Photographer Thierry Cohen’s new exhibition depicts the modern metropolis without lights
Photographer Thierry Cohen’s new exhibition depicts the modern metropolis without lights.
French photographer Thierry Cohen imagines the world’s cities without light in his latest exhibition ‘Darkened Cities’ at the East Wing gallery in DIFC, which runs until Thursday November 20. His dazzling photographs are rich not only in implication and sheer visual appeal, but also in technical ingenuity.
Photography has been an important part of Cohen’s life for many years. Born in 1963, he has worked as a professional photographer since 1985. In 2006, he decided to devote his time to personal work. ‘For a long time I had been contemplating the fact that in the last half of the century, a large percentage of the inhabitants of our planet have ceased to be able to contemplate the beauty of the Milky Way. Almost all the stars above us have become invisible in our skies due to light and atmospheric pollution. So I address in particular city dwellers who have forgotten and no longer understand nature. I wanted to find a way to show them the stars again and help them to dream and remember the celestial magnificence of what we can’t see, but what is truly there,’ explains Cohen.
His nightscape images reveal exactly what a specific city’s inhabitants would see when gazing skywards on a clear night if atmospheric and, more importantly, light pollution were not obstructing the view. ‘The best way to show the stars that are no longer visible from the city is to simply put them back in their place,’ he says.
The method he employs to produce his pictures is, in its own way, as fascinating as the result. After shooting a cityscape, Cohen positions himself in that city’s exact same geographical latitude in a desert – often thousands of miles away – and takes a photograph facing the same direction at the same sidereal time (a scale based on the earth’s rate of rotation relative to fixed stars) as in the city itself.
‘I use the same technique as early photography innovators, simply with different tools. I shoot with large-format cameras. This is important because the details are rendered more clearly and this is what I need to communicate my message in a way that will be both beautiful and accurate,’ says Cohen.
Despite the state-of-the-art digital manipulation he brings to bear, Cohen compares his procedure to techniques utilised by old masters of the craft. Like Gustave Le Gray, who in the 1850s merged images of seascapes with sky scenery, Cohen combines two ‘scape’ pictures – a cityscape and a star-sprayed nightscape – in order to build his utterly singular images. ‘My photographic scrutiny of the quality of the night sky is also a way of revealing the urgency for the use of sustainable energy systems and fighting against climate change,’ he says. “I want my viewers to contemplate the questions that my work raises: These cities of light are considered to be proof of the power of man. What if we had to turn out the lights due to lack of energy?’
The cityscapes and skylines are intentionally recognisable, showing San Francisco, New York City, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. Cohen has travelled the world and shuttled between bustling cities and empty, silent deserts in pursuit of his vision. For his Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo photos, he travelled to the Atacama Desert in Chile. For his images of New York, he travelled to Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
Beyond the technical challenges that he’s faced, Cohen has also endured what might be termed more prosaic, if no less intense, man-made hurdles. ‘There is, of course, figuring out the logistics of getting to another part of the world on the same latitude as the cities I chose to photograph. The weather is also an important issue, but I don’t find any of this difficult. I’m passionate about the project,’ explains Cohen.
When he ventured into the Western Sahara to create his Hong Kong nightscape, he had to be escorted, due to the conflict between the Polisario Front and Morocco and the prevalence of countless landmines that still mark the territory.
‘That is when the project went further than talking about pollution. It became something political. The sky is a link between human beings. It is a representation of what earth should be – without borders and without war,’ he says.
Although his photographs interrogate the stresses and the benefits – in fact, the very nature – of urban living, Cohen started the project with a more basic goal in mind: to create utopian and, in a sense, imaginary photographs that let the viewer dream. Ultimately, though, what Cohen is trying to do is bring to the city the silence he felt in the desert. Free. Sat-Thu 10am-3pm, 5pm-8pm. Until Thursday November 20. East Wing gallery, Limestone House, DIFC (050 5533 879).