EDGE OF DARKNESS


TWILIGHT - Photography in the Magic Hour,
Martin Barnes & Kate Best
[160pp. 35. Merrell]


Twilight, the V&A's latest photography exhibition, brings together a disparate group of eight photographers from five countries whose images are linked only by the fact of having been made at the same time of day. This relatively tenuous connection means that the work is very diverse in both style and subject matter and on the face of it the curators face an uphill task in bringing a sense of coherence to the whole exercise. As the introduction to the book readily acknowledges, while painters from the fifteenth century onwards have explored the possibilities offered by evening light, modern twilight photography does not really exist as a genre. However, a number of photographers have chosen to work during the twilight hours at some point in their careers and it is not difficult to understand why. Twilight is a transient time, a period of change when the familiar becomes mysterious and potentially dangerous. As a literal time of transition - from day to night twilight is an easy metaphor for other kinds of transitions.

Working at a time of day when most of the natural light has leached away gives the artist a subdued backdrop against which to work. Three of the photographers in the exhibition exploit the resulting dramatic possibilities by using artificial lighting to illuminate their subjects against that background, giving the feel of a stage set. They take this a step further by arranging the contents of the image as well as the lighting.

At the extreme end of this choreographed imagery is Gregory Crewdson who constructs highly elaborate stage sets involving large scale preparation and complete control over every aspect of the image. His 'productions' take place in small town America - Edward Hopper territory - where there is a sense of something sinister lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. A car sits in the middle of a junction in a deserted street, the door open and its occupant lit by a light from within the vehicle. In another image, a shaft of light that could be man made or equally the result of divine intervention illuminates a patch of ground in a suburban housing lot. Crewdson's images undoubtedly represent a technical tour de force and they are intriguing and ambiguous in a David Lynch way. Ultimately, however, they remain too clinically executed to be truly engaging.

Much more interesting is Philip-Lorca di Corcia. He too controls the staging and the lighting but crucially enlists real people as the 'actors' in his dramas. Working on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, surely the ultimate metaphor for broken dreams, di Corcia paid street hustlers, prostitutes and other 'low-lifes'  to appear in his images.  Sitting at tables in diners, on motel balconies or standing in shopping mall car parks, the subjects are separated from the backdrop of L.A's evening sky by a burst of artificial light. In one sense, di Corcia is simply a portrait photographer, albeit one who has created an unusual set for his subjects. However, the fact that the people in Lorca di Corcia's images are real, that there is an element of chance about who wanders onto his set, makes all the difference. The viewer is left wanting to know more about these individuals and their lives.

Bill Henson alternates twilight images from the edges of suburban Australia with pictures of adolescents who are barely visible in the choking darkness that seems about to consume them. In a continent famed for its intense sunlight, Henson has chosen to take us instead to the dark heart of the 'Lucky Country', creating chiaroscuro effects around the wasted youths that are reminiscent of a Caravaggio or Rembrandt. It is these extraordinary portraits that demand repeated viewings; a girl, visible only from the neck up, is seen in three quarter profile, looking off camera into the darkness while in another image a sleeping woman is apparently suspended in mid air above a blurred landscape of city lights.

Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov and China's Liang Yue, consider how their respective countries have fared in the wake of the collapse of communism. In the case of the Ukraine, the old system collapsed overnight while China's move towards a capitalist economy has been a slower process, managed by the communist party itself. This is reflected in each photographer's methodology. Mikhailov's chaotic, panoramic images, shot in a photojournalistic style and blue tinted, could have been taken at any time over the last sixty years. The ambiguity is intentional; having lived through the war with Germany in the 1940s, Mikhailov sees parallels with the situation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and concludes that little progress has been made since then. In several images, citizens seem to be running for cover, as if from an air raid. Other images show ruined city streets, damage that could have been caused by Nazi shelling or post-Soviet neglect. Could it have been any worse if Hitler had won the war in 1945? Mikhailov seems to imply that, win or lose, in the end the result for the Ukraine was the same. Just as China has moved away from communism in a more controlled fashion, Liang Yue's images are more structured. Working during the sandstorms that create an artificial twilight in her city, Liang places an individual in the centre of each frame with a flashlight that points towards the camera. However, the images just do not pull the viewer in as Mikhailov's do.   

Ori Gersht and Chrystel Lebas consider the impact of twilight on the natural world. Gersht has created images of the London sky shot from the same window in his flat. The resulting saturated blocks of colour reference Abstract Expressionist painting but the fact that the shades and tones are the result in many cases of urban air and light pollution lend them a certain poignancy. Lebas, by contrast, works in the natural world, the forests of Europe. The all pervasive gloom that settles over the dense stands of trees as night falls recalls childhood images of fairytale landscapes populated with witches and wolves.

Finally, we have Robert Adams, the eminence grise
of the group and the only photographer working in straight monochrome. In this and other ways, Adams is the odd one out in this exhibition. A long time chronicler of the despoliation of the American West, the selection of eight images chosen for inclusion seems somewhat arbitrary. It is certainly possible to see how the twilight relationship of light and dark mirrors Adam's central concern which is the contrast between the unspoilt wilderness and the urban development that relentlessly encroaches on it. However, Adam's work is a long term narrative which has been running now for some fifty years and such a partial selection cannot hope to do it justice.

All in all, Twilight
is an eclectic mix of artists and styles that doesn't quite add up to more than the sum of its parts. The real revelation of this exhibition and book though has to be Bill Henson. His are the images that stay in the mind the longest and genuinely deserve the epithet 'haunting'.

      Colin Bradbury 2006