Night Eyes

While fully half of our life passes in the night, still it remains in many ways foreign to us. We take for granted that what we are seeing in the daytime is what is there. At night, however, that same place can be completely transformed. There is a sense of something just out of view, lurking. We become hyper-aware as we stretch our sensory muscles. Edward Hopper in an interview about his iconic painting “Nighthawks” said that the painting had more to do with the possibility of predators in the night than with loneliness. And, it is that sense of possibilities that night photography seeks to explore.

For photographers, Manu and Greta Schnetzler the night is an adventure. Not all places are equally transformed by the night. It takes night eyes to see the potential for magic and mystery in a place that seems quite mundane in the daytime. So, when a candidate is discovered, re-visiting the place at night is a must. Photography is uniquely qualified as an art form to capture the emotion that the qualities of night evoke. We always feel that there is something unseen just outside of our perception; and, the camera actually captures a piece of that. Michael Kenna observed that the photography at night “has an unpredictable character – our eyes cannot see cumulatively, like film. So what is being photographed is often impossible for us to see. Certainly it’s a good antidote for pre-visualization”.

Manu and Greta have both been photographing since childhood. Their paths crossed paths nearly twenty years ago at Stanford. There, appropriately enough, they bonded over a Hasselblad. On an early adventure to Zion and Bryce National Parks, they first began photographing at night. Night photography is technically quite challenging and lends itself well to collaboration. Often there are multiple cameras, all shooting with different exposures. Lighting is jury-rigged. And, at the end of the shoot, it can be difficult to identify who authored any particular shot. The resulting arguments over who authored which images were soon resolved by simply declaring all images to be collaborations.

Over the years, they have been drawn to what they describe as “unnoticed places”. Always they are places that have a very different presence at night than during the day. As with the Potrero Hill gas pumps in the banner image, they often end up photographing things that “have been left behind to decay or to be destroyed”. I asked Greta Schnetzler to describe a favorite photo shoot. She showed me a photograph that they took near Bode in the desert. It was a group outing with The Nocturnes, an amazing group of loosely affiliated night photographers here in the Bay Area, founded by Tim Baskerville. The group came across an abandoned trailer. Greta and Manu were certain that everyone would come back that night to photograph it, but astonishingly they were the only ones. The Schnetzler’s are very “old school”. They use an old Hasselblad camera, a few Holgas and recently an 8 x 10 view camera. The photograph on Fuji Velvia film. For this shoot, they lit the trailer with hand-held flashlights and gels. Otherwise, the image is unaltered.

Many times the subject is a very ordinary object – such as a simple park bench in their San Francisco neighborhood. In an article by the French poet, Laureline Amanieux, the resulting image was described: “What does a bench do in the night while I sleep? Does it suffer from its sudden solitude or does the bench live much more without the trace of a body?” This anthropomorphizing of ordinary objects is a power that the night possesses. Film, as it slows the light, uniquely captures that. In the hands of the Schneltzer’s, the camera is a tool for exploring their environment. It is a way to see beyond what is immediately visible; capturing images that, at their best, reveal not only what is seen in these night places, but also what is felt. Manu & Greta Schneltzer participate annually in the San Francisco Open Studios with The Noctournes. They have shown in numerous exhibitions here and abroad. Their work was recently featured in B&W Magazine. Studio visits can be arranged by appointment.

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