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Muses from the Past: The Night Photographs of Jessie Tarbox Beals

Analyzing classic photographs can be an effective way to progress in one’s own work. The key is not to simply mimic someone else’s great ideas, but to use the knowledge that comes with reproducing the work of masters and move on to create something new. With this in mind, National Parks at Night's Lance Keimig offers this ongoing series highlighting some of the early masters of night photography. We'd love to see any photographs you create after learning more about the pioneers of this niche—please share in the comments section!


In his book Conversations With Picasso, the famous Hungarian night photographer Brassai tells of how Picasso came to nickname him “The Terrorist” because of his use of explosive magnesium chlorate flash powder to illuminate his photographs. Brassai certainly was not shy about his generous use of the smoky, smelly substance, but perhaps the lesser known photographer Jessie Tarbox Beals is better deserving of the moniker.

Jessie Tarbox Beals, c. 1905

Jessie Tarbox Beals, c. 1905

Beals is known as the “first woman news photographer,” and the “first woman night photographer,” and was also one of the first female photographers to use flash powder. In 1905, the New York American reported:

The explosion of an over-charge of flashlight powder set off by two photographers, one of them a woman, just as crowds were poring out of the Garrick Theatre, caused tremendous excitement and considerable damage. Windows in several houses were broken, scores of families, brought out of bed by the detonation, which rang through three blocks, came scurrying into the street, some of them in their bedclothes. The theatre patrons were panic-stricken, and there was a stampede to get out of the neighborhood. The photographers were trying to get a special group coming out of the theatre, from a stoop across the street, when the explosion occurred. Two pounds of flashlight powder, four times the usual amount, is alleged to have been set off.

It was difficult for any photographer to estimate the amount of powder needed to light up a space outdoors. Despite their severe shaking up, both the man and the woman recovered sufficiently to lose themselves in the crowd and get away. … Palmer Hunt, who lives at 70 West 35th Street, whose windows were wrecked, said that he thought that the explosion was due to an attempt on his life. He said that he is a strike-breaker, and at the head of the Iron Worker’s Ass’n, a non-union organization. Investigation proved however, that the entire disturbance was due to a no more serious disturbance than that which lay behind the effort of the photographers to get their coveted picture.

And all these years since 9/11, I’ve been wondering what photographers had to do with terrorism every time I get rousted by the cops or an over-zealous security guard. Turns out I can blame it on Jessie Tarbox Beals!

Beals was born in 1870 and died in 1942, which made her a close contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz. While Stieglitz left a larger legacy, Beals was a remarkable woman whose drive and spirit enabled her to succeed in a challenging profession against significant odds.

Throughout her career, Beals worked with an 8x10 view camera, even at night. A large view camera is cumbersome even in the daytime, but is exceedingly difficult to work with in the dark. Her basic kit consisted of camera and lenses, a bulky wooden tripod, holders, and heavy glass plates that weighed about 50 pounds.

Like most women of her day, Beals had to work at least twice as hard as men to make any headway, and she worked tirelessly to make ends meet. She often made speculative images of events and sold 8x10-inch contact prints for 60 cents apiece!

There are relatively few mentions of night photography in Beals’ papers, nor in her 1978 biography written by Alexander Alland, but there is plenty of photographic evidence.

The archive of her work at Harvard University’s Schlesinger library contains well over 100 prints of nocturnal images that span Beals’ photographic career. She photographed New York at night at the same time as Stieglitz and his followers, but primarily as a journalist. Her images were sharp and in stark contrast to the soft focus dreamscapes of the pictorialists.

Sadly, we will never understand her motivations to photograph at night, nor how she initially happened upon night photography in the first place. Stieglitz and his colleagues had been photographing in New York since about 1895, and there is some evidence that Beals was aware of Stieglitz and certainly his 291 Gallery where many of the pictorialist’s night images had been shown.

Beals took many night views of the pavilions of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, houses lit by gaslight in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and later the mission-style architecture of Santa Barbara after she moved to California in 1922.

Beals had trained her husband to be her assistant, and he processed her plates and made prints—but they were generally of the down and dirty variety a journalist makes on the fly for a deadline rather than as precious works of art. As in the examples shown here, Beals’ night views are generally ordinary scenes showing a record of time and place.

The significance of her legacy is more one of a pioneer than a maker of images. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Beals’ efforts paved the way for other women photographers who came after her. Alland wrote in his biography of Beals that after her success in New York, there was an increasing number of other women photographers who ironically became her competitors. It was that competition for assignments that in part ultimately led to her relocating to California.  Photographers such as Bernice Abbott, Helen Levitt and Margaret Bourke White followed close behind in the footsteps and tripod holes of Jessie Tarbox Beals.

There wouldn’t be the slightest use
For it to snow in Boston,
Because my aching pocket book
Has such an awful frost on.
I want to go and take some more
Night photos in your city,
But till some “dough” doth make a show,
I can’t, and more’s the pity.
— Jessie Tarbox Beals
Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

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A Look Through the Years—How Night Photography has Changed, and How it Hasn't

Lance Keimig, "Sand Pit," 2016. This image could have been made 30 years ago when I started photographing at night, but it was shot a year ago, in October of 2016.

Recently Chris and I were chatting about how various aspects of night photography have changed with the advances in technology, and how others haven’t. It was a lively conversation, and he suggested that I write a blog post on the subject. I thought it was a great idea, especially as it would allow me to talk about my favorite subject: historic night photographers!

Delay Tactics

One of my favorite early night photography stories is about the English photographer Paul Martin, who began photographing at night in earnest in 1895. Others had made the occasional foray into night photography before him, but it was Martin who really set the wheels in motion, and whose work caught the attention of Alfred Stieglitz and his colleagues at the Camera Club of New York.

Martin wrote in his 1939 autobiography, Victorian Snapshots, that at one point he had decided to continue to photograph in darkening conditions after the sun went down, making longer and longer exposures and altering his development to get the best results. Eventually these early night images were published as the book London by Gaslight.

Like with most pioneers or innovators, the general public seemed to think Martin was crazy. People approached to tell him that it wasn’t possible to take pictures in the dark, and that he should go home to his wife, or maybe back to the asylum! On more than one occasion he was accosted by the “bobbies,” who questioned his motives.

These are experiences shared by almost anyone who has been photographing at night for more than a few years. Though, for better or worse, night photography has become so commonplace today that unless you find yourself on the wrong side of a fence, you rarely have to explain your motives to the police or anyone else.

Paul Martin, "A wet night on the embankment," 1895. Martin covered his camera lens during the exposure to shield it from a curious policeman’s lantern.

Back in the 1890s, police carried kerosene lanterns with them on their beats, because flashlights (or what the British call “torches”) hadn’t been invented yet. On more than one occasion, Martin had a long exposure ruined when a policeman walked in front of his camera and raised a lantern to get a better look at the photographer and his gear. (Remember that in those days, street lights were dimmer, and far fewer in number, so the nighttime environment was considerably darker in London than it is today.) Eventually Martin was able to anticipate and react to impending disaster by removing his hat and placing it over the lens until the policeman’s curiosity was satisfied!

New Jersey Photographer Laureate George Tice’s best-known image is the remarkable “Petit’s Mobile Station, Cherry Hill, NJ, 1974.” Tice told me some years ago that the 2-minute exposure on 8x10-inch film actually required about 10 minutes to make because he had to cover the lens whenever cars passed in front of the camera. He would get only 10 or 15 seconds of exposure on the film before a car pulled into the station or passed on the road on the left side of the image. Each and every time, he covered the lens.

George Tice, "Petit’s Mobil Station, Cherry Hill, NJ, 1974." Tice’s best-known image was a 2-minute exposure on 8x10 film that took 10 minutes to expose because the photographer had to repeatedly cover his lens due to cars passing through the scene.

No doubt many of us have employed this same device used by Martin and Tice to prevent an unwanted car or plane trail in our compositions; it’s something I’ve done for decades in my own images. Some things never change.

But most do.

Deliberation

Many of the changes in night photography since digital replaced film are obvious. The ability to “chimp” is a good example. Night photography has become far more accessible because of the instant feedback we get from the image preview, the blinking highlights and the histogram.

Other related changes are less obvious unless you have had the experience of shooting at night with film. There is certainly a great satisfaction in knowing that you’ve “got the shot,” but what is lost is the sense of anticipation that comes from not knowing until you unwind the wet film from the reel in the darkroom.

Working so deliberately usually leads to a higher success rate, and that’s one aspect of my field workflow that I have maintained as much as possible.

The combination of low sensitivity and reciprocity failure meant that night photographers shooting film were lucky to make 10 or 15 exposures per night, and without the ability to review images in the field, we generally took a slow and methodical approach to our work. When considering variations for exposure uncertainty and complex light painting, a good night meant one or two “keepers.” Working so deliberately usually leads to a higher success rate, and that’s one aspect of my field workflow that I have maintained as much as possible over the years. Still, there have been nights in the digital age when I’ve made over 100 exposures––quite a lot for a night photographer.

Justification

I have already alluded to one of the other changes I’ve noticed over the course of my career. Back in the 1990s, I would be questioned all of the time by passers-by wondering what I could be photographing in the dark. Non-photographers would say things like, “There isn’t any light, how can you take a picture?” or “Are you a ghost hunter?” or “There’s nothing there, why are you photographing that old building?” Sometimes I still get those questions, and if the person seems genuinely interested, at least now I can show them the back of the camera.

That leads to another change worth noting. I used to carry a small selection of prints in my camera bag to show to the police or security guards who invariably caught me on the wrong side of the fence. More than once, being able to show a print or two along with a business card eased the concern of the authorities and kept me from being arrested, or at least from being detained. They could somehow understand that an “artist” with a camera was not a threat. In the jittery years following 9/11, that was a real concern. Although to my knowledge there has never been a terrorism event that involved photography, somehow night photographers have often been suspected of bad intent.

Balboa Park. It looks like they mean it.

Gear

We all know how much technology has changed the way we work. Our cameras have improved to the point where almost any can record sharp images of the Milky Way, whereas cameras used to be limited to long exposures and star trails. Moreover, lenses are sharper, batteries last longer, tripods are lighter and flashlights are brighter.

Until very recently, one incredibly frustrating camera feature remained stubbornly stuck at 30 seconds: the shutter speed dial! Over the years, I’ve spoken with numerous camera company reps about why their camera’s shutter speeds don’t go any longer than 30 seconds, and unfailingly I’d get the same answer: “Why would you need to expose for longer than 30 seconds? You could just raise the ISO.” Despite the relative ease and lack of engineering required to enable longer shutter speeds, it wasn’t until the Nikon D750 that we even had a Time setting at our disposal.

Many recent cameras have built-in intervalometers, but again with exposures limited to 30 seconds. Finally, with the release of the Canon 5D Mark IV and 6D Mark II, we have DSLRs with programmable shutter speeds that extend exposures not just to minutes, but as long as 99 hours! Hopefully other manufacturers will follow suit with their future models.

Color

Mixed lighting was always the bane of architectural photographers, especially when natural color rendering was important. For night photographers, it’s often that same mixed lighting that attracts us to a scene in the first place. The early work of photographer Jan Staller was a major influence on me, and his technique of printing to correct for one light source while allowing the others to do what they would created some of the most surreal images I had ever seen.

Lance Keimig, "Mixed Lighting Examples," 1995. These two images were shot on Fuji color negative film in 1995 under a combination of sodium and mercury vapor lights. There is no right or wrong white balance here–– whatever looks right to the photographer, is right.

The incredible control we have over color in our pictures, and the flexibility to set white balance after the image has been captured, both give today’s photographer a flexibility that was inconceivable only 20 years ago. Back then, if you couldn’t control the light sources, you either shot black and white or accepted the crazy colors as they were recorded.

Composition

One thing that hasn’t changed—and will never change—are the principles of composition and design. A good photograph will always be a good photograph, and a crummy one will always be a crummy one regardless of the technology that was used to create it. For that, we can sleep well in the morning.

Lance Keimig, Stromness, 2008. Shot on Fuji Neon Across 120 film with an Ebony 23SW view camera and Nikkor 65mm f/4 lens. 10 minutes, f11. This image was made in the tiny fishing village of Stromness on Orkney in northern Scotland. It was the house of the poet George Mackay Brown. The technology doesn’t matter, the image works because of the combination of vision and craft.

Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

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Muses from the past—the night photos of Burdekin and Morrison

In my last post, I wrote about the passing of my mentor, Steve Harper. The way that I teach my own classes and workshops has been greatly influenced by the time I spent studying with Steve in the late 1980s and early 90s. One of the ways that his influence comes through is that I usually begin my workshops with a (not always) brief overview of the history of night photography.

Steve felt strongly that having an appreciation of the challenges faced by the pioneers of night photography—and at least a passing familiarity with some early nocturnal imagery—was not only interesting, but was also an important aspect of his students developing their own “Night Vision.”

I agree, and I also think that studying the work of others is a great way to learn, and to advance one’s own photography. Analyzing and perhaps even attempting to recreate classic photographs can be an effective way to progress in one’s own work. Even the renowned English photographer Bill Brandt copied some night images by his contemporary Brassai—going so far as to use his own wife as a stand-in for the prostitute in one of Brassai’s photographs!

London Night , by Harold Burdekin and John Morrison

London Night, by Harold Burdekin and John Morrison

The key is not to simply mimic someone else’s great ideas, but to take the knowledge that comes with reproducing the work of masters and move on to create something new. With this in mind, I’m beginning a series of articles highlighting some of my favorite night photographers. Let’s begin by looking at the work of Harold Burdekin and John Morrison.

Unfortunately, little is known about the lives of Burdekin and Morrison. In 1934 they published a remarkable book of night photographs of London that was at least in part inspired by Brassai, who had published the first book ever of night photographs, Paris de Nuit, just the year before. In London Night, Burdekin is credited as the photographer, and Morrison as the assistant and author of the accompanying essay.

Study Burdekin and Morrison’s photographs ... see what you can emulate in their execution.

Burdekin was killed by a falling bomb in London in 1944. Another book of his photographs was published posthumously in 1948. As for Morrison, he was never heard from again. That’s about all there is, except of course for the photographs.

London Night is a beautiful book, sumptuously printed in blue photogravure— the same process that was used for Brassai’s book. In Morrison’s introductory essay to London Night, he references Paul Morand’s opening essay to Brassai’s Paris de Nuit, agreeing with Morand that night is more than the opposite of day. Morrison rhapsodizes throughout his essay about the mysterious and romantic qualities of the night, and it is a fine introduction to the photographs, which also present a highly romanticized and soulful view of pre-war London.

Despite remaining largely unknown, the art of London Night represents one of the finest collections of night photographs of the 20th century. The images are technically perfect, and the compositions are balanced and hold the viewer’s attention, leading the viewer into this dreamy world of shadows.

The photographs convey a dark and lonely city, quiet and seemingly devoid of life. All of the images were made on foggy nights, the fog blending with the soot and smoke from a thousand coal fires in the city. The empty streets are thick with atmosphere, timeless, full of mystery and the unknown. It’s not hard to imagine Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty locked in their game of cat and mouse, slipping through the streets of these photographs. In short, the images capture the sentiments that are nearly universal to night photographers.

I encourage you to study Burdekin and Morrison's photographs and see what you can articulate about their effectiveness, see what you can emulate in their execution. Perhaps venture into your own city or town, and experiment to try to recreate what you like most about their style. The experience will at the very least be fun, and may even spark some changes in how you pursue seizing the night.

Lance Keimig has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT