In New York’s empty spaces, Lynn Saville finds a sense of quiet optimism.
An October night, 2014. Under the streetlights, the leaves rustled and danced across an empty sidewalk in Gowanus and splashed their shadows against the tarp of a construction site.
Nothing monumental occurred; there was nobody in sight. But for photographer Lynn Saville, it was an event.
“It was so still, but there was just the subtlest bit of movement,” she says. So on her way back to the subway from an evening of photographing in south Brooklyn, she paused, and took one more.
It’s those small shifts—those minute changes visible only in the quiet of a city at night—that Saville takes for her subject. The New York-based photographer grew up in Durham, North Carolina, but spent three childhood years in Italy; her parents, Duke professors, took sabbaticals in Rome and Torino.
Overseas, the cities captivated her. “From an early age, I knew I had to get to New York or any city and live there,” she tells CityLab. When she ventured into photography in her senior year of college, she discovered that the emotional pull of the scene through her viewfinder could come through in her printed work.
She moved to New York to study photography at Pratt. Drawn in by the city’s arts scene, she became fascinated with Edgar Degas’s paintings of dancers waiting in the stage wings. “I liked the idea of something emerging from the dark, and capturing that moment—it was both ordinary and so unusual.”
The idea of light emerging from dark, the meaningful emerging from the ordinary, preoccupied her. “I was photographing round the clock, day and night,” she says. In search of material, she began to explore the periphery of the city, often taking a late-night walk or a bus ride to find a new place to shoot. For trips into unfamiliar territory or unsafe neighborhoods, she’d bring a friend, but more often, she traveled alone. “I learned I appreciated my own private moments, walking alone like a flaneur and meditating on the city,” she says.
During the economic downturn of 2007, Saville found herself on Madison Avenue at night, confronted with a smattering of hollowed-out storefronts along the pristine blocks.
From those places, “there was no light emitting,” she says. “I felt like I was seeing something I wasn’t supposed to see.” She returned, bringing Windex and paper towels to wipe down the front windows, against which she pressed her camera to photograph the empty interiors.
“At first I thought, ‘Why am I looking at these things that are so sad?’” she says. Yet the emptied spaces magnetized her. “Over time, I began to notice signs of optimism,” she says. “I’d see that people had started to clean places up; there were ladders left behind from painting. There was growth happening.”
Saville embarked on a project to photograph these transitions: spaces without people, storefronts without shops. “Some of the attraction to me was the fact that you could see these architectural spaces expressing themselves as just a space without the contents—no signage, no products. The culturally planned presentation had failed,” she says. “It gives you a sense of the effort of the new people coming in, and the old people moving out. It was like a stage had been set, then stripped.”
In these moments, “I felt this sense that the city was changing and I was observing it,” she says. Over the course of her project, called “Dark City,” she has witnessed warehouses evacuate themselves of industry and open their doors to artists. She’s seen development extend into public spaces; she’s no longer afraid to venture into the parks at night.
The Civil War-era tobacco warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park, when empty, had been “full of light and shadow patterns,” Saville says. “It was like a Roman forum; I thought it was wonderful that the city let people wander through there at any hour.” But it’s since been developed; in 2015, the St. Ann’s theater opened inside the building. In Saville’s image of the site, a construction vehicle foregrounds the scene, clamped like a set of jaws around the warehouse.
Yet Saville does not consider herself a preservationist. Watching the city transform itself “is like watching your mom grow old,” she says. “You say, ‘yes, I loved the way you looked 20 years ago, and also the way you look now.’ It’s a natural tide; we just have to accept it.”