07/15/14 Nighttime Photographer Frank Callaghan on his “Dead Ends” Series
Photographer Frank Callaghan has always been a medium to structures and landscapes. In past series such as “Dwelling” (2009), Manila’s tarpaulin-roofed shanties and the makeshift buildings that comprise its urban squalor are ultimately expressive. They’re especially candid at night, the timespan Callaghan is predisposed to working within, when lights from around or within his inanimate subjects illuminate a new layer to their identity.
When Callaghan moved to London a couple years back, he became less privy to his structural surroundings. Still, amid a city of overly fortified buildings, the boundaries had something significant to communicate. In Callaghan’s latest series “Dead Ends,” running at Silverlens Gallery until August 9, the artist’s disconnection is apparent in severe verticals and claustrophobic corners—a series sharper and more vivid than his past work.
Now home after two years in London, the nighttime photographer talks to NOUS about capturing such a forbidding view of the city, the refined technique it inspired, and why he’s always been drawn to the night.
What was the general idea behind “Dead Ends”?
All of the work I do, I don’t really start with a concept. It’s process-driven so I just go and see what happens. So obviously it’s still nighttime. I moved to London and I needed some time to get used to the context and to allow the context to press upon me, in turn making its impact on the photography. I had a couple of other series I tried: the wildlife in London—these foxes that come out at night. I tried to do that and there’s another series on the Thames, the river. They just weren’t working and nothing was happening.
Drifting around London at night, I found everything was very closed off. Unlike Manila, which I was used to at that point, where it’s a porous city. You can just walk through streets and peoples’ lives are almost on display. Especially with the pictures I was doing before in low-income areas where the buildings themselves kind of tell a story. In London, everything is walled off and divided. You can feel the weight and level of development, the sophistication of the system. But the effect of that on the actual ground is that you can’t get anywhere. You’re blanketed by this orange light, which for photography is horrible. Within the spectrum of light, there’s a very narrow band of light that it puts out. So yeah, I kept coming up against these barriers and it was the moment I realized that those walls—the dead ends I was reaching—that would be the subject of the series. Then, things started falling into place.
The spaces that you captured obviously express limitation but at the same time, were freeing in a way.
Yeah, in a lot of ways, limitations can be freeing. Much like if you’re raising a child, for example. If you give a child boundaries, then they’re free to work within those boundaries. For me, I was forced to conform to the structure. At first, I was resisting the boundaries: the linear thought, the rules. And everything in London is about rules. Unlike the Philippines where everything is fluid—you can bend every rule. And so at some point, I decided to embrace the rules and that’s how my process changed towards that.
I started getting more into the technical aspects. Into the more formal compositional directions. If you look at the pictures, all of the lines are very true. The verticals are completely true to the size of the frame. The amount of attention to the technical aspects, which I didn’t used to do before.
What the series is kind of about is what happens when you take that logical linearity to its extreme and you wait for the point where it kind of breaks down. The alternate title for the show was “Afterthought,” because it’s the moment after thought. When thought reaches its limit and it starts to break down. And after embracing all of that, you realize that the inevitable chaos of nature is everywhere. The more you go into the structure, the more it frees up the other side of things. The very dichotomy of putting those things in opposite sides is false in a way. The two thoughts are actually intertwined. The more you go into the structure, the organic side of things also ramps up.
Can you talk about the more technical aspects that arose in this series?
I used a tilt-shift lens, which allows you to change the perspective of the lines. It’s an architectural technique to keep all the verticals true or straight. When you look up at a building, the verticals kind of converge upwards. This keeps everything within the lines, which is from a technical standpoint, correct. Also I upgraded my equipment so the resolution is a lot better. I started paying attention to the optical aperture to use for the most sharpness out of each picture. That’s part of the reason for the size—it’s a lot bigger than I’ve ever gone before. When you walk up really close, there’s an incredible amount of detail there. You can see every blade of grass in the pictures.
How long did you work on this project?
It took about a year and a half. The actual shooting took about six to eight months. As with any of the series I’ve done, there’s a lot more images that aren’t up here. I’d shoot lots and lots and then edit it down to a distilled version, with just the ones that communicate what I’m trying to say.
How did you go about selecting the structures you would capture?
I started from where I was and then went on a random path through the city that allowed the structure of the city to dictate where I could go and where I couldn’t. It’s kind of like pouring water through a maze. It finds its own way through.
Are you tossing any ideas around for a possible series?
I’m building up the potential energy to get working again. But what I’m interested to see is how this process, this different way of working, will affect how I work [in Manila]. What I probably do want to do is revisit some of the old subject matter but in this new light.
Are there any new places you’re inclined to?
I’ve been traveling a lot to Tagaytay where my mom started a construction project. Along the way there have been these places I want to go, basically on the side of the highway. But I do want to redo my “Dwelling” series with more focus, more planning, and more technical and conceptual backbone.
That’s interesting because for many artists done with a project, they’re done.
I don’t feel like it was finished. I had to walk away from it for a while because my posture was never political. I wasn’t trying to make a statement about squatter areas, for example, or about informal settlers or about the socioeconomic cultural distances. I was just taking pictures. But then once it was released into the atmosphere, I became forced to be responsible for that.
Did you have any influences that helped you refine your skills?
There’s this artist named Todd Hido, who’s also a nighttime photographer. I actually met him years ago. He’s a San Francisco-based photographer. My sister’s a producer of photography in San Francisco and because she knew I liked his stuff, she surprised me one day and went over to his house. Pretty cool.
Why have you always been drawn to nighttime photography anyhow?
Part of it was that I was awake all the time at night, especially when I was in my early 20s. I hardly saw the daylight. And because that’s when you’re awake, that’s when you’re out, and that’s when I started taking pictures. I kept on coming home with all these blurry pictures until I improved my technique and I bought a tripod. ‘Oh shit, I can start taking pictures now’ and it was great.
But also in terms of actually working, the night is perfect for me because I like working alone and in the quiet. And I like having time to think. If I’m not alone or if I’m being watched, my whole mind isn’t engaged. I like to work very slowly. I like to let things brew and seep in. For me, it’s nice when the whole city is yours because no one else is around. You’re not making a big spectacle of yourself by holding up this big camera. That whole side of your brain can relax, you know what I mean?