After Night Falls
“Night unnerves us and surprises us with its strangeness; it frees powers within us which were controlled by reason during the day…”
Now we must write the history of the dark photograph.
So much of what is happening in the world takes place at the border of vision, at the edge of night (so to speak), at the limit of visibility. Although the challenge of making a photograph in darkness was implicit in photography from the beginning (How much light is enough? How much time is enough?), Brassai identified this as a quintessentially modern ambition. Not utter darkness anymore, naturally descending darkness, and this was his point. With the lamping of cities, first by gas and then by electricity, darkness surrendered its totality, became the negative, the reverse, of the light that bracketed it. It became also a space, a territory to be navigated and colonized. The lamping of cities released human activity from the tether of a diurnal rhythm and fostered – demanded – night life, that latency that Brassai visually explicated. He is justly famous for his photographs of the demimondaine and the café dwellers of Paris, who could by then exist at all hours, but his most complex image is that of a car traveling through the parklike Avenue de l' Observatoire, its headlights cutting the fog. The park is a forest of night, each lamp revealing emptiness and concealing menace. And the car itself is inscrutable, an uncanny signifier suggesting love or crime, either way clandestine. Prophylactic light, the light of control and security, spurred its opposite, the proliferation of the illicit.
But the burgeoning of the new night world wasn’t limited to sex for sale on street corners and second-story men planning a heist. An extensive catalogue of Brassai’s photographs detail the activity of a society devoting itself to the industrial ideal of ceaseless productivity and round-the-clock labor. Bertolt Brecht wrote of “those in the shadows you do not see.” He meant an underclass, the lumpen criminals, but he also meant the truly invisible workers building a society that would run 24-7 for the benefit of those who could afford to sleep when they chose.
It took dominion everywhere, and became the glow of a global capitalism that now stains the night of the developed world, of the whole world, a background radiance that often erupts in bursts of excess energy. Some years ago, at a point of anxiety in his life, Taewon Jang had an intuition about the semi-secret night of a country constructing itself, Korea, and he set out to photograph it under its own power (so to speak), using no flash and letting his film record the ambient light through long exposure. He titled that early series “Collusion,” suggesting not only a relation among light, time and the medium but also among the powers-that-be responsible for massive construction projects, high-rise apartment complexes, ominously colored skies, the ziggurats of a new Ninevah. Since then, he has traveled around the world (and extensively across the United States) to record a global society slowly but surely banishing its night. Taken together, this remarkable archive, with its many references to the history of travel photography, testifies to the fact that darkness is now a theme, a problem, and its explication a demystifying act of literal and metaphoric importance. As Jang has said, “For me there must be darkness to reveal the light.” And as chemical photographers know, all things latent are revealed to those with the patience to wait in the dark.
The photographs indicate that Jang’s choice of locations was not haphazard. Based on his early work in Japan and Korea, he developed the following procedure. He researched on the internet places where the landscape, natural or urban, was in the process of transformation, especially where industry and energy production were involved. And then he went there, found the precise spot he wanted – in some sense a formal, rather than a political decision – set up his camera and went to work, usually until he aroused the suspicion of security patrols, in which case he would withdraw, only to return again. The night paid him back spectacularly. The photographs do not allow us the luxury of comfortable condemnation, for they embody a new and problematic beauty, a beauty that hovers between the fabricated and the natural, a visual, political and semantic relation in which these opposites are necessary to each other, suspended and irresolvable.
For example, the most dramatic presentation in the book involves a vast energy project that has, certainly, a positive side – a wind farm in southern California near the Mojave Desert. This monument to technical ingenuity exerts a hypnotic fascination and inspires a formal celebration that far exceeds the “joy before the object” of the Neue Sachlichkeit photographers of the 1920s. Faced with these pictures it is impossible not to feel a kind of optimistic delirium, perhaps similar to what Goethe felt when he walked through the Palladian arcades of Vicenza, a sense that the species capable of producing such excellence cannot perish and must be divinely inspired. Goethe ate grapes, a perfect expression of his ecstasy at the perfection of imagined things. I cannot help thinking, also, of early photography’s projects to document monuments of the built world, from Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square to the pyramids, in an expression of limitless confidence and inspecting power.
Taewon Jang brings us full circle on this ambition. In its repetitive purity, more emphatic than any project of minimal art, the wind farm also provokes a kind of cold revulsion, even paranoia, that in the effort to “save the planet,” we have to rely on technical systems so complex, abstract, and beyond human scale that the solution seems to have come from somewhere else, as if we had suddenly been invaded by our own technology. No wonder there is constant objection to such farms by local inhabitants, quite apart from their “aesthetic” incursion on the landscape (aesthetics in this case amounting to no more than if someone about to go before a firing squad complained that his last-minute letter of reprieve was written on the wrong color paper). Better the crude towers of a nuclear plant, familiar like castles or cathedrals. Perhaps the emotion these pictures arouse is simply despair at the recognition of defeat, an awareness that no matter what scale, technology cannot save us, or, rather, preserve a certain lifestyle.
The other face of the wind farm is the vast oil refinery of Galveston, to which Jang devotes even greater attention. These pictures are all shot from a distance, so the oil processing enterprise appears as a glowing vision on the horizon, literally a city of energy extraction, production and distribution. The wind farm and Galveston are both devoted to the global frivolity of energy consumption that makes possible the so-called consumer society, with its necessities (automobiles, air conditioning, heavy weapons) and its diversions (automobiles, weapons, entertainment and shopping complexes, and media devices, including the cameras that Jang carries).
And light, of course, filling the sky and time, altering human and animal sleep cycles, eliminating dichotomies everywhere, leveling experience and banishing myths. It is impossible not to think of Galveston’s true counterpart in the economy of waste and consumption, Las Vegas, a metastasizing tumor of light in the desert. Jang has not photographed Las Vegas, because this is not a sociological expose, and yet the connection is more forceful by its absence. Is this what Plato and Zoroaster had in mind? Disastrous revelation, an excess of insight, blinded by the light? As riveting as the particular images may be, it is the totality of the photographs and the linkages they suggest that make the book so valuable. I hesitate to call Jang’s work disaster porn, but the end of the world – or the end of the civilizing process represented by global development – never looked so compelling or inevitable.
A key element to Jang’s project is time – time the revelator and time the destroyer. Shooting at night has required that Jang use long exposures, and much of the “special effects” of the photographs are artifacts of that open eye. Energy literally accumulates in the sky, and a background glow can appear as a sudden flare. Even the atmosphere itself seems to become visible. In contrast, other moving elements disappear or leave only traces, including the surveillance helicopters that patrol industrial sites post-9-11. In conversation, Jang has made an interesting point. In Japan and Korea, where space is at a premium, buildings are usually demolished and built over, so there are no ruins. But in the United States, where there is nothing but space, new buildings and entire industries arise next to the corpses of old ones. Because of liability concerns, crumbling structures have to be patrolled along with working ones. Both the dead and the living must be surveilled. Hence the thin arcs of light that mark the helicopters’ paths where they wouldn’t be expected.
Jang has also remarked that when he began the project, he was interested mostly in the signs of abandonment and decay, evidence of wounds to the land inflicted by human beings. Such are the deliberately archaeological photographs shot in Blair, Nevada, formerly a gold mining town. Most of what he depicts in this sequence are foundations facing an empty desert, and the resemblance to ancient ruins such as Pompeii or the Native American cities of the Southwest is too obvious to miss. Likewise the Ozymandian irony: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. But the moral is misplaced. The point of ancient civilizations is not that they passed away but that new ones kept arising to take their place. Jang makes a great photograph of an immense defunct power plant on the Hudson River being dismantled from the inside. The earthmovers at work seem like the mechanical equivalents of devouring beetles, creating new loam for the nourishment of what must inevitably grow there next. As time went on Jang became more and more fascinated by this parallel process of destruction and growth, often happening in adjacent places and sometimes the same place.
Nietzsche once made a famous remark to the effect that when you look into the void, the void looks into you. You become what you behold. This is the secret the night tells the day, that we are more than half in love with our own extinction, which we can’t help but mistake for perfection. The seductiveness of the photographs confirms it. The final image in the book shows not an industrial monument or skeleton but a group of people standing in an empty field. We can’t tell where they are or why they are there. In the long exposure, they appear as no more than dark shadows in the surrounding pale night. Some are sitting or hunkered down, some standing. They appear to be waiting as the sky lightens, or perhaps darkens; it’s impossible to tell exactly which point in the night’s trajectory Jang has caught them. What Jang has said about the monoliths in his photographs could also apply to these human subjects: “In the context of nature, they are paused, as if to rethink their purpose.”