May 1, 2003
Photographer David Allee explores the harsh but ethereal effect of artificial light on man-made environments.
A Yankees season ticket holder, photographer David Allee began to notice as he emerged from the subway at 161st Street for games that the apartment windows adjacent to the stadium were bathed in a sea of spilled artificial light. So one evening last fall he brought his camera and tripod along to a game and persuaded the owner of a nearby bowling alley to let him climb up to the roof. Focusing his lens on the buildings overlooking the ballpark, Allee noticed that residents did not seem to be enjoying their ringside seats. “Most of the people who live there have their shades drawn,” Allee says. “I thought they’d be watching the game. But maybe if you’ve lived there your whole life, the light becomes a nuisance.”
The intrusive otherworldly effect of artificial light on man-made environments is the theme of Allee’s ongoing “White Nights” series. Working with a large-format Linhof Technikardan camera, he positions himself in front of apartment buildings, houses, and gardens that are bathed in the overflow of floodlights from sports and recreation facilities. Using shutter speeds of two to three minutes, Allee subjects his film to the kind of intense light that turns night into an unnatural day, producing images that seem to capture a state between times and seasons. A photograph of a floodlit picnic area behind a 1950s-style drive-in presents a Christmas pine tree before a wintry treeless background garnished with the unnaturally luminous yellow of daffodils in full bloom. It seems to be neither winter or spring, night or day.
Shooting by the bright night of theatrical illumination is nothing new in the history of photography. Brassaï’s “Paris de Nuit” series caught the city’s nocturnal characters in the mysterious, romantic radiance of incandescent light. Philip-Lorca diCorcia has employed giant klieg lights to illuminate portraits with a hyperreal cinematic glow. However, Allee’s lighting is found rather than staged; his scenes have more of the deadpan feel of contemporary art photography. But if the influential German school led by Hilla and Bernd Becher and their protégés Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky has permeated Allee’s approach, his images are not about typologies or the act of seeing. They have more to do with the effect artificial daylight has on the places in which we live and play.
Allee, 33, gave up a career as an urban planner to pursue photography, enrolling in the MFA program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He first began to notice the impact of large artificial light sources in the suburbs while driving at night to his family’s weekend home in Connecticut. Field House (this month’s cover image) features a house in Amenia, New York, illuminated by a baseball field behind and the feeble glare of Allee’s car headlights in front. Rural and suburban settings, Allee notes, are often more dramatically affected by artificial light than their urban counterparts: “So much of the city is lit up, and these huge lights don’t travel very far.”
Allee has begun an inventory of New York’s brightest spots by observing the city from the air during descents into La Guardia Airport. Wherever there’s bright light, he has discovered, security uniforms usually are not far behind. Halfway through the Yankee Stadium shoot, Allee found himself dusting off an old student ID to convince ten swiftly alerted cops patrolling on adjacent rooftop that he was doing a school project. Investigating a light-flooded driving range in Staten Island one night, Allee began photographing what he thought was probably the largest barbed-wire fence he had ever seen. Within minutes a flock of police cars, alerted by hidden security cameras, had surrounded the unwitting photographer. He had been photographing the fence of a state penitentiary. “They took me back to the prison, and I had to talk to the warden, who actually took my film,” Allee laments. “It’s a crime I guess, photographing a prison.”
The appeal of Allee’s work is its ability to draw our attention to the formal qualities of artificial light—an illumination that is at once magical and ghastly. His plein air process lends a human element to the compositions and reawakens us to urban-planning issues that we have a tendency to neglect. The excess of light is something we rarely notice. It seems refreshingly resourceful, then, that Allee repurposes this wasted light for his photographs, reminding us at the same time of its existence. As the photographer W. Eugene Smith once noted, “Available light is any damn light that is available.”