Chicago luv urban ruins graffiti adventure "light painting" "night photography" "art photography" "long exposure photography"

Alleys & Ruins no. 142, Luv (2013, Chicago, IL, 10:00pm)

Alleys & Ruins no. 142, Luv (2013, Chicago, IL, 10:00pm)

 

The five rapid gun shots are loud and close by. All of us instinctively get down. We look at each other, "Holy crap!" A period of silence follows and so we all get back up.

I head back to my camera and my lighting equipment and resume planning my photograph.

A few minutes later flashing lights from a cop car approach. The cops cautiously get out, one has his hand on top of his holstered side arm. The other cop barks, "What's going on here?"I begin to explain that we're setting up for a photo. The cops look at us and each other like they don't understand. And why should they. Who sets up in a dark abandoned back lot, in Chicago's notoriously dangerous Lawndale neighborhood, with bags and bags of expensive equipment, in the middle of the night. To... take a photo??

The cops look around at the photo gear, flipping open some bags, and it's obvious we're telling the truth.

"Look," he continues, "you guys take your photo but be careful out here! We had a report of shots fired. Do you know anything about that?"

We tell them about the 5 shots that rang out 10 minutes ago and point in the general direction. They get back in their car and speed away looking for the gunman.

And I get back to work. 

It's dark but I can still make out the crumbling ugly eyesore that remains of the building. And if all goes well, I am going to make it pretty in my photograph by lighting it up with bright colored lights.

I've been shooting in dangerous alleys and ruins for almost 30 years. It's an obsession that is rooted in a difficult period of my life. Running into angry cops is no fun but I'm used to it. I worry more about running into street gangs. And I have, several times over the years. Those were not good times! And those are entirely other stories... so let me just stick to this story for now.

I'm focusing on my photograph again. I make adjustments to the settings on my camera: a 50 year old Hasselblad. Then I choose the lights I'll be using from my large selection of spotlights and flash units. Next is the color scheme. I pull out the colored filters I want and attach them to the lights.

There's a shriek behind me. One of my assistants has just seen a big rat.

I get back to my camera. I'm going to shoot several 30 minute exposures (we're gonna be here a while). During each 30 minute exposure I'll be walking around holding a light in my hand, lighting the scene, gradually building up layers of lighting. I try to light my images in a theatrical style. I want the final image to look like a theater set because I love imagining all the characters who have come and gone over the years in this little insignificant corner of the world. When I look at the scene I know there are stories there, but there's no one to ask so all you can do is imagine.

I click the camera shutter. I'm beginning the first of my three 30 minute exposures.

I'm going to be stepping in front of the camera to do my lighting. It's the only way to create the detailed, precise lighting I need. But of course I don't want myself to appear in the photo. Over the years I've built up a big bag of tricks. It's almost pitch black and I'm wearing a black hoodie so it's hard for the camera to see me, as long as I keep moving while in front of the camera.

I flip the hoodie over my head and step into the scene to begin lighting the picture that would become Alleys & Ruins no. 142, Luv

 

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A PBS-TV crew had come along with me that night, interested in seeing how I prowl around dark dirty corners in search of ugly beauty. They were producing a segment for the program, In the Loop, a weekly public affairs show. The segment producer, Mario Tharpe, had come along with his camera crew. You can see the clip here.

As in all my work in the Alleys & Ruins series, I try to hide the harsh grittiness under a layer of fantasy with the use of my lighting, and since this was a 30-minute exposure, I had lots of time to work.

I rarely get to do a “before” shot, since I always show up at night. But since the TV crew wanted to get some clear footage of me and my old gear at work, we showed up just before sunset.

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Xavier Nuez

319 N. Albany Ave, Studio 1N5

Chicago, IL 60640

510-648-6810

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