David English: Dark City

After three-and-a-half years of shooting with an M-series rangefinder, I still feel like a newbie. Fortunately, I have a background in classic films to draw on for inspiration. Lately I’ve immersed myself in the Hollywood film noirs from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many of these films have darkly lit sets with characters and plot elements that are hidden behind shadows. John Alton was perhaps the best of the film noir cinematographers. According to Alton, “it’s not what you light—it’s what you don’t light.”

Along with dark lighting, Alton favored wide-angle lenses and low-angle shots. He often used the deep focus from the wide-angle lenses to contrast the lit and unlit areas. In films such as T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949) and The Big Combo (1955), the lighting becomes a guide for the audience. Alton would set up visual passageways that the characters might follow or ignore at their peril. He also used darkness as a way to stimulate a viewer’s imagination. In his book on photographic technique, aptly titled Painting with Light, Alton wrote that “where there is no light, one cannot see; and when one cannot see, his imagination starts to run wild.”

Being a non-professional and still wet behind the ears, I have nothing to lose by trying different techniques. My goal isn’t to mimic the film noir cinematographers, but to let their visual styles guide me to find what might work best for an image. I’m fortunate in that I’m able to visit New York several times a year. And if I’m especially lucky I may encounter a day or two when the weather is overcast. If the early evening light is just right, the shadows may stretch over the buildings, creating a ripple effect. While I haven’t consciously tried to replicate a film noir environment, some of the images seem to come alive after I darken the palette and aim for a more divergent contrast range.

I have enough of these dark photos that I thought I might gather them together and look for common threads. All were shot in New York. Most were shot this past June. The others were shot last year. Most were shot with an 18mm Super-Elmar lens with the remaining ones captured with a 24mm Summilux. Some of the photos from June have a similar look because that’s when I discovered that there might be a cohesive style lurking below the surface, if I were to apply the same general processing techniques.

If you want to see why I hope for overcast weather when I travel, you only have to look at the photo titled A Building Rises. I don’t see how this photo could have worked as well without the moody clouds in the background. I pushed the black tones in Lightroom to emphasize the outline of the building and to give the clouds more heft. The curved object in the upper left is a street lamp, which becomes more mysterious due to the 18mm perspective and added vignette. I’m quite happy with the way this one came out, in part because it has a nice compositional balance.

I used the same kind of processing for the photo titled Gothic Revival. Here the 18mm perspective has the surrounding buildings seem to lean in towards the church. The leaning accentuates the scale of the buildings, while at the same time, it creates a sense of claustrophobia. My favorite time to photograph in New York is just before dusk. The street lights have turned on, but there’s still a fair amount of light. There was enough light for this one, for example, to shoot with the preferred ISO setting of 160.

Walk through almost any modern urban environment, and you’ll see a steady stream of reflections. The photo titled Reflected Clouds was taken in front of the IAC building in Manhattan. This building was designed by Frank Gehry. When the light is right, and there are billowy clouds in the sky, you can see fantastic panoramic views reflected off the surface. Sometimes the clouds create patterns that appear to flow seamlessly from the sky to the building. It’s a remarkable piece of architecture and is worth a visit if you’re in New York.

Most film noir scenes take place inside buildings, as opposed to outside on the street. It would be difficult to recreate an interior film noir setting without control of the lighting. However, you may just happen upon the right setting for a particular noir look. The photo titled Dark Hallway actually takes place in a brightly lit area of the New York Public Library on 42th street. As I processed it increasingly darker, the image became more ominous. Is the gathered crowd preparing to charge down the hallway? In fact, it was a small group patiently waiting in line for an event at the library.

You could argue that the best noir photos would be iconic rather than specific. They wouldn’t be located in a recognizable city, but would appear to be generic places that are all the more impersonal because they can’t be readily identified. The same might be true for street and store signs. The sense of being lost in an endless city is heightened if every street corner appears equally remote and imposing. The photo titled Dark Light captures some of this universal appeal. The signs in the lower right-hand corner work especially well. You can make out some letters and numbers, but would have to guess the context.

It has been fun to explore the darker side of photography. This aesthetic approach wouldn’t suit all types of content, but it does lend itself well to the shadowy streets and angular interiors favored by the film noir cinematographers. It has prompted me to revisit some of my favorite films by the more interesting noir cinematographers, such as Nicholas Musuraca (Out Of The Past), Harry Wild (Murder My Sweet), John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity), Russell Metty (Touch of Evil), Milton Krasner (Scarlet Street), James Wong Howe (The Sweet Smell Of Success) and—of course—John Alton.

Surprisingly, Alton ran into resistance initially from the studio executives. Instead of lighting the set for maximum visibility, he insisted on mixing light and dark areas to create a mood. The executives complained that the audience wouldn’t be able to see everything. He persisted and was vindicated by the box office receipts. In Painting with Light, Alton argued that the absence of light can make a photographic image more appealing. He wrote, “There is no doubt in my mind that the prettiest music is sad, and the most beautiful photography is in a low key, with rich blacks.”

– David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2 and moved to an M9 in November 2009. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.