source signup photo

Sign Up for The Source
Your weekly resource for arts and culture news and community events, straight to your inbox every Thursday.

* indicates required

These are no ordinary photographs. They are not like the traditional silver gelatin processes that have created black-and-white photos since the late 19th century, nor those printed from 35 mm film. They are also not digital renderings, snapped with an iPhone and run through a printer that is not too indecipherable from the ones sitting in offices and copy centers. 

Or are they?

NewellPhotoCatie Newell. Photograph courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Art.Catie Newell refuses to reveal how she makes the photographs that comprise her Nightly Series and are currently on view in Catie Newell: Overnight at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through November 6th, but needless to say, they are unlike anything else out there. That is not an overstatement—Newell is in the process of patenting her technique, which produces photographs that look completely different depending upon the time of day in which they are viewed, at which angle, and the lighting conditions. In fact, everyone who works with her has to sign a non-disclosure agreement, ensuring the mystery prevails. 

“It evolved by mistake,” she says of her body of work, but a fortuitous one at that.

Newell is fascinated by darkness, and expressing different shades of black through her camera, which is no easy feat. Other artists over the years have grappled with this conundrum, as artists like Mark Rothko confounded modernist painters with his abstract black paintings in the 1960s, showing nearly imperceptible changes in gradation. So it is apt that Newell has found a way to manipulate technology to aid her favorite subject, while keeping the details of her real life settings in tact. 

“How to show work that is taken in lots of darkness, and how to capture that,” Newell says, was her biggest challenge as a photographer. 

Nightly Newell 02Catie Newell, Nightly Series, 2015. Courtesy of the artist, ©Catie Newell. And the artist’s hometown of Detroit proved a worthy setting. She began taking these photos nearly three years ago, between 2013 and 2014, in what she says “was a time before all of the movement of streetlights was really happening.” She describes a “dense urban landscape that was dark because there wasn’t street lighting. No one was producing more light with headlights or porch lights.” 

While the lack of streetlights in many Detroit neighborhoods was emblematic of the city’s outdated infrastructure, and a $185-million project by the Public Lighting Authority has since installed 62,000 lights and counting throughout Detroit, for Newell, it was “an amazing time to capture this really dense area that was, in fact, dark.”

“You can’t go back and take that image again. There was a conscious effort that I was archiving this moment of darkness that was soon going to go away.” 

To aid in the viewing of her photos, there is no artificial lighting in the UMMA gallery. The works, which have been exhibited since the summer, allow for bright sun or moonlight through the glass enclosure. Thus, new components of the photos may be revealed depending upon the visit. (A suspended installation of copper aluminum wires and tiny LED lights that are only visible when extremely close to the work provide the only added light source in the entire gallery). As fall settles in, the metallic shimmer embedded within the photos dance off the surface, playing with the impending sunset. Newell hopes that visitors will be sparked with “the great joy of what happens at that exact time, and the curiosity of what they would be like at midnight or on a rainy day.” 

As Newell is also an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, her photography reflects that first and foremost, Newell is an architect by trade. 

“I was brought up in the discipline and practice of architecture, and that is how I see the world, spatially. I am an amalgamation.” 

It is this intersection of place, of Newell’s urban home witnessed through her camera’s lens, that highlights her craft.

“I’m a provocateur of space, a hunter of darkness." 

“I’m a provocateur of space, a hunter of darkness,” she notes.

“There’s something amazing about darkness. I think it transforms our ability to transform our idea of space. It’s ephemeral because it takes the smallest amount of light to go away. It changes the foreground and background. And people are often uncomfortable in darkness. I’m really interested in that existence.”