“This image is from my ‘Acquainted with the Night’ series and is shot in the Roof Garden at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City,” says Saville. “A sculpture by Gaston Lachaise looms against the sky over Central Park.”
Growing up in North Carolina during the 1960s, Lynn Saville was more attuned to fashion than photography. “I honestly thought I wanted to be a fashion designer,” she says with a laugh. “Reading Vogue magazine was my one treat as a high school kid. I found those pictures so interesting, and I didn’t understand it was the photography; I thought it was the clothing.”
Saville attended Duke University, where she studied anthropology and art history. Her father, a Duke professor and a serious amateur photographer, suggested, “You like fashion, why don’t you enroll in this one-credit photography class?”
The Art Of Photography
It was there that she discovered the somewhat enigmatic connection between emotion and the printed photograph: “It’s the feeling you had when you shot something, and [how] it would come through in the picture,” she explains. “I was really impressed with that because I didn’t know much about it. I studied art history, but I didn’t think about photography as an art. I just thought of it as a way to actually tell you the truth.”
Saville describes a picture of a little girl walking around the plants in a Sears, Roebuck store that she made for that class. “It just felt like a surrogate of myself,” she recalls. “It really seared in my mind, like a dream; something coming out of me, into this picture. The course was just the rudiments: shoot, develop and print,” she adds, “but it really changed me a lot.”
After graduation, Saville set her sights on New York City, enrolling in some art classes at Pratt Institute to make the leap. One of the classes she chose was photography. “It was like beginning from scratch,” she says. “My classmates and I were taking pictures everywhere, day and night.”’
Observing The World
She was immediately struck by how observant her new classmates were about their surroundings. “We walked down the street and would be really alert to anything we saw that was of interest—it could be a reflection, or the color of a window, or the way people looked as they walked,” she explains.
This was when she first discovered the magic of night photography. “My pictures looked so much more interesting at night,” she notes. “I still kept shooting during the day, but my first experience with night really stuck.”
Saville’s earliest camera was a film Nikon handed down from her father. Yet before long she picked up a second-hand Leica and a 35mm lens, and immersed herself in rangefinder-style street photography. “No bells and whistles, no filters, just straight photography with black-and-white film,” she explains.
True to her art history background, Saville also experimented with photographing theater and ballet settings. “I wanted to take pictures that looked like Degas,” she says. “I really liked his black-and-white monoprints and the look of chiaroscuro lighting.”
She found that the drama of nighttime scenes made her more alert, noting, “There’s a shift in contrast, especially with black-and-white, and it just looks thrilling to me, the highlights just sort of merging in the streets.”
From her time at Pratt through most of the ‘90s, Saville photographed primarily in black-and-white, processing her own film and making prints in a home darkroom. In 1997, her first book, Acquainted with the Night, was published by Rizzoli Press. “After that came out, I was looking for new things to do,” she recalls, “and I just started trying everything.”
A Shift In Vision And Camera Gear
Saville soon began to experiment with shooting the same picture in both black-and-white and color, which led to the evolution of her vision. “The shift was dramatic when I moved to color,” she says.
Once, on a flight to Paris with her husband, Saville recalls asking, “‘I wonder what Paris is going to look like in color?’ And he said, ‘Honey, it’s always in color.’ But I had always seen it in black-and-white,” she says with a laugh.
Since making this shift, Saville has published three books of color photographs: Night/Shift in 2009, Dark City: Urban America at Night in 2015 and Lost: New York in 2018. “It seems like every time I publish a book, I feel a certain urge to move into a new project,” she remarks.
As her vision has evolved, so has her choice of cameras. An interest in making bigger prints led her to explore medium-format cameras for a larger-sized negative. Her favorite is the Ebony, a 6×9-cm view camera that takes roll film. “It’s just a beautiful camera,” she notes, “partly because I can use different kinds of lenses.”
When it pairs with her favorite wide-angle lenses, a 65 mm NIKKOR or a 55mm Rodenstock, Saville describes the pictures she has made with the Ebony as having “very clear and sweet colors and tonality.”
Yet while she still maintains an interest in film photography, most of her photographs are now shot digitally. Her cameras of choice are a Fujifilm GFX medium-format digital with a Fujifilm GF 32-64 mm f/4 zoom and a Sony a7R II mirrorless with a Sony FE 28mm f/2 lens for when she needs a faster lens in a low-light setting.
A Sense Of Place And The Edges Of The Night
Saville’s earliest night photos were made in Brooklyn, and although she has photographed in a wide range of destinations since then, this remains one of her favorite places to shoot. “I love Brooklyn and some of the other boroughs, like Queens, because there’s so much sky,” she says. “It’s more of a human scale.”
She is particularly drawn to the atmosphere of solitude that is so prevalent in such places at night. “It feels like you can commune with the universe,” she says. “It’s very meditative. I feel like I could be kind of wound up during the day, but when I go out at night and just wander around the city, I get centered, and it just feels like the city is my own.”
While Saville has photographed at all times of the night, much of her photography is done during the hours surrounding twilight and dawn, which she refers to as “the boundary times between night and day.”
“The transitory light of twilight and dawn gives a resonance to the subject matter,” she says. “It provides a little bit of extra light, which seems to have more character, and it creates a separation that enhances the picture, by adding dimension to a scene.” For early risers, the peak time to photograph is 30 minutes before dawn, and in the evening the optimal window for pictures generally runs from a half hour after sunset until it gets completely dark.
Yet when photographing in these conditions, Saville stresses the importance of patience and having faith that some magic will occur. “On both sides of twilight and dawn, there’s this time when it just becomes flat for a while, and you think it’s dull,” she points out.
In weighing the options for making successful images during these timeframes, she finds morning to be the tougher challenge. “I feel more anxious at dawn,” Saville admits. “If you’re looking for the darkness, it goes away so quick. But one thing that’s nice about dawn is the freshness, and there are a lot fewer people and cars out then, so the whole city is much quieter.”
Sharing Her Passion For The Night
Given the mastery of her own night photography, it’s no surprise that Saville teaches this subject at New York’s International Center of Photography and New York University’s School of Professional Studies. When asked for her advice to photographers who have yet to explore the nighttime specialty, she offers the following tips. “The first challenge students face with night photography is a fear or prejudice against using a tripod,” she says. “They also don’t like spending money on a good tripod.”
Saville nearly always uses a tripod, finding that she is more likely to take a picture seriously when the camera is secured. For this reason, she recommends that anyone seeking to try night photography get a decent camera support. “Try to find one that you like using,” she notes. “It doesn’t have to be expensive, but you have to be careful it will hold the camera still and that it’s not going to fall over.”
Next, she asserts, “Get over the idea of expecting the camera to automatically make the exposure. In my classes, I like everyone to set their cameras on manual, because that way they’re really in control.”
In tandem with manual settings, she also recommends that students bracket their exposures. “And when I say bracket, it’s the old-fashioned method,” she explains, “to really experiment with one-second, five-seconds, 10-second intervals, and to try different exposures, either with the time or the f/stop. Students really need to think about what f/stop, shutter speed and ISO they should use for each situation they encounter,” she insists.
Learning how to focus in dark conditions also takes practice. Says Saville, “It’s hard to focus and get the proper exposure at night. And sometimes it’s hard to find an area with enough contrast for the autofocus to catch. So I encourage students to carry a flashlight, a gray card or something white to place in the scene as an aid to focusing.”
Another key issue when photographing at night is safety, especially in urban settings. “If I’m in a lonely place, I make sure I’m constantly aware that nobody’s watching me or can potentially try to rob me,” she states. “I do not recommend that new photographers go walking around Central Park in the middle of the night. If you must go into a park, stick to the roadways, and try to bring others with you. And don’t flaunt your equipment,” she adds. “Put it away or tuck it under your coat. Don’t be fooled into relaxation, because people do steal things.”
Hand in hand with safety comes the benefit of keenly observing the nighttime environment. Harkening back to Saville’s earliest experiences with her classmates at Pratt, she suggests, “Keep your eyes open to things that interest you. I try to help students be as observant as possible and encourage them to take notes. And if you can’t get the picture when you first see it,” she adds, “come back and try again until you do get it.”
Saville’s final piece of advice involves remaining open to influences from other art forms in addition to photography. “A student might become more unique in his or her subject matter by looking beyond photographers for inspiration,” she concludes. “Look at sculpture and painting, even movies or TV, just to sharpen your understanding of how a picture is made.”