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Unpopulated and sometimes unsettling, these images can be read on many levels; their evocative colors can seem garish or sublime. Taken together the photographs of Night/Shift create a unique portrait of the city and a personal meditation for each viewer.
For some years, Lynn Saville was a night photographer. Her images expressed the way that darkness transforms objects, rendering them almost abstract through submerging surface detail in favor of velvety black shapes, often set against the somewhat more luminous night sky. They were in effect nocturnes—night thoughts that turn what Hegel speaks of as “the prose of the world” into visual poetry. One had the thought that she must prefer the silent mysteries of the night world to the raucous, unforgiving light of day and took the risks of solitary explorations in darkness for the sake of its aesthetic rewards. The New York night world, as one knows from the photographs of Weegee, is full of violent incident. But Lynn’s night world was of another order—and looked, from her photographs of it, like something softened by subtracting the light from things, like a magical translation, to use Shakespeare’s language, into something rich and strange. Her book Acquainted with the Night was like a travel book, bringing to stay-at-homes images of a far country that she had made her own.
Night/Shift, as the unusual punctuation implies, marks an abrupt discontinuity in her work, in which the things are shown not in the harsh light of day, but without the benefit, one might say, of the natural cosmetic of darkness. This book addresses various sites in Greater New York, taken at the twilight hour through various seasons of the year. The sun has set, but its traces inflect the color of the sky, pinkish at the horizon, turning a luminous blue as one raises one’s eyes, that subtly changes into a handsome translucent dark purple above that. The streetlights are on, patches of yellowish light fall across broken sidewalks, mostly empty, although the sites that attract this artist cannot at any time of day hold throngs. This is not the swanky New York of great stores and legendary restaurants. Rather, there is a feeling of run-downness, even of abandonment. It is mostly the New York of film noir, of old-fashioned iron viaducts, fire escapes, garbage cans, tenement buildings, uninviting facades, graffiti, curtainless windows, heavy shadows, neighborhood barrooms with crooked neon signs that in these contexts suggest that strangers might better go elsewhere. Every American city with an industrial past has sites like these—bare ruined choirs where late the machinery rattled and hummed and workers with lunchboxes punched time clocks. What makes these distinctive of New York are the skylines and the great bridges that express the spirit the sites themselves expressed before they acquired the patina of abandonment and ruin. The city went on to find another identity for itself, and it even colonized its industrial endowment, turning leftover lofts into studios and ultimately into residential spaces, luxurious for their roominess and light. But the sites of interest to Lynn Saville are still unredeemed and rarely visited except by flaneurs like her, on aesthetic expeditions into the worn, the rejected, the forgotten, lonely, and dangerous remnants that no one but an artist with her sensibility knows what to do with, short of demolition. She captures them for the ashcan poetry of their desolation, against the day when someone puts them to more practical and certainly more profitable uses.
In many cases, of course, they are examples of the past-in-the-present, like the bridges and viaducts that are robust survivors, arteries for moving the city’s relentless traffic. There are wonderful photographs of them, but as sites, not sights. No one visits the 125th Street viaduct the way, in Paris, they visit the Eiffel Tower, which belonged to the future when it was erected, but quickly enough lapsed into the period of wrought-iron architecture, lacy but beached by change. No one today would erect a bridge like the Brooklyn Bridge, which still has the dignity of constant use, but the architectural power of ancient arches. But for Saville it is a site, or background to a site, even though it is also one of the great sights of the city for a different kind of project than hers.
Most of these are not sites many of us would have occasion to visit, not at this particular hour, when there is an air of menace. Lynn Saville must have a taste for urban danger, or she would not be there when those who may have a reason to be there in daylight hours have left for home. Behind the camera is a vulnerable body animated by an intrepid spirit, adjusting lenses, composing, capturing a squalid scene of weeds and rust where a cross street ends at one of the city’s rivers. Overhead one of the city’s great bridges—the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Queensborough Bridge—arches across our vision, casting light on the oily surface of passing water. There is scarcely a single place that evokes a desire to be there oneself, unless one shares the aesthetic of decay that drew the artist there. So she takes the risk a hunter takes, perhaps treating danger as a spice, but gaining the pleasure of having the site to herself. Just the thought of having to walk down a deserted street to reach the site makes one grateful to be home safe, turning the pages as her vision of this aging world unfolds. The city she is in search of is, after all, a kind of urban desert.