Photography In The Magic Hour - The Art Of Twilight At The V&A

By Graham Spicer | 10 October 2006
photo of a car stopped at traffic lights in the middle of a wide deserted road at dusk

Gregory Crewdson, Untitled. From the series Beneath The Roses (2003). © The Artist

The V&A’s new exhibition, Twilight: Photography In The Magic Hour, runs until December 17 2006 and showcases the work of eight contemporary artists suggesting the fleeting nature of the world at dusk.

The whole exhibition has a sorrowful feel, as you might expect from a study of the dying day. Some of the photographers portray reality, others use techniques and staged props to create their own ‘hyper-real’ versions of the twilight hours.

“The exhibition reveals the allure of the magic moment of twilight,” says exhibition curator Martin Barnes. “In recent years an increasing number of photographers internationally have chosen to explore the subject. It is an area of contemporary art where emotion and romanticism still have great currency.”

“At the close of day the raw natural light you are working from is changing rapidly – it is a very special time and a very poignant time to take pictures,” he adds.

photo of a young person floating in the air at night

Bill Henson, Untitled #20. © The Artist

Opening the exhibition is work buy New York born Gregory Crewdson, whose Twlight and Beneath The Roses series is a cross between photography and film sets. Operating with large crews and with extensive use of realistic props and post-production techniques he creates tableaux that balance realism with an otherworldly surrealism.

Young people in summer clothes wander, heads bowed, along a railway track; a spot of searing light from the heavens illuminates a nondescript patch of grass on a suburban street; a man abandons his car and clothes to climb an extraordinary beanpole emerging from a lawn; another car is unfathomably left at a set of amber traffic lights.

All imply that strange and unexplained events and rituals are at work in the suburban twilight and are utterly mesmerising.

photo of office buildings and construction sites

Liang Yue, Morse Code. From the series Several Dusks (2003). © The Artist

Bill Henson’s photos conversely use natural light to eerily illuminate the landscape and buildings on the outskirts of Australian towns. These are hung next to shots of vulnerable-looking, brooding adolescents. The figures are strangely arresting set next to the shadowy world of the suburbs; the dark corners of the buildings and woods suggested as their unnatural habitat.

Liang Yue was born in Shanghai and her Morse Code series, part of a larger body of work called Several Dusks, captures images of Beijing during the sand storms that blow into the city from the desert.

Combined with the city’s pollution, the sand creates an artificial dusk with a flat monochrome sky, blending in with the grey and concrete of Beijing’s burgeoning urban spaces and buildings. It makes for a mournful documentary feel of a culture under rapid transformation.

photo of pine trees in a snowy landscape at dusk

Chrystel Lebas, Betwen Dog And Wolf (2005). © The Artist

Using a panoramic camera and long exposures, Chrystel Lebas observes the effects of fading light in a forest setting for her Abyss series of photographs while her film Blue Hour shows the descending twilight in a Wiltshire bluebell wood in real time.

The living nature of the woods brings a feeling that night may awake another, perhaps supernatural sylvan world.

Veteran photographer Robert Adams’ Summer Nights series were taken along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado where he lives. These black and white shots show the frontier between nature and human encroachment.

Boris Mikhailov was born in Ukraine in 1938 and his At Dusk series were all made in his home city of Kharkov following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

black and white photo of a spinning fun fair ride against the backdrop of dramatic black clouds

Robert Adams, Longmount, Colorado. From the series Summer Nights (c1982, printed 1989). © The Artist

Tinted blue to appear old, the photos picture an ambiguous time – they both evoke the artists’ childhood memories of living through the Second World War and also picture the austerity of the post-communist era.

A world apart, the Hollywood series (or The Hustlers), by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, was taken on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles, Hollywood, an area frequented by drug users and male prostitutes.

The staged photos feature models discovered on the street and whom the photographer paid to pose for him. Artificial lighting is used to create the impression of a steamy, exotic twilight, intimately highlighting the streetwise yet vulnerable characters.

Israeli-born photographer Ori Gersht made his Rear Window series from the same window of his London flat. The images, using no filters to artificially tint them, explore the changing effects of light and atmospheric pollution in the city – from blues to red and yellow shades.

blue tinted photo of an old woman in overcoat and head scarf pulling a cart with a man walking in front of her

Boris Mikhailov, Untitled (7) (detail). From the series Die Dämmerung (At Dusk) (1993). © The Artist

Gersht’s specially commissioned short film Big Bang concludes the exhibition. A bowl of delicate flowers, arranged like a still life painting, explodes in slow motion to a soundtrack of Israeli air raid sirens. The effect is that of a painful and sudden transition from one state to another, the change from light to dark.

What links the works on show is an ambiguity and sense of poignancy fitting to their twilight subjects, but all are refreshingly different in their approach to the theme. Some are whimsical with a magical touch to them, others gritty, some introspective.

The only criticism is that in attempting to create the appropriate early evening feel, the gallery lights are dimmed with ultraviolet lighting used to enhance the effect; this makes it rather hard to see some of the photos and captions as well as you might like. Intentional, maybe, yet slightly frustrating.

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