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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”