Corner, Brooklyn, N.Y.“The feeling of three-dimensional space on this corner is emphasized by the single streetlight, which was the main source of illumination. I was told that the building is one Edward Hopper once painted.” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville Corner, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“The feeling of three-dimensional space on this corner is emphasized by the single streetlight, which was the main source of illumination. I was told that the building is one Edward Hopper once painted.” -- Lynn Saville


When photographer Lynn Saville was a child, her parents had a cabin in rural Vermont. Fascinated by the dark, she’d stand on the back porch and stare into the dense woods. The bright pool of light created by a single porch light would gradually fade into the trees, until darkness eclipsed the view. “To see the one light source was … a refuge,” she recalls.

Today, Saville roams cities on foot between twilight and dawn in search of the perfect shot. Equipped with a couple of digital cameras (a Nikon and her new favorite, a Sony mirrorless A7r II outfitted with a Zeiss 28mm lens) that she tucks under her loose-fitting jacket, she searches for the uncanny quietude and sense of wilderness that comes overnight, when most people are asleep.

Lighted Windows, Madison Avenue, New York“This is the first photograph I took for my series Dark City: Urban America at Night. I was fascinated by the abstract shape of the glowing window. The paper-covered storefront gave the façade a flatness, which reminded me of Rothko’s paintings. For the first time, I could understand the appeal of a head-on view of a building.” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville Lighted Windows, Madison Avenue, New York
“This is the first photograph I took for my series Dark City: Urban America at Night. I was fascinated by the abstract shape of the glowing window. The paper-covered storefront gave the façade a flatness, which reminded me of Rothko’s paintings. For the first time, I could understand the appeal of a head-on view of a building.” -- Lynn Saville

Based in New York City for some four decades, she’s devoted her artistic practice to photographing at night. Currently she’s working on a commission for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to document the west façade of Grand Central Station, revealed by recent construction and unseen for decades, which will be exhibited in the food hall this spring. True to her technique of using available light, she photographed the façade using only reflected light that bounced off the surrounding buildings.


String of Lights, Harlem, New York City“I was outside this storefront peering into the window with my camera. The string of lights left there in this haphazard way looked to me like a found sculpture. I knew I needed to take the photograph immediately because the cleaning team would probably take it away the next morning. ” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville String of Lights, Harlem, New York City
“I was outside this storefront peering into the window with my camera. The string of lights left there in this haphazard way looked to me like a found sculpture. I knew I needed to take the photograph immediately because the cleaning team would probably take it away the next morning. ” -- Lynn Saville

She has also authored three books dedicated to overnight subjects. The most recent is Dark City: Urban America at Night (Damiani, 2015), which presents a shadowy world of empty storefronts and disused industrial sites. Given the time of day they were taken, you might think that the images would have a film noir or eerie feel, offering premonitions of impending violence or crime. Instead, her work is about the stillness found in a pool of electric light.

“In the city it is always busy, there’s so much happening, but at night it shifts and you can achieve some solitude—you don’t need to go to the country,” Saville says. Her nocturnal explorations are an adventure into territory made strange by the night. “The city is still there even though we are not out and about in it. You can get moments and places where you can be alone,” she says.


Riverside Drive, New York City“I was impressed by the sense of refuge of the new bus stop with its glowing green glass and clear view of the foliage behind it.” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville Riverside Drive, New York City
“I was impressed by the sense of refuge of the new bus stop with its glowing green glass and clear view of the foliage behind it.” -- Lynn Saville

Saville first came to New York in the mid-1970s to study at Pratt Institute. She was smitten by photography, especially street photographers like André Kertész and Lee Friedlander, who snapped pictures during the day. But Saville connected with the nighttime. An introductory drawing class taught her about tonality. Her instructor had students cover a sheet of paper in charcoal and then erase, coaxing form and depth out of the black soot. The exercise forever changed her artistic sensibility and how she took photographs: her first images were in black and white, often shot using a 35mm Leica rangefinder film camera. Later, she expanded to color—with an emphasis on rich hues of red or yellow placed against a dark blue-black background. Today she also uses a Nikon (the digital D800e model) as well as a Phase One, a digital medium format camera. Occasionally, she’ll bring a tripod, depending if she wants to slow down and set up the composition.


Warehouses, Bushwick, Brooklyn, N.Y. “Early one morning I visited Bushwick. The offbeat colored lighting seems to be part of the gentrification of this formerly industrial area.” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville Warehouses, Bushwick, Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Early one morning I visited Bushwick. The offbeat colored lighting seems to be part of the gentrification of this formerly industrial area.” -- Lynn Saville

With Dark City, Saville not only captures moments in the dark, but also the changing economic reality of the late 2000s across the United States. In 2008, she started to notice the impact of the recession in New York: vacant storefronts along Madison Avenue, one of the city’s toniest shopping areas. One boutique would be selling furs and its next-door neighbor would be empty. “It was like suddenly seeing your neighbor without their clothes on,” Saville says. “The whole city had a lot of gaps, like a jack-o’-lantern with missing teeth.”


Neon Sign, West 50th Street, New York“A glowing light drew my attention at the intersection, because the entire block was quite dark due to the several vacant stores. The sign appealed to me because of the cheerful colors and glowing neon light. Normally, I might not have paused to look at this place, but the pink and blue light allowed me to concentrate on the basic architectural structure of the storefront. Without products, normal signage, or mannequins in the window, I could see the place in its own glory.” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville Neon Sign, West 50th Street, New York
“A glowing light drew my attention at the intersection, because the entire block was quite dark due to the several vacant stores. The sign appealed to me because of the cheerful colors and glowing neon light. Normally, I might not have paused to look at this place, but the pink and blue light allowed me to concentrate on the basic architectural structure of the storefront. Without products, normal signage, or mannequins in the window, I could see the place in its own glory.” -- Lynn Saville

In his introduction to Dark City, author Geoff Dyer reflects on the boom and bust, writing that it is the “economic equivalent of the diurnal cycle of night and day, light and dark.” Illuminated with whatever light was on hand, everything from streetlights to neon signage, Saville’s photographs give a dignity to the failed stores. One shop in Harlem is lit only by a string of festoon lights. Along Front Street in Brooklyn, her photograph of a stripped-down retail space is lit by streetlights, which project inverse shadows across the floor. A neon sign on West 50th Street casts a magenta glow onto wet pavement. Of the “Space for Rent” sign, Dyer writes, “[it] advertises its own emptiness so effectively that it seems a shame to convert it to any other use.”


Hudson Street, New York City “When I took the photograph, the light from a streetlight outside this former restaurant created my spot-lit shadow on the wall. ” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville Hudson Street, New York City
“When I took the photograph, the light from a streetlight outside this former restaurant created my spot-lit shadow on the wall. ” -- Lynn Saville

Other photographs in Dark City take in whole landscapes of decline, but never succumb to “ruin porn,” the trend for images that make decay seem spectacular. Instead, Saville photographed the Michigan Central Depot in Detroit, framing the edifice in a stately composition, while the only hint of present abandonment is the tall grasses in the foreground. Still, Detroit proved a tricky place to capture. Saville would scout for sites during the day and go back at night to photograph, only to find herself let down by the city’s lack of infrastructure. “None of the streetlights would go on,” she says. “I’m dependent on light—car lights, the light from a pharmacy or liquor store. There were whole avenues where the lights were out.”


Empty Store, 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, New York City “This empty space had been cleared to its skeleton. The eerily cold industrial lighting gave the space a strange presence in the midtown area of New York City.” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville Empty Store, 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, New York City
“This empty space had been cleared to its skeleton. The eerily cold industrial lighting gave the space a strange presence in the midtown area of New York City.” -- Lynn Saville

Streetlighting is critical to the work; Saville notes that as cities change to LED fixtures from high-pressure sodium (HPS), she faces a challenge. The LED lamps are bright and white. They create a diffuse beam spread instead of an amber pool of light and have a lot of glare. “There was a certain warmth and charm [with HPS], and that warmth gave a slight romance in the city,” she notes.

West 126th Street, New York“I am intrigued by the variety of colors of light falling on the building and the adjacent parking lot. The abrupt combination of warm and cool light is a characteristic I frequently see as night falls.” -- Lynn Saville
Lynn Saville West 126th Street, New York
“I am intrigued by the variety of colors of light falling on the building and the adjacent parking lot. The abrupt combination of warm and cool light is a characteristic I frequently see as night falls.” -- Lynn Saville

As the economy has rambunctiously improved since the downturn, Saville finds herself trying to keep ahead of gentrification in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The High Line is now a popular urban park, not an overgrown railway spur. The once derelict St. Ann’s Warehouse under the Brooklyn Bridge is now a performing arts space. “New York seems to be zipped up and it’s hard to find a tangle of weeds,” she laments. With her camera in tow, she heads farther and farther into the boroughs for inspiration and wildness. By photographing overnight, Saville captures the urban environment at its most naked or vulnerable and her images offer us a nighttime view into what we often miss in the light of day. The effect is more gentle than jarring. There’s a haunting fragility in her photographs—recognition, perhaps, that the darkness is just as fleeting as the light. •