Known for her moody, black-and-white city portraits of Paris and New York, photographer Lynn Saville has a new body of color photography work on display at Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York. Shooting in the dark, Saville exposes the exoskeleton of the city by highlighting the minute details of street panoramas with ambient light. Night/Shift coincides with a monograph of the same name published by art house The Monacelli Press. Read on for images from the exhibition and a chat with the artist.
Art critic for The Nation Arthur Danto compares Saville’s photographs to Eugène Atget‘s early morning images of Paris, as Savile “prowls her city at the other end of the day, picking up pieces of the past in the present, just before it is swallowed by shadows.” Saville herself explains that she seeks out the unloved and overlooked, the “cracks in the urban façade.” Unpopulated and unsettling, the stark tableaux with sometimes radioactive coloring document an ephemeral side of the city.
Saville lives and works in New York and received her MFA from Pratt Institute, so it’s safe to say she’s well familiar with her subject matter. In 2006 her black-and-white photography series 42nd Street Nocturne was on exhibition as a multi panel installation in the 42nd Street/Bryant Park subway station, and her image of the Brooklyn Bridge at night is in the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection exploring American identities. We spoke with Lynn about her unique take on city life within American culture, and how gentrification affects street photography.
Flavorpill: You photograph many industrial areas around the boroughs of New York – Gowanus, Red Hook, Long Island City. Do you spend a lot of time scouting new locations or are these ingrained in your city memory? If so, how have these settings changed since you’ve lived here?
Lynn Saville: I am a true flaneur…one who loves to walk the city and experience it….as Charles Baudelaire loved to say. I am fond of exploring the areas around the edges of New York. In the years I have lived in New York I have observed the changes from industrial to post industrial in many neighborhoods. It is fascinating to see the the city slowly evolve to a calmer and more residential place. I’m attracted to the exoskeleton of the elevated subways and highways snaking through the boroughs. There is a timeless quality to the overpasses, bridges, streets of the city. I look for places where trucks load and unload in the few industrial areas which still exist.
FP: “Gentrification” is such a dirty word. But it’s not always a terrible thing – pride in one’s aesthetic surroundings, more amenities and opportunities for a community. Visually, do you prefer the rough cut or the gentrified version? And what do you look for when shooting an image?
LS: I don’t mind gentrification….I am fascinated that people have adapted to living and working in such a complex array of architectural places. That’s one of the most interesting aspects of New York City. I’m curious to watch the changes of the city as it evolves…It’s very organic…it changes faster in some places than others. Sometimes developers take over whole blocks, destroy the existing buildings and erect bland large buildings with little consideration for the surrounding blocks and existing buildings. I am not a preservationist..who wishes the city to become a huge museum of itself… but I don’t always like the way some areas are gutted and huge structures placed where neighborhoods once had a variety of pre-existing buildings with different histories.
FP: Where are some of your favorite spots that you’ve cataloged for the book and the exhibition?
LS: I have watched the changes in the Meat Packing district. The development of the Highline has been a really successful project. My sincerest compliments to its designers! I like walking along the elevated train tracks and wildflowered path to view the city. Looking right at the billboards and down at the street is fantastic. That area has gradually become more pedestrian friendly, whereas in the past it was a no-man’s land, kind of scary. Another favorite place of mine is the Gowanus area of Brooklyn. What used to be a stinky wasteland with industries and trucks…is now a lovely, calm waterway and new neighborhood where people have gardens and walk their dogs. A friend took me on a canoe ride in the Gowanus Canal. I’ attracted to the big sky overhead (few skyscrapers), the many bridges, foliage and the surprising colors at twilight, dawn and nighttime. Some of the colors are from the sky, others from streetlights or neon and surveillance lighting.
FP: What are some of the physical challenges of shooting at night? There are a host of ‘urban archaeologist’ type photographers who sneak into off-limits venues and run like hell when the police show. You can’t really do that if you’re prepping a fine art image with what I imagine would be a long exposure.
LS: I work kind of fast. And I respect the power of the authorities…such as police. I am always friendly and don’t argue with a policeman. I think I look innocent, so generally I don’t have a problem! Sometimes you just can’t take a photo if a policeman sees you. Near power plants such as in New Jersey in the Meadowlands is hard. Also at Rockefeller Center or at the World Trade Center area, the police and security folks say you can’t use a tripod. I try to work very very fast: set up tripod around the corner, wait for the right moment, prepare my camera, then quickly take the photo even if it’s a fairly long exposure which for me might be 20 to 30 seconds. If I walk around with the tripod set up, then I’m a target for the police.
FP: Let’s talk about lighting. There is a true variety of industrial and urban lighting surrounding us – billboards, street lamps, headlights, surveillance lighting. How much post-production is used to manipulate this lighting for the final product?
LS: I generally “scout” my shots with a digital camera. When I take the “real” photo with color negative film I have it processed and a contact sheet made. Then I get little prints made by a lab (usually Duggal). I pin up these little prints (4” x 5” or 4”’x 6” depending on the format of the film I used.) Living with the small prints helps me edit them down to the ones I really like. Then I might print them 11” x 14” size or maybe go right up to 20” x 24” which is my standard size. If I really like the image I print it on 30” x 40” paper. The burning & dodging of the photograph in the darkroom is extremely precise. But I don’t make incredible changes to the image. Often my goal is to recreate in a print the original visual impulse which attracted me to take the photograph. I make the prints myself. If I need a large print in a very short time I ask someone else to print it for me. So most of the prints in my book and exhibition were made in a traditional color darkroom from medium format color negatives.
FP: And if not New York, where else would you like to pound the pavement and document a city at rest?
LS: I have experienced lovely photographic moments in Los Angeles, Paris, London, and Venice. I am intrigued by the undulations of Chicago ad it’s subways; I have heard how lovely Singapore is….I am open to new urban places.
Lynn Saville Night/Shift is on display at Yancey Richardson (535 West 22nd Street) through August 28, 2009.