Life After Dark

“The nights of one period are not the nights of another. Neither are nights of one city the nights of another.” These are the words of Djuna Barnes in Nightwood (1936), the seminal early 20th century modernist novel. It is true that each of us experiences the hours after dark differently, shaped by our location, our identity and our socio-economic background. For some, it is a time to sleep, rest and escape the pressing demands of modern life. For others, it’s an opportunity for the hedonistic pleasures of clubs and bars, friends and relationships. Our nocturnal habits can be ones of protest and resistance, pleasure and connection, work, or they can be fraught with danger and anxiety. Now, a photo book – Night Fever: Film and Photography After Dark – explores this duplicity through the lens of art and cinema spanning more than fifty years.

The book takes 1960 as its starting point, a year which, according to contributing essayist Chris Fujiwara, was significant in the story of film. The release of Jean-Luc Godard’s pioneering À Bout de souffle “marked a break in cinema in the way films of the year freed the possibilities of night, and, reciprocally, night expanded those of cinema.” Fast forward to today, and pictures taken after hours continue to intrigue audiences. Todd Hido and Gregory Crewdson are amongst the best known proponents, creating moody photographs of suburban America. Now, this book, edited by Shanay Jhaveri, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, shines a light on so-called “nightwalkers” – filmmakers, photographers and artists who take darkness as inspiration. Their works spans generations and continents, from unflinching images of South Africa by David Goldblatt to Katsumi Watababe’s Japan streets and Arctic scenes from Evgenia Arbugaeva.

Today, 8.7 million people in the UK work on shifts, whilst between 5 and 10% of the US workforce are on the job through the late hours. This is known to impact health and wellbeing; it disrupts our circadian rhythm – the 24-hour internal “clock” – which controls when we sleep and wake. It is a working routine with a long and complex history, especially for those with lower-paid, manual roles. At the extreme end of the spectrum, it can become more than a job: an all-encompassing way of life, with long journeys, unsuitable conditions and often no other option. This is evidenced in Night Fever by renowned photographer David Goldblatt (b. 1930), who recorded the brutal reality of those forced to work painfully long hours under apartheid in South Africa. For those documented, the day started at two o’clock in the morning as they boarded the bus in a form of compulsory commuting to white-owned industry. As one person remarked: “Should I stop travelling, I won’t eat.” Goldblatt’s damning photos capture The Transported of KwaNdebele, trying to snatch a few moments of rest. For the bus riders, the night provides no peace.   

In Night Fever, then, darkness is often positioned as a place of anxiety and threat. Another example is the story of Indian photographer Dayanita Singh (b. 1961), who, in 2008, ventured out to photograph the full moon. She returned home, fell asleep and woke up the next day to find she had been robbed of her cameras, watch, ring and 40 rolls of film. The impact of this strange experience is palpable in Dream Villa (2010), a collection of menacing images that are saturated in greens, reds, and golds. Singh reminds us of the unseen threats that lurk in the dark. Sadly, in 2024, the night remains a deeply gendered and heteronormative place. But it’s also a space for resistance and rebellion. During the latter half of the 20th century, voices began to call for change. The Reclaim the Night protests started in Leeds in 1977 as part of the Women’s Liberation Movement and carried on until the 1990s. The demonstrators demanded that women be able to safely move through public spaces regardless of the hour. This was echoed in the outcry after the murder of Sarah Everard in 2021, when women came together in solidarity to call for an end to a culture where women are afraid to walk the streets. Night Fever immortalises such moments of collective resistance. On 11 January 2011, marches, demonstrations and civil resistance began in Egypt, targeting the Mubarak government. Mosa’ab Elshamy (b. 1990) was a pharmacist with a photography hobby, but the uprising triggered a shift in focus and photojournalism became a career. His extensive coverage of the protests in Tahrir Square shed light on a people united by a call for revolution. 

Yet there are glimpses of joy here, too: moments of stolen intimacy and abandon amongst the shadows. For people living under systems of oppression, or in times of great political and economic uncertainty, the cover of darkness can be an opportunity for connection and self-expression. Myriam Boulos (b. 1992) tells the story of Beirut’s young people at a time of post-war crisis and political uncertainty. She integrates herself into the city’s nightlife and records moments of tenderness in the midst of economic collapse. “Her subjects respond with an honest that is bracing and sometimes hard to take in all at once. They give, share with and trust her with their assertions of sexual agency, fantasies, and desires.” Boulos captures a passionate kiss between two men in front of a purple sky. Elsewhere, a flash of underwear as a woman lifts her top. These photos are fleeting and playful, showing figures emboldened by night.

Night Fever: Film and Photography After Dark is edited by Shanay Jhaveri and published by Koenig Books.

Image Credits:

  1. Ming Smith, Grace Jones, Studio 54 (New York), © Ming Smith, courtesy of the artist.
  2. David Goldblatt. Going home, Marabastad-Waterval bus, 9:00pm: For most of the people in this bus the cyclewill start again tomorrow between 2:00 and 3:00am, 1984. Silver gelatin print on fibre-based paper. From the series The Transported of KwaNdebele ©The David Goldblatt Legacy Trust. Courtesy Goodman Gallery.
  3. Paz Errazuriz, Untitled, from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), © Paz Errazuriz.
  4. Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1971, from the series Kōen (The Park). Gelatin Silver Print © Kohei Yoshiyuki. Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.