Is it possible to take photos of the darkness? In the latest edition of the Spanish Babelia Antonio Muñoz Molina writes about the photo historical exhibition Night Vision: Photography After Dark, recently opened in the Metropolitan Museum. Unfortunately, on the site of the exhibition they have published only a few photos, and rather uninteresting ones at that. Therefore we illustrate with our own photo historical selection the text of Molina which anyway moves away from the New York exhibition to return to those one-time, forgotten, archaic nights which are still present on these pictures.
In the depth of my memory still there lives a nocturnal darkness from before the ubiquity of electric lighting. I remember the weak bulbs on the street corners and the lamps with metal screen hanging from the cables stretched across the squares and projecting large, agitated shadows and red spots when waved in the wind on winter nights. I remember being carried in the arms of my father, well wrapped in clothes, a wool scarf covering my mouth, and feeling dizzy when looking up to watch the sky flooded with much more stars than I have seen ever since, exulting in the foggy glow of the Milky Way.
In another era, many years later, the photographer Ricardo Martín caught the light of the bulbs on some of those still untouched street corners where I had played as a child, where we children used to play until late at night, until the mothers leaned out of the windows to call us because the supper was ready. On these little squares, so abundantly provided with the shadows of the night, and still so free from the lights and motors of cars, the end of the daylight gave way to telling stories: ghost fables, rumors about a locally active club of vampires who were feeding on the fresh blood of children, about Aunt Carry-Away or the Man with the Sack, who in our region was also called Uncle Butter. There was a deserted house with a doorway to where the light of the street corner did not reach, and where most possibly a witch was lurking. It was a great challenge to gather all our courage to cross the areas of darkness by chanting to give encouragement for ourselves:
Ay qué miedo me da
De pasar por aquí,
Si la bruja estará
Esperándome a mí.
Oh, how I’m scared
To pass by here
Where the witch is
Waiting for me.
Now I understand that it was an ancient, pre-industrial night, completely obscure on those absolutely not rare occasions when the light was gone. In the imagination of children the most common metaphors of the language are fixed with the precision of etching: at the bottom of a lane, even farther off the corner lamp, it was really as dark as in the mouth of a wolf: of the big wolf with open mouth from the tales and nightmares, the mouth of blackness that would swallow anyone venturing further than he should or anyone stricken by the bad luck of encountering one of those creatures of the infantile popular mythology, symbols of the real and cruel adults who since times immemorial have exploited the weakness of children. A stooped old woman, her shoulders covered with a woolen scarf, her face half hidden by a scarf tied under her chin, could be a witch or at least project onto the cobblestones the silhouette of one. And there were inexplicable and somehow always sinister people who approached us to ask something when we were alone or who pressed their thighs to ours in that other darkness of movie theaters.
The reverse of those nights of darkness came once a year in the illuminations of the fair which, by lack of habit, seemed to us much more blinding than they were in the reality, with the garlands of colored bulbs, the vertigo of the lights of the giant wheel, the reflectors that exaggerated the sharp colors of the circus posters. But as one was leaving the fair, almost asleep from exhaustion, at the hands of his parents, and as the noise of the loudspeakers, of the tombola and of the music of the carousels gradually faded away, it was more evident that we returned to the darkness of the well known alleys, resonant with the heels of the tough Sunday shoes put on by the adults, so little accustomed to them.
Without our noticing it, very gradually, the night was being filled with clarity in the same years in which we were leaving behind childhood. The bright night was the great illusion with which the cities attracted us. I never forget the impression of that Niagara of lights in the Gran Vía of Madrid the first night I saw it by turning the corner of Plaza de España, the first night of an almost adult boy who in a few days would turn eighteen and has just left his still closed suitcase in the bed and boardroom where, almost incredibly, he would be going to live on his own from then on, as a master of his own acts and his steps, following the call and the heartbeat of the city.
In a couple of hidden and very poorly lit rooms of the Metropolitan there is an exhibition on the natural history of the nigths of the 20th century, of that darkness which through black and white photography and movie influenced our imagination to the extent of also modeling our memories. Photography, the art of light turned to the exploration of the night as soon as its technical means, more sensitive films, handheld cameras and flashes made it possible.
The boulevards of the bourgeois city, the shop-windows, the gas lamps, the lonely alleys shaped together the figure of the curious and leisurely walker, the inventor of stories on strangers. Baudelaire and Jack the Ripper are the nocturnal creatures of the 19th century. Freed from the imprisonment of his studio, with the camera on his shoulder, with an instinct at once primitive and modern of the predator, the photographer of the night is a character of the 20th century, an Uncle Butter whose silhouette is projected onto the pavement by the light of the lamps, a spy of the hidden lives of others, an explorer of the unknown country that a big city is converted into, as soon as the night falls, and above all of this ambiguous night that lasts until the end of the fifties, until the arrival of color photography.
Brassaï in Paris, Bill Brandt in London, Josef Sudek in the uninhabited communist nights of Prague, the intrepid Berenice Abbott on the terraces of the tallest buildings of New York to take pictures as the early December night falls, between the moment when lights are lit in all the offices still filled with people and the other moment when the buildings remain empty and lights begin to be turned out. Weegee illuminating with the clinical disrespect of the flash a corpse that seems to float face up a puddle of blood, or a severed head that the police of New York has just discovered at the foot of the iron pillars of an elevated train.
This is that photographic night which is similar to my memories, or to those conjectural memories that could be mine: the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral illuminated by the full moon and surrounded by spectacular buildings in ruins after a raid by German bombers on a photo by Bill Brandt; the night horizon of the sea photographed by Hiroshi Sugimoto, at once impenetrable and ethereal like a painting by Rothko. Somewhere, and not just in these photos, the seamless night of the most archaic memories is still living on.