Lost America and why I started shooting nights
About three years ago now I started listening to podcasts – Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and WNYC’S ‘Radiolab’ mostly but after awhile I discovered photography podcasts. After listening to a few that didn’t particularly take my fancy (dry, procedural) I chanced upon the Camera Dojo Podcast, run by photographer Kerry Garrison as an adjunct to his retail website.
For quite a while, Kerry would run a lengthy interview with a different photographer each week. Most of the time he interviewed high-end rock star wedding photographers or authors/educators in a relatively commercially focussed approach however one quite long and interesting podcast was with a bloke by the name of Troy Paiva.
Troy is a former art director/industrial designer turned light painter/night photographer with a specialisation in ‘urbex’ photography. ‘Urbex’ is a shortened term for urban exploration of mostly contemporary ruins and institutions, tunnels and the like that are usually well past their prime and mostly (but not always) involve shady or illegal access.
Up until this time I didn’t know much about night photography or light painting. I was only remotely aware of how it all worked but I was genuinely fascinated with the approach he presented. Not the ‘sunny 16 rule’ but the ‘moony f8 rule’… pale and unique shadows cast by a full moon, 4-8 minute exposures, film vs digital reciprocity, phases of the moon… and so on. This was a mass of information, some of which didn’t make much sense to me but certain parts of it made absolutely perfect sense. The technical aspect was in itself intriguing but what appealed to me even more was the way he described his travels. By way of example: seven nights in a row of travelling through the American mid-west, straddling the full moon cycle, shooting ruined theme parks, ghost towns and boneyards.
Despite the allure, I’m not by definition an ‘urbexer’ but I was captivated by much of what he had to say about the way civilisation comes and goes – towns are built and then lost to time, of desolate amusement parks, old gas stations, military bases, junkyards and so on. This idea is tied in strongly with my underlying ‘mission’ of documenting the built form around us. It comes and goes and someone needs to be there to capture it before it goes. Because it disappears quickly – quicker than we might otherwise comprehend within the scheme of time.
Troy does more than capture this stuff though; he light paints it with great precision and eloquence with gelled flashes (and in recent times) a device called a ‘Protomachine’. He’s been doing this for years now, back since the days of film. Those of us who are students of the dark art of night photography would know how long it takes to get an exposure right. It is true that over time, one develops an instinct for aperture and exposure combinations (“that looks like a two minutes F8 to me” is a line I’ve thought to myself a few times) however the comparative crapshoot of manual film photography would mean burning through roll after roll to get a series of exposures right.
And in many situations – semi-illegal location that took effort to access, full moon, great clouds, no breeze – the variables don’t always align, so the luxury of a quick rear-screen chimp between exposures is something we all take for granted these days. Troy was doing it by the roll back in the day. An expensive but formative way to perfect your craft.
I bought one of his books – I rarely buy photo books these days – and despite having seen countless examples of light painted work since, his original and powerful images still inspire and thrill me.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that it was Troy Paiva that inspired me to take up night photography. Heck, I even emailed him a crappy flash lit photo of my son’s cubby house when starting off with my gelled up flashes and noisy jpeg long exposures (hello hot pixels).
Troy is remarkably prolific and consistent. He holds classes in junkyards and gets access to remarkable places where aircraft are half buried in the ground and old movie props lie scattered in the desert. He is the junkyard rockstar of photographers and a legitimate master of light painting.
Through very long and often bracketed exposures, Troy makes the night look like day. Where he shoots (in the middle of nowhere when the full moon is your primary light source) that can happen.
In my case, I gave up light painting a fair while ago: almost as quickly as I started it. I wasn’t particularly good at it but more the point, I just felt I was constantly copying/emulating what had already been done. His forceful light cast too great a shadow over anything I could image doing so I didn’t pursue it. I now focus my attention primarily on street lighting which I find a more pragmatic approach and to my eye, offers a good sense of drama and sense of ‘place’. It also fits in with my preferred subject matter: urban photography that’s already full of lights.
What instantly appealed to me about night photography was the allure of the colour and drama that long exposures provide but more importantly, the opportunity to mentally disconnect from reality in a sort of meditative state. Like a lot of people, my life is chockful of stuff. My work and family lives bustle and hustle away at each other regularly, with the residual time in between the cracks left for photography and maybe the occasional moment of sleep. Despite the constant underlying tension of being mugged or worse, night photography allows me to clear my head and think of nothing much apart from the moment.
The composition, the colour, the exposure, the light.
There’s lots of links to Troy Paiva’s work online. His website is worth a look
The following interview was the impetus for this piece of writing and is also worth a read:
Wayne Grivell, 2013