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Friday, 30 May 2014


Postcards published by Fotocelere in the 1930s
“There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy.”
E. M. Forster

A bundle of 50 Italian postcards landed in my lap. All of them are in mint condition, 15x10cm, making them larger than standard, beautifully printed, more so than we would expect from any publisher these days (if postcards are still being produced) and show scenes of Rome, Florence, Bologna and Pompeii. They were published by Fotocelere, active between 1915 and 1942; a company that appears to have held a tight grip on the industry, covering every subject from topographical to celebrity portraits and surreal novelty cards, not to mention the Christmas and Easter side of things. It isn’t exactly clear what their relationship with the photographers was, whether they commissioned work or simply bought it. There is a definable quality to the postcards, a clarity and an attention to detail, though admittedly, when we compare them against some French companies like Yvon, or Valentines’ in Britain, we see a general agreement in style.

The big difference was that from 1922 Italy was under the thumb of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. While postcard photographers would have found no shortage of scenes showing the glories of Italy’s past, and no doubt focused on them, their point of view has to be filtered through this detail. We can see it in the way that in some of the sets the postcards came in, views of the Foro Mussolini sit alongside others of the Coliseum and the Forum, suggesting not just that these were sites tourists should visit but that the modern was a logical extension of classical Rome.

Interesting that the Foro Mussolini remains more or less intact, known now as the Foro Italico, and that specific monuments to Mussolini on the site remain, including the monolith and the fountain. Tyrants generally have theirs pulled down as soon as they are ousted. One reason Mussolini’s are still standing may be that for a lot of architects the Foro Mussolini has always been an impressive example of pre-War European modernism. Watch Robert Hughes describe it in episode 2 of his 1980 series The Shock of the New and sense his thinly disguised regret that if only Il Duce had moderated his politics while keeping his aesthetics intact, this could have been a great humanist statement, except of course for Mussolini, the politics and the aesthetics were symbiotic. 

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by Bernini in 1651, was considered revolutionary in its day, though it is understandable how someone overwhelmed by the prolificacy of fountains and statues in the city might not appreciate that. There’s a gothic quality to this scene that reminds us the photographer, Enrico Verdesi, followed a specific style that required more than just point and shoot. It appears he was a prolific photographer, his photos turning up in dozens of books on the city’s architecture and others aimed at tourists. Not a genius, perhaps, but someone who knew his craft and what the times required. 

Leaving Rome and heading south to Pompeii, a more vivid reminder of the Empire’s wealth than Rome itself. It seems that every website to do with Pompeii has copied this sentence as it stands: ‘William Abbott explains, "At the time of the eruption, Pompeii had reached its high point in society as many Romans frequently visited Pompeii on vacations."’ I don’t know who William Abbott is, or was, but clearly, since nothing existed of the city post eruption, the statement is meaningless. Who’s to say it wouldn’t have gone on to better things? The photographer in this case was Vicenzo Carcavallo, another who has escaped the discriminating eye of history. This scene of the public bath house is interesting, by which I mean it is and most tourists would be happy if they had had taken it, though anyone wandering through ancient ruins has little trouble finding a photogenic view.

A case in point is this photo of the Gate of Caligula, so called because of a statue of the emperor found nearby. The original name was likely to be something else. The striking detail of course is Vesuvius smouldering in the distance. There’s no date to this postcard though Carcavallo was working in the 1930s and Vesuvius erupted in 1929, so we can narrow it down to a couple of years either side. Just like the scene above, he shows he is capable of giving the customer what’s required.  But we must always hedge out bets. Carvacallo’s postcards may have been commonplace, but if he was like a lot of commercial photographers in the 1930s, he had another portfolio that we may never see but was much more revealing. Besides, since this photo was taken Pompeii has suffered damage from poor maintenance, vandalism and theft. The site is now considered endangered. One day we may have to thank Mr Carvacallo for his photographic record.  

To Florence, and the place most tourists would have entered the city through in the years before the war put that industry to sleep. The Santa Maria Novella train station was built in 1934 and is still considered one of the best examples of modernist architecture in Italy, despite its explicit fascist associations. We forget sometimes that in Italy fascism promoted itself through a modernist aesthetic; the futurists had a demented ideology but what they left us in painting and sculpture is still admired. The frieze on the right side, ‘Anno XIII’ no longer exists. It may relate back to 1922, when Mussolini assumed power.

Stendhal’s syndrome refers to a feeling of dizziness and lassitude that comes from being exposed to too much art and beauty in Florence. Frankly, Stendhal was a ponce. We can handle the beauty; it’s the expectation that we have to see every last bit of it that sends some of us to bed early. This and the following view are credited to Ugo Mugnaini, who once again eludes us in the search for facts. We can say he was by no means the first nor the last photographer to exploit the sharp perspective leading to the Palazzo Vecchio from the Piazzale degli Uffizi, but let’s not forget; there has always been something of a pun in the cliché. Florence was considered the birthplace of perspective in painting so there’s a nod to that in the view from the alley that runs alongside the Uffizi Museum. If you were in the postcard trade, scenes like this were guaranteed crowd pleasers. And this, I might add, is an excellent study of perspective, with proportions balanced by light and shade. 

The Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens behind would mark a high point in Hitler’s 1938 tour of Florence, pieces de résistance in the display of Florence’s (read Italy’s) cultural power. Observers at the time would remark that while the world’s best known failed artist found the works in the galleries worth a comment, Mussolini looked increasingly bored and irritated as the day dragged on. Museums weren’t his thing. We can see by the long shadows that this view of the Palace was taken in the late afternoon, which explains the general emptiness. The focus is razor sharp. We can also see the tracks where someone has sped across the car park. The building is portrayed to represent power. We always have to wonder; is that how Mugnaini saw it, or was it how he felt obliged to? By 1934, about the time this was taken, photographers were well aware that their images of Italy had to emphasize its grandeur. To suggest anything else was asking for trouble.
While we’re at it, compare this photo to the one of the train station. It shows what a lot of these photos hint at: how for Italian fascism modernism was a continuation of classicism.

A view of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele that at first glance is nothing special, but on close inspection tells us a lot. The first thing to note is the banner under the arch. It reads, "Concorso Ippico Internazionale", or ‘International Horse Show’, which a quick search on Google tells us was held between the 12th and the 20th of May, 1934. Near the centre we see a man standing on a raised rectangle of concrete or brickwork. This is all that remains of the statue of Vittorio Emanuele II, which was moved in 1932. If we took a photo from this same angle today, on the right side we’d have the Column of Abundance, relocated to this area in 1956 and marking the centre of the city. It’s a pity the cars are too far away to identify them better. The one with the extended bonnet, furthest from the camera, could almost be a Mercedes, possibly an Isola Fraschini, one of the few Italian companies prior to World War 2 still making luxury vehicles. Knowing what they were could also tell us whether or not they are Government vehicles. This Fotocelere postcard bears the name “Virdux” on the back, and like the one of the train station above, has a backstamp showing the S.A.F bus company logo. Information on Virdux is sparse so let’s consider instead what has changed in this scene today. Very little as it turns out. Apart from the details already mentioned, the portal and the adjacent building are much as they appear here. The big difference of course is that today we couldn’t take a photo at midday without thousands of tourists filling the frame. 

To Bologna, and again we are observing the modernist aesthetic in the service of authority. Everything is sharp, clear, and consciously composed to show how the Asinelli Tower rises above the city. It was built in 1109 yet here and from this distance it looks at though it could have rivalled the New York skyscrapers in contemporary design and dominance. The photograph is credited to Beretta and Giacomoni. They were active in the city from at least the early 1920s. Obviously some investigation of the various photographers or studios mentioned in this post is needed. Were they merely commercial operators, churning out images like drones, or were they their own people, with their own ideas and fully aware of current ideas in photography? In other words, how much did they see themselves as artists?

Let’s head back to Rome, stopping by the Forum first to take in a view of the Temple of Saturn with the Church of Luce e Martina behind. Here we get the two eras of Roman power together, the Empire and the Renaissance, in a scene that is so transparently about Rome’s power. We can imagine an American tourist in a crumpled linen suit looking across this vista, C1934, and marvelling at the city’s glorious past. "Wow, you guys were great!" His guide murmurss the expected response; “and soon we will be again”, or words to that effect. The road, with the horse drawn cart, another pushed by a man and another man reading a newspaper as he strolls along the sidewalk, has vanished. What’s more, recent photos suggest there has been no attempt to restore it. That would be for the best. The modern traffic passing through would soon turn the Forum to dust.

 Finally, to a photo of a place everyone recognizes, everyone has seen thousands of images of, yet I ask; do you really need better than this? It tells you everything you want to know about the Coliseum, the building that is, not what went on inside. To ask for more is to say you don’t get it, but that’s your problem, not Enrico Verdesi’s. If anything, it’s too successful. It is so limpid and isolated from setting that the structure look like a scale model. One thing that intrigues me about tourist photos like this is how the photographers managed to have no people or cars in the scene. Getting up very early helped, but more than that, good photographers made themselves familiar with the scene. They studied it carefully and knew the best time for photographing it. 


Friday, 16 May 2014


Burton Frasher Postcard Photographer 
“I have vision and the rest of the world has bifocals.”
Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Ansel Adams’ photographs are boring. Those heavily burned in dark clouds above mountains in sharp focus tell us as much about the landscape of the American west as a John Wayne film shot on a backlot. I once listened to a talk by someone who argued that Adams was a Pictorialist who discovered the focus ring on his camera. I couldn’t disagree. For all the claims about him being at the forefront of American modernism, he clung to the Pictorialist values of image over content and the print as a surface for manufacturing illusion long after they had outlived their usefulness, except as a faintly nationalistic idea of the west as repository for America’s soul. The real modernists, the people who thought there was a much more elemental way of depicting the landscape, mostly escaped the attention of the museums, the critics and the academies until it was too late.

One of them was Burton Frasher (1888 to 1950) who, between about 1920 and 1950 travelled across the southwest, from California, through Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, leaving as his legacy thousands of photographs of the landscape. You wouldn’t exactly describe him as unsung: there is a huge online archive of his work available through the Pomona Library and it has a couple of accompanying articles, including an interview with his son, Burton Jnr, that may be the most comprehensive description of a postcard photographer at work. Some of us think the idea of driving across the landscape and taking photographs is the ideal job, but one thing that comes across in the interview is how hard photographers like Frasher worked. The market was cutthroat, they could not afford to slacken their output and they were constantly on the road. When Frasher started out, ‘the road’ was often dirt tracks and the cars weren’t well designed for them. When the Lincoln Highway travel guide was first published in 1915, it advised drivers to carry almost a whole engine’s worth of replacement parts because once the highway entered Utah anything could happen. By the 1920s it could recommend newly built gas stations and roadhouses along the way but spare tyres, fan belts, spark plugs and chains were still essential. This then is Frasher’s world. It can’t have been that rough. Where else were you going to get views like this one?

One reason that Frasher may not have got the attention he deserves was that he was primarily a commercial photographer, and that meant that there were a lot of clichés among the wonderful views: cacti at sunset, cute animals and scenes like this. The rider on the rise gazing across the desert had already been done to death by the time Frasher took this, and that may have been why he chose to. He could be sure it would sell. This is the west of Marlboro ads. It’s the type of image where every element in itself is depicted perfectly but in combination they add to very little. 

Frasher’s real value to us lies in scenes where he is taking part in the creation of a myth rather than recreating old ones. Back when he took this the desert highway gas station wasn’t yet a cultural icon. Greyhound had pushed a campaign in the 1930s encouraging Americans to take their new streamlined buses cross-country and the scene of someone arriving in a small town by bus was common enough in films but images like this would really belong to the post-war boom. These days we’ve seen so many road movies that we recognize it at once, and there’s no shortage of photos of abandoned and decaying gas stations. This belongs to an era when Chevron was a relative newcomer to Arizona. Note the oil stain leading in. 

What does Frasher mean by “today, along North Virginia St”? Presumably he is measuring North Virginia St of the 1930s against the past, in which case he is asking us to see how it has changed, or hasn’t, since the days of the Comstock Lode silver rush. . The Western Nevada Historic Photo Collection has an image of the Pioneer Drug Store (the shop the man is standing outside of) that could have been taken on the same day and even by Frasher, though it is unaccredited . The building was constructed during the mining era, the actual drugstore may have been. Though the town now has electricity, telephones and cars, Frasher seems to be suggesting that very little has changed in essence. The two really interesting details are the advertisement for postcards on the pole to the man’s left, and the advertisement for Kodak developing films on the window to his right. My guess is that Frasher did business with the owners and that may be one there. I do not understand why our great grandfathers thought a three piece suit was the proper thing to wear in the desert.

I had a post some months back about Frasher’s photos of Native Americans. If his studies of Navajo, Apache, Hopi and Acoma people are not his best work, they constitute the most interesting reading. He swings between frank depictions and the frankly banal, being aware of the poverty and wretched conditions in one scene then playing up the most gratuitous stereotypes in others. This was taken at the Little Colorado Trading Post, now called the Cameron Trading Post. What’s interesting here are the dynamics between the group and those with the photographer. We see hostility, or at the least apprehension, indifference and some willingness. Though the scene is arranged, this was not a world where a white man could turn up with a camera and order people about. Nor were the Navajos likely to do as they were told just because Frasher was a familiar figure. The feeling is that he had some rapport with them, to the extent he probably spoke Navajo, but just because someone was willing to sit for him, that didn’t mean they had to behave as he wanted. There are lots of details to consider in this scene, from the physical structure with the people descending to the background to the detritus, the saddles, pots and bowls lying about. There may have been some arrangement of the people but nothing else in the scene has been touched. That isn’t a small point. In the 1930s and well beyond, National Geographic photographers commonly fitted up scenes to show things the way they thought they should be. In this case, others may have seen the stuff lying about as proof of the Navajos’ social irresponsibility but to Frasher this is the way things are. People leave bowls over the doorway because they do.

The personal Frasher collection is regrettably small. If I had more to show, I would. Some of his best photographs are of industrial scenes in the new west of the 1930s. If you thought Ansel Adams was the eminent modernist of the era, that’s because you haven’t seen Frasher’s views of Boulder Dam or the Californian oil wells. But he was also a good historian. I won’t say ‘great’, because his idea of history is largely directed by the tourist industry. Take the Calico graveyard. In the 1930s, as tourists began crossing the west, old ghost towns like Calico that had been considered little more than rubble a few years earlier suddenly became popular sites. And if you wanted a vivid experience of the old west, what better than a graveyard out in the desert, lined with memorials to prospectors, cowboys and outlaws who had met their maker prematurely? Forget Adams and think for a moment of Walker Evan’s famous image of a grave in (I think) Alabama. It is anonymous; barely a ripple in the gravel, but what has excited many critics is the originality of Evans’s idea: a grave! How surprisingly familiar. Who else would have thought of it? Well, a critic might be someone between proper jobs but anyway, I prefer Frasher to Evans on this one. Because there are several graves there is a more macabre atmosphere, but simultaneously, and more importantly, an awareness that these piles of stones belong to people; something more real. There’s also a sense here of eternity in the peace of the desert. Fully convinced that once I die that’s it, no trumpets welcoming me to the pearly gates, I’d prefer to be placed out here than just about anywhere else I can think of.  

If I haven’t any Frasher views of industry here to convince you he deserves more attention that is only because I have always preferred his other scenes, particularly of the Arizona desert. I don’t think it is overheated hype to say that Frasher found his eye in Arizona. There’s a feeling of excitement, of real awe, what the syphilis riddled German philosophers used to call the sublime, in his landscape scenes out here. Because, and only because, he published his photographs as postcards, we tend to brush aside the idea that such a person could feel any spiritual empathy with the land. I think you could only take a photo like this if the scene moved you. I’m prepared to guess that Frasher waited until he thought the sunlight fell just where he wanted. Also, he found the precise position that emphasised the strangeness of these geological wonders. I say that, but it might be worth knowing that Frasher is standing at the edge of Route 160 when he took this. Maybe he was driving past and got lucky, or just as possible, he’d driven down this road so often that fifteen miles away, he glanced up at the sun and realized that if he planted his foot on the pedal he’d get here just in time.


This is just the kind of view that Ansel Adams acolytes would dismiss as average, yet for their opponents it proves the very point that Frasher is more interesting. Perfection and feeling are seldom synonymous. One guts the other. How would Mr Adams have dealt with this scene? We know the answer almost immediately. Firstly he would have emphasized the contours in the distant mountains, and then the snow on the even more distant peaks. But what does Frasher draw our attention to? Well, ‘Mushroom Rock’ for a start, but also the road. This is as much a photograph of the experience of driving across Death Valley as it is of an unusual geological feature. What the Adamites don’t get is that the snowy peaks work best subliminally. They don’t matter so much as the two odd squares on road improvement just below the mushroom. This is as much a photo of what it means to drive across Death Valley as Death Valley itself. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience a road trip across the American southwest knows that the true wonders lie in the glimpses, not the studied observations. Of course Frasher stopped to take this photo but it was sold as a reminder to travellers of what they had seen and what they had missed.

Frasher’s postcard of North Virginia St, Reno, bears an uncanny resemblance to several taken by Lawrence Engel of the Nevada Photo Service about the same time. We could say the differences are so slight we ought not bother with them. This is Reno in its heyday. I doubt anyone visiting today would disagree. Interestingly, (I say, having only just realized this) the absence of casino and club signs indicate this was taken either before or just at the time that Nevada legalized gambling. The effect of that upon Reno’s streetscape was dramatic. These days North Virginia St isn’t even a shadow of its glory days; it looks more like a bunch of developers dumped a bloated corpse on the street and walked away. Still, the point here is not to remind ourselves of legitimated criminal behaviour but Burton Frasher. My feeling is that Frasher may be ignored by the standard histories but those of us who suspect there is always something left out or overlooked will discover his work and in the process reinvigorate a tired story. Anybody who believes the story of America’s landscape photography has been told hasn’t looked hard enough.


Saturday, 3 May 2014


Cities by night
“The night is tonight,
tomorrow night...
or any night.”
Voiceover at the beginning of Night and the City (1950), directed by Jules Dassin

You can bet that within days of the daguerreotype becoming public in 1839, someone mounted a camera on a tripod and tried to take a view of Paris by night. We will never see the results of that because it was guaranteed to turn out a failure. The exposure time would have been nearly impossible to calculate but it could have run into the hours, and one reason for that was because in 1839, Paris, like every other city in the world, was not lit above street level. All those 19th century images of Montmartre pavements lined with nightclubs come from much later. There are accounts from the 1880s and 1890s, when electric lighting first appeared, of near miraculous revelations when for the first time people could see the city lit at night above pavement level. It was as though a veil had been lifted. There was a whole world of architecture above them they had never seen before. Well, they probably had. When thunderstorms crossed the city and lightning streaked across the sky they caught glimpses of it. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how young opiated poets in their garrets could look out at that scene and be overcome by a great philosophical terror.

At 9:30 pm on June 6, 1904 Fred Judge took this photo from the harbour at Hastings. According to the azimuth for that year, the sun had set about an hour and ten minutes earlier. It became one of his earliest postcards and also one of his most popular. He would later estimates sales around the 10 000 mark. He would also produce another version a year or so later that was printed darker and with the lights coming from the windows at the right burnt out. This however is the one that matters. In 1904 most photographers, let alone mere viewers of photography would have found a scene like this technically difficult. The exposure settings were too variable to capture that precise moment when the lightning arced across the sky and illuminated the wharf. Judge probably took several exposures during the stormand this was the one that worked best. It is a perfect composition, taken with the rule of thirds in mind so wharf, sea and sky occupy roughly equal space. Even the position of the gas lamp under the lightning and the interruption of the railings at the bottom look like details he had visualised before pressing the shutter. No doubt this is a scene that generations of Hastings residents had witnessed every summer but never been able to capture. It does not express the power or the terror of nature so much as our endless curiosity about it.

When it comes to postcards of city streets at night, Fred Judge was the master of the form in the early years of the medium. Others produced postcards of cities at night in the 1910s but no one captured the shadowy atmosphere better. His very first London postcard, taken in 1909, was a night view. As was his second and third; this one. I don’t know how familiar he was with London but my guess is he had read enough Sherlock Holmes stories to get excited by the shadows and fog. In 1924 Judge would publish a book; Camera Pictures of London by Night. The images are much more vivid and also Pictorialist, what we might call ‘late Pictorialist’; a term guaranteed to frighten off the photo historians who categorize Pictorialism among that long list of 19th century English mistakes that include eugenics and the sundry King Georges. I must say, having read his introduction to the book and looked at the photos, he was a great photographer and a terrible writer, but the point here is that we have an image many photo-historians would classify as proto-modernist. In fact, we would say that for a lot of his postcards. He likes the shapes and patterns created by the night. In some the scene is taken up by a looming silhouette that is only just defined.

I’m stuck for identifying the exact process used in this card. I used to assume any intensely blue photograph was a cyanotype and when I became aware that there were several other possibilities I also realized I didn’t have the time to track all of them down. I know there was a process called Delft Blue Toning, which I assume was selenium based. Does it matter? Only as a point of personal pride. I have one other very similar to this in appearance that was taken for the Exposition des Artes Decoratifs in 1925, so I am assuming this is contemporaneous. In 1922 young Georges Simenon arrived in Paris set on becoming a writer (though according to his more tiresome boasts, he had other things on his mind). He is credited with somewhere in the vicinity of 300 (plus) novels, but in effect he probably wrote five and recycled their themes and motifs ad nauseum. This is a scene straight out of one of them. Imagine a drab office clerk standing across from the Olympia one evening in 1925 and deciding, sur l’impulsion as it were, to just throw off his present, very ordinary life, walk into the Olympia, strike up a conversation with a young coquette and see where that takes him. Months later his bloated corpse is dragged out of the Seine but, Mon Dieu, what a story it has to tell.

Let’s leave Europe and head to Reno, circa 1940s, where the city never sleeps. Having spent some years researching the Nevada Photo Service, I would like to say this looks like one of Lawrence Engel’s but since he put a form of company signature on most of his and it isn’t here I can’t. We can say it is post-1931; the year Nevada legalized gambling. There is a stark difference between street scenes pre and post 1931, mostly to do with the proliferation of neon. But the date doesn’t matter so much as the enchantment of this card. It beckons you in to Reno. Never mind that tomorrow morning your wallet will be empty and your self-respect will be shot to pieces; tonight, everything you want is here.

Another image that could come from the Nevada Photo Service, yet cannot. The Doghouse, Harold’s, the Bank, the Palace: there is too much for one person to take in one night, which is of course our photographer’s point. In the 1930s Walker Evans took a photo like this that has rightfully been recognized as significant in his canon yet as images like this show, others had the same ideas. Well, that’s one of the great things about photography: there are no geniuses but there are people who see things more clearly and there are others who look at them the same way. Today downtown Reno is a travesty; the glamour at street level this photographer drew from has largely disappeared and what little remains has been overwhelmed by monolithic hotels. The enduring image is of dozens of military veterans standing at the one-arm bandits for hours on end. America packs them off to Iraq, then it sends them down to Reno. A decent oncologist would advise the country to stop eating its own shit. But another resilient image comes when you leave North Virginia St, look one way to the Sierra Nevada and another towards the desert and realize there aren’t many cities more perfectly sited. Depressing as downtown might be today, a big part of Reno’s allure in the past was the journey out to it, across the mountains or through the desert, arriving at a fabulous oasis, a pleasure garden where there was too much fun and no time for sleeping.

To Pendleton, Oregon, which depending on your criteria is either a city or a town, best known for its annual rodeo. The point this photo demonstrates is that viewed the right way at night it can look as exciting as any capital on the eastern seaboard.  If someone in Hollywood had rewritten Dassin’s Night and the City and set it in Pendleton, this could be the opening scene. In a few seconds we’ll see Harry Fabian running out of the cinema and glancing anxiously behind. For that matter it could just about be a still from Orson Welles famous opening scene in Touch of Evil. Pendleton might be small but once the sun goes down it packs in a lot of action.

A snapshot taken at the 1933 Century of Progress Expo in Chicago. The tower at the right would be part of the skyride. The lights emanating out of it are attached to the cables. Like a lot of expo architecture the world over, it was considered a marvel of technology but once the fair was over it was dismantled. There is no reason to think this isn’t an amateur photo though it’s worth noting that apart from one detail in the middle foreground that could be a person running the place looks deserted. Possibly it was taken by a worker before the fair officially opened. Like every other photo here (excepting possibly the top one, which is a negative print of a map) it shows how the whole appearance and atmosphere of a place changes at night. It becomes somewhere else.