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November 13, 2020
Photography and words by Philip Butler
Introduction by Karin Svadlenak Gomez
Worcestershire based photographer Philip Butler harbours a fascination with night-time photography. Philip has long been documenting architecture around the United Kingdom, with a special focus on inter-war architecture. The year 2019 saw the publication of Odeon Relics, a photo book documenting the surviving buildings constructed by the iconic cinema chain in 1930s. His new book the Small Hours brings together a 12 month project capturing artificial light sources after dusk in and around his hometown of Great Malvern. Philip shares his story about documenting nights in his hometown and a sample of photos from the book.
I have a long-standing fascination with low-light photography and capturing urban scenes after dark. My usual photographic projects centre on documenting surviving 1930s Art Deco buildings throughout the United Kingdom. These are often dramatic enough structures in their own right, but where possible I’ll aim to shoot at dawn or dusk to create a more alluring shot. This ongoing project requires extensive travel around the country though, so with movement curtailed this year I turned my lens closer to home. The result was 'Small Hours'.
Inspired by the 1977 John Martyn song of the same name, a brooding nocturnal soundscape recorded across a lake at 3am. Small Hours is a collection of photographs produced to document the peaceful cinematic atmosphere that isolated points of artificial light create after the sun has set.
The images were captured in and around my hometown of Malvern, Worcestershire. Famous for its mineral water, hills, Medieval priory and conservation area of Victorian architecture, this is an area I am intimately familiar with. Wandering around after dark, however, completely changes the appreciation of your surroundings.
Night photography in urban areas is nothing new and social media is awash with shots from this genre. Often taking inspiration from the big screen (Blade Runner for example), the photographer can employ a heady mix of neon lights, litter strewn streets and towering structures to create some high impact images. Malvern however, has very few of these things. The feast of nineteenth century villas and quiet residential streets make for pretty vistas during the day, but by night they become, to my eye at least, mundane. Instead I found myself looking primarily at light, shadow, and tone. Rather than objects of architectural or natural beauty, I was being drawn purely to light sources and their immediate vicinity.
Streetlights, often sodium based with a strong orange hue, cast a warming ethereal glow over their surroundings. Shadows formed by objects blocking the light create textures and patterns unseen during daylight hours. Other sources of white light from street furniture, phone boxes or illuminated signage become welcome markers in the sea of black, while coloured tones from traffic lights, retail displays or dazzling petrol station canopies enlarge the spectrum of highlights from purely orange, black and white. These simple scenes can be almost cinematic themselves without the need of imposing urban architecture. A cashpoint bleeds green light into the surrounding puddles on the pavement, a bright blue and red sign advertises watch batteries from inside a closed backstreet cobblers, a small beauty salon explodes in a bright pink riot courtesy of some enthusiastic use of coloured rope light.
After a rainstorm, tarmac and pavements glisten, gilding the previously unremarkable ground with a seemingly crystalline sheen. Puddles and pools of water reflect anything aimed at them, creating a distorted reverse of reality.
Small Hours is deliberately devoid of people, but signs of life are present. The last train heading to Birmingham heads off down an unlit track, its red taillights receding in the gloom. A warm glow emanates from inside the sorting office as work continues through the night. Two takeaways stand open side by side in the dark, awaiting custom from hungry locals. The occasional car is represented by partial light trails acting as arrows showing direction of travel.
As dawn arrives the palate changes again as a deep navy blue slowly fills the sky, drawing the unlit shadowy areas out into the exposure. Streetlights start to extinguish one by one well before the sun has hit the horizon, and as a result, the mood alters and the small hours rapidly draw to a close.
Having exhausted the photographic options within walking distance of my home I decided to draw the project to a close by publishing a short run photobook on my ADM imprint. Sequenced from blue hour, through the night to dawn the following morning, the series of shots takes you on a tour of Malvern that the tourist board probably wouldn’t sanction. It may not be what this small town is known for, but to my eyes it is far more magical after dark.
The photo book SMALL HOURS and other photo books by Philip Butler are available from ADM Publications.
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The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.