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  • Night Scenes Contemporary Noir Photography
  • Kristine Somerville

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Scott Francis, Gansevoort and Washington Street, 2015

[End Page 103]

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Fred Lyon, Novelty Shop, 1947

When visiting a city, I take solitary, late-night walks, enjoying the feeling of being both lost and at home. Cities at night with their empty streets become a dreamscape of shadow and light. With your senses on high alert, the sights and sounds are magnified. Shadows rise up from sidewalks to take on ominous abstract shapes before disappearing. Car alarms, dogs barking, and throbbing music all sound louder, otherworldly. The cold of the wind tearing between buildings is crisper, and the steam from grates is thicker, taking longer to dissipate. You are alone, and then, suddenly, a group of drunken revelers emerges from the darkness, and they brush past you. A man in a terrycloth bathrobe ambles up behind you, pulled along by a dog at the end of a leash. A drag queen in a sequined minidress, a blond wig in one hand, high heels in the other, saunters by [End Page 104] and then buzzes into an apartment building. Again, the street is empty, the darkness broken by intermittent plays of light from streetlights and neon signs.

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Fred Lyon, Foggy Night, 1954

The urban nocturnal world of noir is a distinctly American creation, with the classic era of the genre beginning with The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity in the 1940s and ending with Touch of Evil and Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s. The tales of human despair set against urban dystopias reflect the country’s postwar trauma, anxiety over the Red menace and nuclear devastation, and a general sense of world-weariness. In an irrational and unstable universe, a night stroll might lead directly into a labyrinth without an exit. In Detour, Al Roberts, a pianist who has squandered his talent, proclaims, “At any street corner the absurd [End Page 105] may strike a man in the face.” His fear captures the conventional fate of the noir character whose tenuous grasp on normality is derailed by an unlikely twist of fate.

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Fred Lyon, Man Walking up San Francisco Street, 1959

Noir’s down-and-out private eyes, dames on the make, and petty criminals become embroiled in puzzle-like plots of double and triple crosses. The central character in a noir text must try to distinguish between benign and malignant unseen forces, with pain often more mental than physical. The existential threats of alienation and nothingness are always lurking. Alone and unprotected, characters find no place of refuge as they move through complex underworlds, ultimately discovering that a potential criminal is concealed in all of us.

Before and during World War II, many foreign film directors fled Europe for the United States. German exiles such as Fritz Lang, Billy [End Page 106]

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Scott Francis, Harrison and Greenwich Street, 2014

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Scott Francis, Staten Island Ferry, 2015

Wilder, Otto Preminger, Max Ophüls, and Edgar G. Ulmer, among others, helped define film noir’s distinctive visual design, infusing it with elements of German Expressionism, such as sharp contrast between light and dark images, oddly angled shots, mazes of shadows, and lights bouncing off reflective surfaces. Interiors are filled with recurring images of clocks, mirrors, staircases, windows: anything that conveys a suggestion of entrapment, while outside, the bleak terrain of the nocturnal city is portrayed as a modern wasteland glittering with temptation. The constructed mood of the city with its maze-like streets, flashing fun-house lights, and looming, claustrophobic buildings mirrors the genre’s pessimistic worldview of determinism, doom, and indifference to the physical world.

By the 1960s, postwar malaise and apocalyptic fears began to fade, and with them the popularity of noir as a cinematic genre. The dark side of the American persona seemed like a tired conceit. Yet noir’s high [End Page 108]

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Scott Francis, The Waldorf Astoria, 2014

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pp. 103-118
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