The Night Shift

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The exhibition of nighttime photography begins with a round, white flash of neon. Reading “VISIONS OF NIGHT,” the sign is an elegant reference to similar ones at venues in the city, from the scroll of the cursive “COCKTAILS” at Club Charles to the blinking neon of strip clubs on The Block. It reminded me of the rush of arriving at a nightclub and pulling out my ID, eagerly awaiting a wristband before I could fly inside into the sound waves of the venue. 

Curated by Joe Tropea, Visions of Night: Baltimore Nocturnes at the Maryland Center for History and Culture beautifully and seamlessly integrates Baltimore nightlife of the past and present. The exhibition includes historic photographs taken at night by A. Aubrey Bodine, Richard Childress, John Dubas, Paul S. Henderson, Robert F. Kniesche, and I. Henry Phillips, sourced from the MCHC collections, alongside contemporary photographs by Sydney J. Allen, J.M. Giordano, John Clark Mayden, and Webster Phillips III. Part of Visions of Night’s significance lies in the exhibition text: although “artists have been creating visions of nighttime for centuries… truly successful attempts did not come to fruition or common practice until the 1930s, when technology caught up with artistic vision.” 


The portraits are tender, resolute, and authentic. 
Teri Henderson

More than just comparing the progression of technique and aesthetics over time, however, the photographs in this exhibition emotionally reverberate beyond the physical limitation of the gallery walls. The photographs hold the bass played by DJs in the background of the clubs, and they reveal the beauty and power of the people on display. 

Next to the neon sign announcing the show’s title hangs a grid of nine square portrait photographs by Sydney J. Allen taken at the popular dance party Version. The subjects are encased in purple, pink, and green-hued portraits of regality, and the arrangement is one of the most vivid and inspiring moments in the show, moving the viewer forward. Allen’s work made me feel most hopeful in its familiarity and in the faces I recognized. The portraits are tender, resolute, and authentic. 

Nighttime photography is especially significant for Black and queer folks. Dance parties in Baltimore, like Version and Deep Sugar, have provided space for Black people to dance in liberated elation. (Version, by the way, returns this weekend.) No matter what stress or hell you might face in the day, or however your voice might have been ignored or silenced, at night you are allowed to be alive, free, and fully embodied. For so many, it’s necessary to be able to dance your pain away for hours before returning back into the night and into the office the next day. 


Sydney J. Allen, On the Way Home

Webster Phillips III’s color photograph, 1722 (2009), evinces the pulse of the eponymous after-hours nightclub on North Charles Street. Various figures are caught in motion. The rhythms of their limbs dancing are illustrated by the double exposure of the photo—it’s almost animated. If you look closely you can see a figure, peering down at the dancefloor.

More of the iridescent discotheque tones in 1722 can be found in the glittering background on the wall of the downtown strip club Norma Jean’s. In Phillips’ Test at Norma’s (2011), several dancers’ torsos and legs are on display, elevated on the stage with their faces and shoulders out of frame, one with a wad of cash tucked into her garment. The neon pink of one dancer’s outfit is nearly the same shade as the neon pink found in the background of 1722.

The focal point is the rapper Test, wearing a red vest and flipping off someone else’s camera. His expression of nonchalance and celebration is framed by the legs of a dancer in the center. I imagined the whole scene: Phillips taking the photograph from across the club, catching Test flexing, the dancers dancing, the audience captivated by the performance, the tempo undoubtedly kept up by a DJ with heavy bass pouring from his speaker. 


Webster Phillips III, 1722, 2009


To the right of Allen’s photo grid is a set of four black and white horizontal images, which reflected both the neon sign and another photo. Juxtaposed with the liveliness of Allen’s work, one from this quartet that especially struck me in its stillness was J.M. Giordano’s Lafeyette at Metro.

In this photo, the Baltimore jazz musician Lafayette Gilchrist is seated in front of a piano. The floor is a zig-zag of black and white tiles, the peaks of which beneath his feet draw your eye to his position in the center. He is turned slightly in profile, his white oversized sunglasses bright against the dark curtains behind him, the stark ivory piano keys silent against the glossy wooden piano. The photograph is melodramatic and I wondered if the protagonist was about to start playing or had just finished a performance.

J.M. Giordano, Lafayette at Metro
Webster Phillips III, Test at Normas, 2011

Another lone figure, in Allen’s On The Way Home, is silhouetted walking toward a carry-out restaurant. Here, more neon spells out RESTAURANT, and the sign above it, LEGEND, is dimmed, illuminated by the green strip of lights marking the structure’s edges. Chicken, subs, salads, and seafood are all for sale, and I imagined this individual stumbling into the restaurant to grab water or Gatorade or something to be satiated after a night of dancing and laughter. The store’s interior is intensely bright, but takes up a small proportion of the dark photo’s real estate.

John Clark Mayden’s Quenching Thirst offers another layered interpretation of night photography. I immediately noticed two figures shrouded in darkness, their heads illuminated by a halo of light, one with a bottle raised to their lips. In the background, several indiscernible figures are huddled together.

Taken from a lower, probably seated vantage point, the photograph has an ordinary setting, what could be a roof or the back of a parking lot. The photo is absent color, casting the figures in variations of gray, black, and white. This scene, at first glance, does not exhibit the merriment of partygoers at a club or venue like much nightlife photography, and instead captures the slower, end-of-the-night energy. 


John Clark Mayden, Quenching Thirst


A ritual for myself and other party and concertgoers is to visit the social media profile of the photographer we knew would be there, to click through and see if we had been immortalized, frozen in time and joy by their lens. In various vignettes across the walls of MCHC, you see people dancing, resting, congregating on porches, getting out of cabs, in community, in Baltimore. Presently this show emerges on the precipice of our old world, our old way of moving through Baltimore at night. It is both familiar and distant, and the contemporary photographs carry that old memorialized world into the new world as we wait to map out new territories, create new systems, new parties, new spaces and possibilities for intimacy. 




Maryland Center for History and Culture is one of several organizations included on the Bromo Art Walk, June 23. For more info, visit EventBrite.

Images courtesy of the artists and Maryland Center for History and Culture

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