Nostalgia and Mystery – Photographs by Lynn Saville | Exhibition review by W. Scott Olsen

There is always a voice in the shadows. Something calls to us, asks us to step nearer, pay attention, learn something dangerous and fresh. For whatever reason, we are captivated by shadows. Something—we’re not quite sure what—is simultaneously being concealed and revealed. And mystery is always alluring.

To be more precise, however, we are captivated by transitions of light. We make distinctions between civil twilight, nautical twilight, and astronomical twilight. Twilight happens twice a day, so we make a distinction between dusk and dawn. We talk about golden hour and blue hour. We talk about the pre-dark and the pre-dawn sky.

It’s not just light, either. In architecture there is the liminal zone—hallways and other spaces to get us from one space to the next. At the beach, there is the intertidal zone, between high and low tide, and then the littoral zone, from the high water mark to the continental shelf. Ecologists talk about the edge effect, where one habit meets and changes into another.

“Under the Manhattan Bridge,” 2010 © Lynn Saville/Courtesy Alessia Paladini

Our conversations often lead to moments of change as well. When was the moment you first knew you were in love, going to get married, get a divorce, buy a car, become a vegetarian? We want to mark that moment of change. There’s something important about the flip.

For the obvious reasons of light and our usual habits, most photography is daytime photography. Yes, there is the genre of night photography. But what about the in-between time? What about those times that are both light and dark, well after golden hour or well before? The sky, especially for a camera’s sense of capture, is still light, but the buildings, the facades and sidewalks are all darkened. This is a time of richness. The world is in the act of becoming something else.

Dark Cities, an exhibition of Lynn Saville’s photography at the Alessia Paladini Gallery in Milan, Italy, is a collection all about the transition time of twilight. And if I were in Milan during the exhibition run, I would have been in the gallery often. There are stories in these images I want to explore.

“Jack’s,” 2015 © Lynn Saville/Courtesy Alessia Paladini

The gallery itself, a new gallery with a focus on female photography, appears elegant and intimate. Narrow and deep, it affords ample space for each image on the wall and yet not that airy vacuum that haunts so many other galleries. There is a kind of closeness here that encourages a mind being exploded. And the images are extraordinary. All of them are from New York City, which might seem odd for a gallery in Milan, but the emotion here is well known to any old city. The architecture changes, but the pathos is universal.

The exhibition notes position Saville in conversation with one of the earliest voices of photography. “The American critic Arthur C. Danto has described Lynn Saville as New York’s answer to Eugène Atget, because she ‘prowls her city at the other end of the day, picking up pieces.’ Shooting at sunrise or sunset—positioning the easel in a stealthy way so as not to attract the attention of the police—the artist portrays places emptied of their primary dimension, which becomes another, almost a film set behind which abandonments are revealed due to the rampant financial crisis, or to building expansions that erase a past made up of people and by now obsolete habits.”

“Lighted Window,” 2010 © Lynn Saville/Courtesy Alessia Paladini

Take for example an image called Brooklyn Bridge park Construction. A large tree is centered in the frame, next to a backlit pavement steamroller. The tree is neither in full summer bloom nor the barrenness of winter. This is an autumn picture, old leaves on the tree and cold moving in. The sky is a rich evening blue and the Brooklyn Bridge is visible in the fading daylight but also illuminated by its lamps. The building to the left is in shadow. There are lamps in the far right distance. The windows in the buildings are boarded and there is construction fencing. Given its position, it seems as if the steamroller is about to flatten the tree. Yet, the tree is lit not from above with sunlight but from underneath. The effect is that this is a picture that rises. It has both weight and air. In another 20 minutes the sky will have gone black and the shadows will seem more threatening than beautiful. But this is twilight. This is the moment of both nostalgia for the day just ending, and anticipation for the night. Lingering over this image provokes a desire for story.

Another image, entitled Ford, America Building at Hewes Street, is taken from an elevated subway station. The sky is still a light blue, but the foreground has come into shadow. The building, red brick and centered in the frame, would be compelling at any time of day simply as an architectural photograph with its large arches for the lower windows and smaller for the upper windows, a flat roof, and either patina or decay, depending on your point of view, at the center. There’s new construction in the left of the frame. Painted windows and brick and graffiti in the center. Words like ‘Ford’ and ‘America’ at street level, which are nearly hidden, carry their own nostalgic gravitas.

“Ford, America Building at Hewes Street elevated subway station,” 2021 © Lynn Saville/Courtesy Alessia Paladini

In this image, twilight is a metaphor. This is a building in its twilight. And while ideas like gentrification are certainly appropriate, this image is a mood piece. There is rot here, in something once beautiful. This is a building soon to go dark. And yet, in this last bit of a particular day’s sunlight, there is also warmth and memory.

This is very much like another image in the collection called Red House, Myrtle Wyckoff. Shot from the Myrtle Wyckoff station, a red building in the foreground is illuminated by the last few moments of sunlight. The sky is still a light blue and the red has deepened with the indirect light. One side, the side facing us, is bright, while the side facing away is dark. The building has corbels at the roofline, a bit of fanciness perhaps, or at least care. But it’s surrounded by the mundane and worn. Looking at this image, we know that in 10 minutes the whole building will be dark and not so much mysterious as sad. This, too, is an emotional reading. There is something about twilight that is both nostalgia and foreshadowing. It seems to nearly explode with both emptiness and potential.

“Red House, Myrtle Wycoff,” 2022 © Lynn Saville/Courtesy Alessia Paladini

There is a deep talent here. What I mean is a talent of imagination. According to Saville’s personal website, “Fine-art photographer Lynn Saville was educated at Duke University and Pratt Institute. Saville specializes in photographing cities and rural settings at twilight and dawn, or as she describes it, ‘the boundary times between night and day.’”

Nonetheless, there are images in this collection that are wonderful, but, for me, do not quite achieve the extraordinary in terms of this show’s idea. This is all about taste, of course, so other people will disagree. The image of Grand Central station with the Chrysler building in the background, one of the larger images on the wall, is exquisite—a technical masterpiece. But this image appears to be taken in full nighttime. Office lights are on, traffic moves, and there is an interesting construction area in the foreground. Every bit of this image invites you to step closer and imagine who and why. But this is not a twilight shot. The mystery here is not the mystery of transformation.

“Space for Rent, New York City,” 2015 © Lynn Saville/Courtesy Alessia Paladini

It’s important to note that these images have nothing to do with 1940s or 1950s style film noir. This is not a world of Bogart and Bacall, fedoras and trench coats. Twilight in this collection has more weight. There is a kind of sadness to these images. These are all scenes where something is fading away. The image Space for Rent is a good example. Here, at night, neon in a shop front advertises both potential and emptiness. The image is interesting just for its use of line and shape and color and light. But the transition, hoped for if nothing else, between what once was and what might be, the visible details of past and present along with the idea of the future, is captivating. That’s what this exhibition is about.

One of my favorite images is of the Waring Envelope building. This building is massive. Not tall and slender, but wide and thick and heavy. This is old school factory architecture. The corner of the building is nearly center in the frame, pointed at the viewer so we get to see both left and right facades. The neatly uniform windows are occasionally lit. There is evidence of life and activity still inside. The sky above the building is dark blue but not completely black. The building itself is red brick and the street in front of it is red cobblestone. There’s a red and white ‘Do Not Enter’ sign on the roadway. A couple of orange cones and yellow pylons add some color contrast, while the vertical sign, painted on the brick, that says Waring Envelope is definitive.

The most remarkable thing about this image is the twilight. Whatever light there is, which frankly could be moonlight as well, is coming onto this building from over a building we cannot see behind the camera. The shape of that hidden building, however, creates a shadow on the Waring Envelope building that creates a triangle or pyramid at the corner. It looks very much like a ship’s prow. It’s angular and strong. The result is a thick heavy building capable of motion. That motion may not be geographic. However, it may be temporal. But there is life in this building, even though the sky is going dark.

Only a few of Saville’s images contain people, solitary figures either walking or standing still. However all of the images imply a human narrative. There is something going on just beyond what we can see. That is one of the allures of transition time; there is always something beyond what we can see, hanging around at the edge of our imagination. The very best of these images provokes a kind of narrative wondering. That’s the compelling nature of twilight. Everything is simultaneously hidden and revealed.

“Jill in Newburgh,” 2017 © Lynn Saville/Courtesy Alessia Paladini

Dark Cities is a provocative and rewarding collection of images. It’s easy to linger on every one of them. The interplay if not contradiction between dark sky and bright buildings articulates that moment where everything turns. In another ten minutes the sky will be dark. Ten minutes ago it was just late afternoon. All the rules change between day and night. All the stories change too, all the promises and threats. In these images, Act One has just finished and Act Two is winding up. Some time has passed, but the story continues.

And so I wish I had been in Milan. I would have made a point of going to this gallery several times. I would have viewed it in the afternoon, and I would have viewed it at twilight. Not that the lighting on the walls would have shifted. It is the lighting in my mind, the one I brought in the door with me, that would have changed. And I would want to visit the images again.

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