“The glowing night city seems the perfect emblem of so much
that is both good and bad in our industrialised culture
where beauty, awe and the human aspiration are tinged
with the horror of potential environmental catastrophe.”
For the past 30 years David Stephenson has engaged with the pictorial relationship between earth, sky and light in all three dimensions. Horizontally he depicted the vast white-on-white expanses of Antarctica. He looked up into the artificial heavens intricately moulded and etched into the domed ceilings of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and, most recently, he looks down across the glowing nocturnal vistas of the contemporary city.
It is both ironic and prescient that the only works of humanity visible from outer space are the lights of our cities. (That claim about the Great Wall of China is an urban myth.) Captured by NASA satellite imaging, the global night is revealed as a twinkling constellation of urban expansion. It is, to borrow Yeats’ phrase, a terrible beauty that speaks both of humanity’s achievement and impending ecological collapse. For the electricity that powers these glowing metropolises is, almost exclusively, generated by burning a resource that is both finite and contaminant – coal.
The grander these conurbations become – the more they are glamourised in wanton illumination – the more isolated they become, for a luminous pall shrouds our urban centres in an auratic bubble that shuts out the ineffable scale of the universe and quenches the stars. Like Snow White’s step-mother, the glittering nocturnal city is a beauty that will admit no competition.
David Stephenson’s ‘Light Cities’ portray an ephemeral splendour of shimmering incandescence and sugary hues that both celebrate and obfuscate the destructive machinery of their being. He takes the 19th-century Romantic view of Nature as an irresistible and overwhelming force and creates a 21st-century parallel. The prodigal electric metropolis: seductive, seditious, sublime.
American by birth, David Stephenson has lived and worked in Hobart, Tasmania, since 1982. His photographs have been exhibited widely and are held in many prestigious collections including those of the National Gallery of Australia, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Museums of Modern Art in San Francisco and New York City. His book ‘Heavenly Vaults’ was published by Princeton Architectural Press, New York in 2009.
The ‘Light Cities’ project was made with support from an Australia Council for the Arts Fellowship grant.
Images (from the top):
© David Stephenson Melbourne, Looking East from Rialto Tower, 2009
© David Stephenson Hobart from Otago, 2010