Night scenes in real photo postcards
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day.”
Vincent Van Gogh
Even though night photography was commercially feasible by the 1880s, you get the impression it didn’t catch on because photographers weren’t particularly inspired until the beginning of the 20th century, when skyscrapers were lit up from within and floodlights illuminated their surfaces. Something profound had happened in the interim. The lighting of the city at night went from street level to several storeys above. What it radiated down wasn’t light so much as vision. Cast against the darkness, towers appeared as majestic monuments to the new age. Evelyn Waugh hated the Senate House in Bloomsbury when it was completed in 1937 and George Orwell imagined the Ministry of Truth in 1984 was housed there. Waugh made a point of hating everything modern and if Orwell didn’t go so far he also regarded its imposing presence on the skyline as a threat. This postcard of Senate House was posted on the 18th of June 1939. Just over a year later the lights across London would be switched off and the city returned to darkness as the Blitz began.
The Nazis had already left their mark on Berlin’s Skyline. In 1933 they set fire to the Reichstag. Otto Junga Verlag published the postcard around 1928, when the dome was still intact, and when the company was producing several series of Berlin by night. Though it is a photograph the lighting is odd and unnatural. Both the moon and the lights emanating from the building would have been too weak to give detail to the façade and there is no evidence of any other outside light source close enough. It wasn’t difficult to concoct a night scene. A dark filter over the lens and the moon and clouds added in the darkroom were the only requirements. The effect in this study is almost anti-modern. The Reichstag looks gothic and ominous.
In 1910 Georges Claude gave night photography its greatest gift, though it couldn’t be properly appreciated for another decade. His original neon lights glowed red and orthochromatic film, the cheapest and most practical stock available couldn’t register them correctly. In the 1920s panchromatic film became more accessible and argon and mercury vapour were being used in neon lights to give more colour. Even better, the neon tubes were being twisted into letters and shapes and avenues like Kurfürstendamm in Berlin were ablaze with them. A photographer could stand across the street, snap at the cafes and bars on the other side with a hand held camera and get something like this; a patchwork of electric words suspended against the darkness. It looked like art. Café des Westens had held some of the earliest cabarets in Berlin and was a haunt for Hugo Ball and other artists. By the mid 1920s when this photograph was produced it had a reputation as one of the fashionably hedonistic centres of Weimar culture.
If Vienna’s moment as a centre of modernist ideas was passing by the 1920s it still had the artifacts and one was the Reisenrad, the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater. Ferris wheels were elemental symbols of early modernism. Their skeletal frames and engineering appeared impracticable and the inventor, George Ferris, had to fight hard to convince the committee overseeing the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair that something so enormous yet insubstantial looking could actually work. When the Reisenrad was built in 1897 it wasn’t as big as Ferris’ original, the Grande Roue in Paris or the Great Wheel in London’s Earls Court but by 1920 those had been dismantled or demolished so it held it’s place as the biggest until the 1980s. It became a symbol of Vienna the way the Eiffel Tower was of Paris and was recognizable even using a favourite trick among commercial photographers of slowing the exposure to reduce the wheel to ribbons of light.
In 2010 a book of Pierre Yves Petit’s photographs of Paris was published carrying the recommendation that he was the equal of Atget, Kertész and Brassaï when it came to capturing the atmosphere of Paris. Working under the studio name Yvon, he took thousands of photographs of the city, preferring the dawn and early evening when the fog clung to the streets, searching for that essence even people who had never visited the city would recognize as Parisian. Naturally, the Eiffel Tower made a regular appearance. When it was built for the 1889 World’s Fair the electric illumination of cities was just becoming realizable but still confined to the exteriors of buildings where it had the most dramatic effect. The Eiffel Tower carried electric lighting early on though it wasn’t until in the 1920s that the entire façade was dressed in lights. The claims the book makes don’t ring true. Most of his photographs are too impersonal, but when you see details like the silhouetted statue of the bull at the bottom here you know that words like genius or master don’t matter.
In 1938 it was Glasgow’s time to host an international expo and the centrepiece of the Empire Exhibition was Thomas Tait’s Empire Tower. Tait was one of Scotland’s leading modernist architects, designing significant art deco buildings such as Kodak House in London, Saint Andrew’s House in Edinburgh and the pylons on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Built on a hill, the Empire Tower stood 91 metres tall, had three observation decks and was intended to be a schematic image of Scotland. The construction from steel represented Glasgow’s place in the shipping and steel industries, which were then the backbone of the UK’s industrial economy. The exhibition ran from May to December 1938. A year later Britain was at war with Germany. Because the tower was considered an obvious target for air raids it was demolished. The Valentine Company produced dozens of photographs of the tower. Their attempts at hand colouring , this one anyway, can be considered a failure. The tower deserved better.
Back to the streets, to the Thames embankment sometime in the 1930s. Authentic night photography spurned the flash or any other form of artificial lighting. The idea was to use available light either to abstract the image or make it as naturalistic as possible. Technically, to capture this scene the photographer required an open aperture, a slow film and a shutter speed somewhere around 1/15th of a second. Anything slower risked reducing the lights from the traffic in the background to streaks. It also required a time at night when there weren’t likely to be many pedestrians. It’s an entirely posed study of course but there’s nothing wrong with that. It gets something of the desolate mood and the mystery of London away from the life and noise of Piccadilly and the West End theatres. In the 1930s Patrick Hamilton wrote the trilogy of novels collected as Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky. Mostly they were located in bars and cheap boarding houses and though none of the major characters tried scratching a living as a street artist, in their most dejected moments, as they shuffled past the river, cap down and collar up, they probably passed this figure, oblivious to his own straitened circumstances and stoic forbearance.