Strange Beauty in the Realm of Night: Lynn Saville’s Nocturnal Images

Lynn Saville

After settling down in New York City during the seventies to pursue her studies in photography at Pratt Institute, LYNN SAVILLE has since gone on to produce different sets of nocturnal images, many of which are documented in her books, Acquainted with the Night (Rizzoli, 1997), and more recently, Night/Shift (Random House/Monacelli Press, 2009).

A native of North Carolina, and an alumna of Duke University, Lynn Saville’s work has been collected by venues and museums in different corners of the world. Such places include Bibliothèque nationale de France, Brooklyn Museum of Art, California Museum of Photography, International Museum of Photography (George Eastman House), Museum of the City of New York, and the New York Public Library. She has also held exhibitions (both solo and group) at galleries in London, Paris, Turin, Palermo, Zurich and other major cities.

A regular lecturer and visiting artist at institutes and centers of photography in America, Saville works towards diversifying her photographic output and contributions by constantly seeking, exploring and shedding light upon the little-known and neglected corners of places and cities at small hours — however “dark” they may seem. Read more at

How has your relationship with the night evolved over these years, particularly after your project Night/Shift?

My relationship with night has evolved in several ways. At first I saw the night as more monochromatic and more “night” than twilight and dawn. As I worked on Night/Shift, I became fascinated with the transition when the flat, low-contrast time after the sun sets (or just before it rises) suddenly emerges and calls attention to itself… as if a huge glow illuminates the sky.

Photography has always been in the vanguard… because of its apparent ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ as well as its ability to address… issues such as politics and the theatre of day-to-day life.

In Night/Shift, I perceived the many hues of blue and the way the hidden sun somehow was still etching edges of light onto clouds. After Night/Shift, I’m not as focused on the sky itself for the moment. Although I’m very aware of what the light is doing, I’m looking at the illumination from within buildings and stores and structures… and not as focused on the exact time of night. Perhaps I’m just thinking of the quiet and vacancy of the evening hours, more than the sky versus the structures.

How did you encounter photography?

My sense of beauty was first awakened in Italy. At ages 5, 10, and 15, I accompanied my parents on visits to that country. There, I admired the cunning of the Italian hand in everything from window displays to the placement of cypress trees in front of villas.

Summers in Vermont also provided me with opportunities to observe and participate in the photography projects of my father and older brother. For example, I photographed the night sky and then developed and printed the pictures in a tiny basement darkroom.

In 1971, when I moved to New York City, I began to photograph the city constantly, fascinated by its strange beauty and changing character. During that period, I also studied various ways to render light and shadow when photographing theatrical performances and nocturnal street scenes. I was inspired by Edgar Degas’ monoprints of dancers and the way in which their texture resembles certain grain patterns visible on enlargements from 35 mm photographs. Since then, I continued to photograph in the twilight and at night wherever I went.


BY Lynn Saville
(The Monacelli Press, 2009)

From the publisher:

“Lynn Saville photographs New York during the time of transition from daylight to night, the fleeting moments when natural light gives way to streetlight, moonlight, window light, and advertisement and surveillance lighting. Subdued tones and shadows reveal a geometry hidden beneath the visual distractions of daylight. Saville has sought out places that seem questionable — deserted factories, back alleys, the shadowy infrastructure of urban highways and bridges that suggest the city’s exoskeleton.

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.”

Do you believe in photography as a contemporary expression of aesthetics?

Absolutely, yes. Photography has always been in the vanguard of the visual arts because of its apparent “reality” and “truth” as well as its ability to address contemporary issues such as politics and the theatre of day-to-day life. One artist I admire is Brian Ulrich, whose photographs of “Dead Malls” and thrift shops address the financial crisis we’re experiencing now with a sense of narrative in a visually interesting and compelling way.

Photography seems to record “reality.” Our constantly shifting world, our existence, is impossible to “pin down.” Photography seems to be able to come close in recording a moment of truth — but the moments are constantly changing. There is a tension between what seems real and what seems more subjective. The camera angle, light, attitude of the artist, all influence these images of “truth.” The art of photography invites the exploration of truth and the search of truth, fakery and other intentional artificial truths. Photography is able to handle these seemingly contradictory interpretations of reality.

You seem more interested in tapping energies of places so as to explore their (in)temporality. How about portraits and personages?

In recent projects I have concentrated on urban architecture and landscape, with hints of figures or the ghostlike images of people passing through some of my images. I feel a special resonance for these structures as a home space through which so many people pass… I can observe the subtle (and not-so-subtle) transformations of these spaces. It’s fascinating to see the slow progression of time on a city. However, I also love to photograph people. I’m approaching people I happen to see as I’m out photographing. Sometimes I photograph them unawares… as they walk through my “scene” and sometimes I ask to take a portrait. I’d like to include more people in my new project, “Vacancy.” In this new project, I’m hoping to explore ways to visualize that link a city’s fringe and marginal areas to its fashionable avenues.

Could you elaborate further about the interest in “ghosts”? Does this interest introduce you to dark energies of a place, event or memory?

I think of “ghosts” first of all as people and/or animals who “just happen to” walk into my frame as I’m taking a photograph. But the moment seems charged with an uncanny person-to-person intuitive connection. I often think that these people (and/or animals) might be keeping me company… being there to support my fantasies about the place I’m photographing. I don’t take the dark energy concept very seriously, but I do feel a connection to people who walk into my photograph’s frame.

Acquainted with the Night

Acquainted with the Night
(Rizzoli, 1997)

From the publisher:

“The mysterious, seductive essence of the night has long entranced the imagination of artists and writers, and now it is the focus of a unique book that pairs evocative black-and-white photography with classic and contemporary poetry. Lynn Saville’s photographs, shot after dark in and around New York and at other urban and rural sites in the United States, Portugal, Greece, and India, reveal unusual aspects of familiar cities and monuments as well as the dusky allure of fringe areas such as Manhattan’s industrial district and desolate waterfronts. Rich with light and shadow, the photographs suggest the suspenseful, provocative quality of film noir.

Accompanying the photographs are 35 poems and poetic excerpts about the night, beginning with Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” which inspired the book’s title and mood. Selected here are works by Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Charles Simic, and Octavio Paz, among other award-winning poets, and citations from ancient verse such as the Rig Veda and The Epic of Gilgamesh. This volume speaks with contemplative beauty to those who love photography and poetry, and especially to all denizens of the night.”

I once asked a journalist/poet-turned-publisher if it was possible for her to write silence. She was unable to answer me, and in fact, evaded the question as if silence was a form of anguish (or politics) that she could not confront. I’m tempted to ask you if silence could exist in photography, particularly yours, as it appears to aspire towards fixating stillness (however one may define it), only to reset stillness in another motion. What are your thoughts?

That is a wonderful thought. Yes, silence plays a major part in the way I work and what I seek. In poetry, the pause or moments in between words, phrases and stanzas are vital to its rhythm and meaning. When the city is quiet, people are not as active and I find I can communicate and understand the city and the landscape better. The cacophony which I often experience in the city can be marvelous also, but when it’s silent, I can concentrate, focus my thoughts and perceive the stillness in a creative way.

Do you have a working “ritual” or routine?

Lynn Saville

Yes, I like to leave my apartment a couple of hours before sunset and often I have a specific place to go. I like to study maps and do research on the internet… I look for new locations by seeing different websites. Once I have selected an area, I usually take a subway or bus, then walk. I wander around an area (people often ask if I need directions or help) and I am just looking and listening. These days I bring a digital camera and a medium format film camera and a tripod. I take test shots with the digital to see if I like the lighting or the particular framing. Then I switch to the film. Often, once I set up the film camera on the tripod, I walk around with it and keep working just with the film camera. When I get back to my studio, I upload the digital and look at those images… and take the film to a color lab for processing. Recently I’ve been scanning the film negatives and making prints from the scans. I also print in a color darkroom for some of the photographs.

How do you renew your energies as an artist, and as an individual?

I like to ride a bicycle, watch movies and see friends. I also love to read… a variety of books. I admire writers who write in a visual way or who communicate a place as part of their narrative. One of my favorites is Denis Johnson. His books Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son are very colorful and lurid. I also like the book Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman who described the Battle of Stalingrad from a variety of perspectives. He was a journalist and so had access to a lot of different places during that period of history. He was very good at describing the “scenes” and the characters in his book. I like to read interviews about artists as well. One of my favorites is Conversations Before the End of Time by Suzi Gablik. When possible, I also attend lectures.

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