing form and depth out of the black soot. The exercise forever changed her artistic sensibility and how she took photographs: her first images were in black and white, often shot using a 35mm Leica rangefinder film camera. Later, she expanded to color—with an emphasis on rich hues of red or yellow placed against a dark blue-black background. Today she also uses a Nikon (the digital D800e model) as well as a Phase One, a digital medium format camera. Occasionally, she’ll bring a tripod, depending if she wants to slow down and set up the composition.

With Dark City, Saville not only captures moments in the dark, but also the changing economic reality of the late 2000s across the United States. In 2008, she started to notice the impact of the recession in New York: vacant storefronts along Madison Avenue, one of the city’s toniest shopping areas. One boutique would be selling furs and its next-door neighbor would be empty. “It was like suddenly seeing your neighbor without their clothes on,” Saville says. “The whole city had a lot of gaps, like a jack-o’-lantern with missing teeth.”

In his introduction to Dark City, author Geoff Dyer reflects on the boom and bust, writing that it is the “economic equivalent of the diurnal cycle of night and day, light and dark.” Illuminated with whatever light was on hand, everything from streetlights to neon signage, Saville’s photographs give a dignity to the failed stores. One shop in Harlem is lit only by a string of festoon lights. Along Front Street in Brooklyn, her photograph of a stripped-down retail space is lit by streetlights, which project inverse shadows across the floor. A neon sign on West 50th Street casts a magenta glow onto wet pavement. Of the “Space for Rent” sign, Dyer writes, “[it] advertises its own emptiness so effectively that it seems a shame to convert it to any other use.”

Other photographs in Dark City take in whole landscapes of decline, but never succumb to “ruin porn,” the trend for images that make decay seem spectacular. Instead, Saville photographed the Michigan Central Depot in Detroit, framing the edifice in a stately composition, while the only hint of present abandonment is the tall grasses in the foreground. Still, Detroit proved a tricky place to capture. Saville would scout for sites during the day and go back at night to photograph, only to find herself let down by the city’s lack of infrastructure. “None of the streetlights would go on,” she says. “I’m dependent on light—car lights, the light from a pharmacy or liquor store. There were whole avenues where the lights were out.”

Streetlighting is critical to the work; Saville notes that as cities change to LED fixtures from high-pressure sodium (HPS), she faces a challenge. The LED lamps are bright and white. They create a diffuse beam spread instead of an amber pool of light and have a lot of glare. “There was a certain warmth and charm [with HPS], and that warmth gave a slight romance in the city,” she notes.

As the economy has rambunctiously improved since the downturn, Saville finds herself trying to keep ahead of gentrification in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The High Line is now a popular urban park, not an overgrown railway spur. The once derelict St. Ann’s Warehouse under the Brooklyn Bridge is now a performing arts space. “New York seems to be zipped up and it’s hard to find a tangle of weeds,” she laments. With her camera in tow, she heads farther and farther into the boroughs for inspiration and wildness. By photographing overnight, Saville captures the urban environment at its most naked or vulnerable and her images offer us a nighttime view into what we often miss in the light of day. The effect is more gentle than jarring. There’s a haunting fragility in her photographs—recognition, perhaps, that the darkness is just as fleeting as the light.