Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia


Dark Side

Night holds a special place in the heart of photography. The geometry of light and shadow creates an interplay of mystery, possibility, and the foreboding of the unknown. Rather than looking at night photography as an extension of daytime shooting with added complications, night photographers embrace the unique challenges of nocturnal photography for the tremendous creative opportunities it offers.

Due to the limited sensitivity of early photographic processes, exposure times were exceedingly long, even in the daytime. It wasn't until 1878, when the first dry plate glass negative was introduced, with its greater sensitivity that opened the doors to night photography. While many amateurs experimented with night photography in the 1880s, the earliest, artistically considered bodies of night images were made by Paul Martin in London in 1895 and soon after by Alfred Stieglitz in New York. The timing of this work was, in part, a response to the beauty of electric lights - a relatively recent innovation that had transformed the look of the urban night. This fascination with incandescent street lighting can be seen in many of the night photos taken by Virginia photographer Harry C. Mann.

Advances in night photography have paralleled advances in photographic technology for the last hundred years, and as night photography has become increasingly more accessible, an ever-increasing number of photographers engage in the practice on a regular, rather than occasional or experimental, basis. The exhibition shows how the art and technology of photography are linked, one often driving the other, and also explores some of the latest technologies of nighttime photography.

Drawn from the Library's photograph collections, Dark Side: Night Photography in Virginia includes images ranging from the 1890s to the present.

Inspired by these night scenes, we're inviting aspiring writers to interpret these works and submit to the Dark Side writing contest. Please see for full details and eligible images.