Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blackout New York by Rene Burri

On November 9th, 1965, a Northeast power failure effected, New York State, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Jersey and even parts of Ontario, Canada. It was said that over 25 million people were caught in the early evening blackout which lasted until the morning hours of the following day. The cause was a wrongly inserted relay switch in a power station near Niagara Falls. Rene Burri ventured out into the darkness with a handful of films to photograph and the resulting images have been published in a limited edition, Blackout New York from Moser books.

Photographing only by flashlight, candle light, or car light, Burri pointed his camera at the stranded commuters as they try to deal with the situation. Some gather in Grand Central to wait it out while others pack onto buses and cabs to find their way home. There is the suggestion of nervousness but panic isn't present.

Looking through Blackout New York, one starts to notice how small amounts of light - providing the minimum amount of information - spur the mind to fill in the bigger picture. Burri's slow black and white films, push-processed to build density in any middle-tone and highlight in the exposure results in super contrasty images that are often abstract. In one only a hand holding a lighter to the dial of a phone is recorded surrounded by vast amounts of black. The opening image features several people barely registered on the film, mostly described by flashes of white from their shirt collars. It takes us a few moments to adjust to these pictures. In a funny way this book is also partly about photography's technical limitations under these extreme conditions.

There is a fine line between underexposed images that succeed despite their flaw and those that succumb to it. In this edit there are a few images that just aren't resolved enough to merit inclusion - the aforementioned opening image for instance. When there is enough of a record made, the images glow from various light sources and people appear like apparitions out of the velvety black.

Nicely printed, Blackout New York reproduces the images as mostly double page spreads which means they run across the gutter. This design choice is distracting as the images, due to their limited detail, need fewer hurdles for us to jump over to decipher them.

At Arles last year I heard that Burri had an installation in a blackened room where the viewers were given flashlights to view these photographs. I didn't see the show but I can guess that would be an interesting way to experience these photos. In the dark with a slight sensation of unease resting on your shoulders. Your flashlight in front of you darting here and there, trying to pick up what little there is to see.


Cliv Evans said...

Saw the show in Arles, better yet not just flashlights but windup ones so you were in a room with contantly dimmimg flaslights with people winding them to get more light!
Met Rene in the square the following day, what a super man.........kind and unassuming.
Things like this are why I enjoyed my first Recontres d'Arles so much, I'll be back this year.

Marc said...

The Arles installation was a good example of an interesting idea that ends up being poorly executed. It is very difficult to look at photographs behind glass when flashing a light on them from up close in a dark room, especially when your flashlight works with a crank handle so that the room is filled with the sound of people frantically cranking their flashlights to shed a tiny bit of light on the images. Not so much uneasy as underwhelming.

Matt Weber said...

Thanks! I remember that night very well. I was staring out the window at my friend's house on West 66th St., looking at the American Motors building when the lights started to flicker. I didn't mind the eleven flights I had to climb when I got home. It was all just an adventure for me. My grandfather was stuck in his wheelchair and wasn't very happy at all.
Photo-eye is selling the book for $120 and that's a problem. Was it printed in a tiny run? My book budget has almost evaporated...

Federico said...

The use of flashlights in a darkened exhibition space reminded me of accounts of Kohei Yoshiyuki's exhibition of "The Park", in the seventies. Which I found brilliant.


machine_gremlin said...

It's the black ink that pushed the price up. Half a gallon a book, expensive stuff.
Cliv/Marc, I can only suggest an alternative: open up the doors, good lighting, genteel viewing conditions, soft pretentious dilettante chit-chat of the thronging crowds... then cut the lights, pitch blackness, shrieks, fumbling with lighters, matches, whatever's to hand, naeolithic flints, just no possibility of complementary torches.

Mr. Whiskets said...


Interesting. As I mentioned I didn't see it but when I was imagining what it must have been like I hadn't pictured them framed under glass. Sounds kind of impossible to view. The photos are mostly black so it would have just reflected back the light in your face.


Kohei Yoshiyuki!! I read that too in the book.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it would have been nice to use light boxes in a black room to keep the light levels at a minimum. There is an interesting exhibition of contemporary art that will be in April and might incorporate some interesting curatorial aspects.
If you are interested in submitting your work you should go to

Sebastian said...

sorry, can't help it, but i think it's designed in a total lack of refinement, conventionally edited, with a superfluous text - great images maybe, but as a book superfluous (not unlike the other charcoal moser production), yes that's it, both are just portfolios for image lovers, they don't even intend to be books. so right on, now i'll switch of my lights to.

chris said...

does a book need to even _have_ text to be a book?

Sebastian said...

chris, some people think photo and art books should have texts and others prefer them without or don't like those texts. in this case the publishers seem to have thought the rather thin series could profit from a text (i would agree) but have added one that lacks passion, a standpoint and independence. to me it's another one of those countless texts where someone pushes or is payed to push the work. gosh, no, my flashlight is going out again.

Anonymous said...

get Peter Galassi to pen a few lines. importance of the work to the future (and history?!) of the medium, etc. job done.