What is it about photographers and their affinity for the dark?
“I think it’s the lighting,” says Detroit Institute of Arts Curator of Photographer Nancy Barr. “Photo 101, it’s always about the light, looking at light. And really good photographers look at light, look at ambient light, different sources of light, and weird colors and making the sky light in different ways.”
It may seem antithetical that in darkness, many photographers find their greatest inspiration. After all, it should be difficult to capture an image that isn’t properly lit. Yet it is in those silhouettes, those shadows, where many of the most evocative photos are found. One doesn’t need to see all the features of one’s face to understand the mood, the essence, of dancing bodies or fingers on a piano.
For the 13 photographers featured in the DIA’s newest exhibition, Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the DIA Collection, on view through April 23rd, darkness is not only what happens with lack of sunshine, but also what occurs in the after hours, sharing the life that many of us miss when asleep.
The show includes works by Scott Hocking, Leni Sinclair, Sye Rynski and Jon DeBoer, and includes a brief look at historic New York City and Paris night imagery by famed photographers Robert Frank and Brassaï.
In particular, Barr notes, it is Detroit’s music community that inspired much of the show. “The music component, this is a part of the night.”
Doug Coombe, one of the photographers featured in the exhibition, credits much of his success due to his photographs of rock musicians Jack White and Meg White of The White Stripes.
“It was the Detroit music community that inspired and turned me into a photographer in the first place—I started out as a record store employee who just started taking a camera to shows to document what I saw. One of the things you discover quickly is what welcoming and interconnected arts community we have in the city.”
For Steve Shaw, who works at the museum that now holds his artwork as part of its permanent collection and is also a musician, there is a sense of “disbelief.”
“It’s funny ‘cause I normally hang these exhibits,” he says.
In an exhibition that pointedly showcases the diversity of Detroit’s architecture, skyline, highways and open spaces, Shaw notes that his photographs—both recent works and those dating from the 1980s—”show the dynamics of Detroit long before bankruptcy or any so-called idea of rebirth.”
He points out that his photographs at The Willis Gallery from 1989, in a room where he had previously exhibited, and on the block where he used to live, is now home to Avalon Bakery. “You could argue that that corner was a lot more happening then than it is now.”
This contrast of a vibrant nightlife is somewhat at odds with the city's outdoor environment, when a lone car on the road speaks volumes as to the time of day at which the photograph was taken, as is the case of Scott Hocking's "Edsel Ford River, Supermoon Sewer Slam," which brings the moon's glow into the DIA's gallery.
“He [Scott Hocking] loves the otherworldly light, same thing with Jon DeBoer. He likes the mystery—he goes out in the mist and snow and fog to get all those atmospheric effects mingling with the artificial light. It’s kind of exciting and scary at the same time to be out by yourself with your tripod, it’s got to be a really vulnerable experience, but none of them are afraid shooting," says Barr.
But it is that mystery of a city at night that ultimately unites these disparate photographers, and connects with a museum audience who Barr anticipates will find a "personal connection with the images."
Photos courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts