Night Photography History

Muses from the Past: A. Aubrey Bodine, Baltimore’s Photographer Laureate

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!


I grew up in Baltimore and discovered night photography there in 1986. Some of my earliest images—two of which I still regard as decent—were made downtown on West Read Street, just a few blocks from A. Aubrey Bodine’s studio, and where he made many of his best night images.

As a Baltimore native son, it was hard not to be aware of Bodine’s photographs and his connection with the Baltimore Sun. I was introduced to his images during a photography class at the local community college early in my career, but I didn’t know that he had made a large number of night images. That’s a discovery I made only quite recently on a family visit to my hometown.

Pratt Street and Long Dock, 1959.

Bodine began working for the Baltimore Sun newspaper in 1920 at age 14, was promoted to commercial photographer at 18, and became the Sunday Sun feature photographer at 21. He became the photographic director of the Sunday Sun magazine when it was created in 1946. The exposure he enjoyed through his position at the newspaper brought a level of celebrity, and he was well-known and admired as a result.

First Presbyterian Churchyard, c.1950.

In addition to being employed by the Sun for 50 years, Bodine also exhibited at photo salons both nationally and internationally, and he won many awards. He was made an Honorary Fellow of the Photographic Society of America (PSA) in 1965, as one of the first 20 photographers to be awarded this highest honor along with Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. Bodine was a founding member of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and was the first photographer to have a fellowship in both PSA and NPPA.

Tyson Street, c. 1950.

Although he photographed at night between about 1935 and 1960, most of Bodine’s nocturnal images were made in Baltimore around 1950. The Mount Vernon neighborhood was a favorite subject. It’s the location of the Washington Monument, featured in many of those images. He also photographed Baltimore Harbor at night, which is a much different place today after major revitalization that began in the 1980s.

Like many night photographers, Bodine learned early on that bad weather makes for great night photos. His night images were made in urban environments with high-contrast lighting, which requires a very different approach than photographing the Milky Way in a national park. He wrote, “Never attempt night photography when the night is clear—always choose a rainy, foggy or snowy night. You will then be able to catch the street reflections and outline the buildings.” That’s good advice for shooting in cities at night, similar to what I’ve been teaching workshop participants for two decades, and something that English photographer Paul Martin figured out way back in 1896.

Bodine advised exposing for four to five times the normal exposure length, and using a fast panchromatic film. In those days, that typically meant the equivalent of ISO 100. The real secret to the success of Bodine’s night images was his modified film developer. In his 1987 biography of Bodine, Harold Williams wrote, “What Bodine did in his darkroom he taught himself by experimentation; much of what he did was unorthodox. He mixed chemicals by intuition that came from experience, not by following directions on the container.”

Bodine used a weak developer and an extended development time, the tried-and-true method for controlling highlights in high-contrast night scenes in film photography. The results were often spectacular, even showing detail in the gaslights that illuminated many of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.

Bodine was a master printer, which was a little unusual for a newspaper photographer of that era, but he felt that exhibiting his work greatly contributed to his development as an artist. He made large exhibition prints of many of his images––the archive of which his daughter Jennifer has managed since 2000. (You can view the archive at aaubreybodine.com.)

Excerpts from the Mallinckrodt Photo Bulletin No.71 from 1955, which featured the night nhotography of A. Aubrey Bodine, along with his advice for developing black and white film shot at night.

I’ve been fortunate to exchange a series of emails with Jennifer about her father’s work, and she has invited me to meet with her and view firsthand some of his prints and writings the next time I visit Baltimore. Needless to say I’m thrilled for the opportunity, and will report back in a future post. Just the thought has me scheming to pull out my view camera and try to find some of the locations of Bodine’s images.

For today’s digital night photographer, one of the most important lessons we can learn from Bodine is that experimentation and breaking the so-called “rules” can lead to solutions to the challenges we encounter in the field. It’s just as true today that trial and error and careful observation of the results is the best way to address the challenges of night photography.

My research into his work and career has also reminded me of the importance of printing and exhibiting our images, something Bodine did throughout his career, independent of his newspaper work. (If you’ve been wanting to print your images, but aren’t quite sure how to begin, check out Gabe’s recent blog post “Make Printing Part of Your Process.”)

Note: To read more about early night photographers, you can read the first chapter of Lance’s book, Finding Your Way in the Dark.

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 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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Muses from the Past: The Night Photographs of Volkmar Kurt Wentzel

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!


The great Hungarian photographer Brassai is arguably the most influential night photographer of all time, particularly due to his work during the 1930s after the release of his seminal book, Paris De Nuit. I was introduced to Brassai while studying with Steve Harper in San Francisco in the late 1980s, shortly after Paris De Nuit was reprinted in the classic Parthenon edition in 1987.

Last year I wrote about Howard Burdekin and John Morrison, who paid a backhanded compliment to Brassai in their own book London Night. The English photographer Bill Brandt admired and even copied Brassai’s night work. But this article is not about Brassai, but rather about Volkmar Kurt Wentzel, a German American photographer who also found inspiration in the pages of Brassai’s Parisian nocturnes.

“Lafayette Square.” A silhouetted sculpture of Andrew Jackson on a rearing horse opposite the North Portico of the White House. Wentzel used an exposure that kept the sculpture in shadow, but preserved the detail of the illuminated White House. As was typical of this series, Wentzel chose to photograph on a wet and foggy night, a strategy that he no doubt observed in the night work of Brassai, and perhaps in Stieglitz’s as well.

Wentzel moved to America in 1926 at the age of 9, when his father, an amateur photographer and photo chemical salesman from Dresden, Germany, was offered a job as director of an Ansco photographic paper manufacturing plant in New York. Wentzel’s mother died a few years later, after which he set off with a friend on foot for South America.

After three days of walking and hitch-hiking, they found themselves in Washington, D.C., where the two parted ways. The friend went home to his mother, and Wentzel rented a room in Lafayette Square near the White House. He found a job working in the darkroom of Underwood & Underwood portraiture studio and news agency, where he also assisted the staff photographers. His first break came when one of his images was published in a Washington newspaper.

“The Waterfront.” The Washington canal was where fishermen delivered and sold their catch from the Chesapeake Bay to the restaurants and wealthy homes of Washington, D.C. In this image, a fisherman shows his catch to a customer in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

“National Archives.” The National Archives building had just been completed in 1935 when Wentzel made this image on a foggy night. Two groups of people illustrate the grand scale of the building, and the looming presence of the bare trees in the foreground add an air of mystery to the image.

After being given a copy of Paris De Nuit by a friend, Wentzel began to photograph the well-known landmarks of D.C. at night. He often would process his images the same night, and then go out again to reshoot to improve his exposures, often staying out until dawn.

Wentzel’s next big break came in 1936 when a chance tour of the photographic facilities of National Geographic led him to discover that there was a job opening. He fortuitously had some of his night prints with him, and was granted an interview and then the job.

“U.S. Capitol.” Shot on a rainy night, the squares in the plaza reflect a darker side of the dome of the Capitol. There is a great irony in our majestic Capitol building–– the finial atop the dome is a nearly 20-foot statue of a woman titled “Freedom,” designed by sculptor Thomas Crawford, and cast in bronze by slave labor in 1863.

“The Mall.” The classic view of Washington: the Capitol peeking out from behind the Washington Monument as viewed from between the columns of the Lincoln Memorial. The shadowy figure in the foreground is Wentzel’s friend Eric Menke, the man who gave him his copy of Barassai’s book.

“Pennsylvania Avenue.” An image made on a snowy night from behind the gates of the Treasury building to the Capitol. Note the reflections off of the street car tracks, and the trails from car headlights, but not tail lights. Perhaps tail lights didn’t yet exist in the 1930s, or they were so dim as to not register on Wentzel’s film. The tower on the right is the old post office.

Although he was hired as a darkroom technician, in less than a year Wentzel had an opportunity to complete an assignment for the magazine when a photographer was pulled from a job in West Virginia for another story. Wentzel had spent time in West Virginia, and his familiarity landed him the assignment. It was the beginning of a career that spanned nearly 50 years at the magazine, where he photographed 45 stories and authored 10. He traveled extensively in Africa and Asia, and was later named the director of the National Geographic archives, where he was responsible for saving millions of images that had been destined for the rubbish bin.

Wentzel did not photograph extensively at night after his early Washington images, but they were shown at the Royal Photographic Society in England and at other venues in Europe before being published in the April 1940 issue of National Geographic. An exhibition of the work was presented by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and published in book form as Washington By Night in 1992.

“Decatur House.” A shallow depth of field detail image of Decatur House at the corner of Jackson Place and H Street in Lafayette Square. The square had long been one of the most prestigious addresses in Washington, with the residences of presidents, vice presidents, secretaries of state, and other wealthy and powerful people. Wentzel planted the light bulb behind the frame of the lamp to minimize overexposure, but the light bled out from the sides all the same. You can just make out a row of late-1930s cars in the middle ground.

“National Archives II.” A dramatic image of the sculpture “Guardianship” by James Earle Fraser, best-known as the designer of the buffalo nickel. Fraser’s sculpture graces many of the buildings constructed during the New Deal era. Beneath the sculpture is a quote by Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Careful placement of a light source behind the sculpture adds to the drama.

Wentzel died in 2006 at age 92. Unfortunately, little is known about the technical aspects of his early night work, other than that he printed it at Underwood & Underwood studios, “surreptitiously using their best portrait paper” (as he writes in his book). He used a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, occasionally supplementing the existing light with flashbulbs that, as he wrote, “were in fashion at the time.”

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—Lighting and Night Photography of the Vargas Brothers

All images by Carlos and Miguel Vargas

All images by Carlos and Miguel Vargas

Back in October, I wrote about Harold Burdekin and John Morrison, two English photographers who published a beautiful book of night photographs of London in 1933 after seeing the Parisian night work of Brassai. By studying the innovations and inspirations of the night photographers of yesterday, we can better understand the roots of our art form, to learn and to progress in our own work.

This article is the second in a series on underappreciated photographers who have made a significant contribution to the genre. Perhaps no one better fits the bill than Carlos and Miguel Vargas of Arequipa, Peru.

Carlos and Miguel Vargas

Carlos and Miguel Vargas

The Vargas brothers opened their studio in 1912, after apprenticing for Max T. Vargas, an unrelated photographer who ran the busiest photo studio in Arequipa at the turn of the century.

The Estudio de Arte Vargas Hermanos was almost immediately successful. The 1910s and ’20s were a vibrant time in Arequipa. The flamboyant brothers were at the epicenter of a fashionable society created by the newfound wealth and exposure to European styles brought to the southern Andes. Artists, poets, writers and musicians passed through the brothers’' studio, which became a center for art and culture in the city. Their night photography adventures evolved into highbrow social events for their bohemian entourage.

The core of their business was portraits of the city’s elite, but their photographic legacy is much broader–– a remarkable photographic record of the last years of an elegant and formal society that would soon be lost to the restless hum of modernity and the cold economic reality of the Great Depression.

Their work is a testament to Peruvian society in the first half of the 20th century, but their contribution to night photography cannot be understated. The nocturnes of the Vargas brothers mark several firsts in the history of night photography.

the Crossing.jpg

First, the careful staging and choreography of their images had not been seen in nocturnal imagery before. Many of their night works included significant numbers of people, each one carefully placed and instructed to remain still for exposures that lasted up to an hour. The brothers were inspired by silent films, and acted like directors on a film set to produce narrative images that were reflective of their imaginations as much as of the time and place in which they were made.

It’s well-known that Bill Brandt staged night photographs to try to recreate some of Brassai’s images, even going so far as to pose his own wife Eva as a stand-in for the prostitute from one of Brassai’s images. Until the discovery of the Vargas nocturnes, it was assumed that Brandt was the first to stage night photos in the early 1930s. But Carlos and Miguel had him beat by about 15 years, and did so in extraordinary fashion!

In order to execute their complex photographs, the brothers needed to use added lighting. As far back as the 1860s, photographers such as Nadar in France and Charles Piazzi Smyth in Egypt had used artificial light to supplement their low-light photographs, but it was not until the work of the Vargas brothers that added light was used with aesthetic considerations.

The brothers understood that light could be used to create mood and atmosphere in a way that had never been done before–– at least outside of a studio. They placed lights in various places within the scene, often employing backlighting for dramatic effect.

Their cinematic vision combined long exposures taken in moonlight with strategically placed lights within the image. They used bonfires, car headlights, magnesium flashes and moonlight, in whatever combination served their needs. The combination of long exposures with flash powder was also new. Prior to the Vargas images, flash-lit photographs tended to be short exposures with the flash at or near the camera, resulting in the familiar on-camera strobe look that we are all familiar with. The brothers, however, used light flashes creatively.

The Vargas brothers used their technical mastery, ingenuity and creative vision to produce a dazzling portfolio of night photographs between about 1919 and 1930. Approximately 75 5x7-inch glass plate negatives, and just a few vintage prints, survive today.

Without the determined efforts of Houston-based photo historian Peter Yenne, it is likely that this remarkable body of work would have never been known. Yenne has worked for more than 20 years to discover and promote the work of early South American photographers. Beginning in 1999 he and Peruvian photographer Adelma Benavente inventoried, restored and scanned over 15,000 glass plate negatives from the archives of Estudios de Arte Hermanos Vargas that had been stored in cardboard boxes for decades.

The exhibition “City of Night: The Vargas Brothers of Arequipa, Peru 1919-1930” was on view at Houston FotoFest from November 30, 2006, to January 20, 2007, and travelled to several other venues. Hopefully the brother’s photography will continue to draw interest, and they will be awarded their rightful place in the historical record.

For now, I hope that you enjoy the images shown here, courtesy of Peter Yenne.

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT