'Photograph" is the word that came to designate images made by the chemical and mechanical processes invented in the middle of the 19th century. There were several other possibilities, but "photograph" — a neologism compounded of the Greek words for light and for (something) drawn — seemed the most apt. All early photographs were made by the light of the sun, but soon enough the technology improved sufficiently for artificial light sources to be used; it was possible to take photographs indoors and at night. Brassaï became famous for "Paris de Nuit" in 1932, and Bill Brandt soon after with "London at Night." These books notoriously exposed social activities that took place at night and under cover of darkness, but other photographers have found the city at night a beautiful thing in itself. Scott Davis is one of these, as witnessed in his ironically titled show "Land of Sunshine," currently at Hous Projects.
Mr. Davis's "Land of Sunshine" is the American Southwest. He originally went from his native Maryland to California in pursuit of grander surfing opportunities, but gave up a job making surfboards to study photography at the University of New Mexico. The pictures in the current exhibition are all 16-by-20-inch platinum/palladium prints. Platinum/palladium prints must be contact prints, they cannot be enlargements, and so to create negatives that large, Mr. Davis built his own 16-by-20-inch view camera. The characteristics of platinum/palladium that make this effort worthwhile are its subtle gradations of tone and its illusion of depth. The pictures in "Land of Sunshine" were all taken at night and are largely black, but the black is deep, very deep, and approximates the infinite depth of the night sky.
"Imperial Highway, Ocotillo, California" (2007) takes proper advantage of the large negative size and the platinum/palladium printing process. It was shot along the dirt shoulder of the highway, illuminated presumably by the headlights of an automobile. The light is most intense in the foreground and diminishes up ahead. Because the source of the light is close to the ground, it throws the small stones and the tire tracks in the dirt into high relief, and the different treads — captured in great detail — are a major source of interest. On the left side of the picture is the black macadam road with its solid and broken white lines, and in the far distance lights that may be a gas station and some other roadside accommodations. Because people usually pull over to the shoulder of a road only to deal with emergencies, there is an implied narrative.
To fully appreciate Mr. Davis's technique in "Imperial Highway," it is helpful to imagine the same scene taken during the day; it would hardly make aesthetic sense. The sun, as the motto of this newspaper reminds us, shines for all; subject to atmospheric conditions, its light is evenly distributed across a scene. The pattern of the tire treads in the dirt would disappear. The landscape to the right and left of the shoulder would be visible, but there would be no center of interest to hold our attention. And the sense of adventure being out at night always engenders would not arise.
In night photographs, the light source selects what the picture will be about. The foreground of "Blimp, Los Angeles" (2006) is black, but in about the middle of the image, the banks of lights at a distant athletic field illuminate a Goodyear blimp anchored next to the stadium. The blimp is slightly blurred, indicating it was moving a bit during the long exposure needed for night photography. In "Building, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles" (2005), a single street lamp lights up the front on an unadorned commercial building, brighter close by, with deepening shades of gray farther away. The building is a white rectangle with two large shopwindows appearing as darker rectangles. Some lettering is visible on part of an illuminated sign in the upper left, and the back of a stop sign can barely be seen on the street to the right of the building. This is a very simple picture, as devoid of the glamour associated with the Sunset Strip as can be imagined, but with its own ascetic charm.
The late William Gedney (1932-89) and Todd Hido both have interesting projects of houses photographed at night; the lit windows of a darkened house make one wonder about the life going on inside. This works for Mr. Davis in "Dana Point, California" (2006), in which the lit, floor-to-ceiling glass window in the middle of the picture is a white square in a dark structure that can hardly be distinguished from the black foreground and the gloomy gray night sky. Mr. Davis's work is less formulaic than that of Gedney and Mr. Hido, and includes a wide range of subjects. "Motel, Southern Arizona" (2007) shows only part of the driveway leading to the motel, next to which we can see the bottoms of the trunks of two palm trees, a sign that says "Motel," and a section of a split-rail fence that serves no purpose except to suggest the Old West. The rest is Mr. Davis's signature black night sky.
"Westminster Mall, Westminster, California" (2007) does not show us the mall, but only a part of the parking lot, its striped parking spaces deserted except for one car near a distant cyclone fence. Floodlights on a tall pole make it possible to see the car, one tree in full leaf, and the cracks in the weathered asphalt. The 16-by-20-inch format and the platinum/palladium print give us the feel of the cracked asphalt at night.
Through September 6 (31 Howard St., 2nd Fl., between Broadway and Crosby Street, 212-941-5801).