Photographing Melville at 3am

Looking down an empty seventh street in Melville

Standing in the middle of Seventh Street in Melville at 3am, I found the normally lively suburb fast asleep. The only movement was from a few stray cats – slinking in the shadows – the rustling of litter on the empty street, traffic lights changing without reason and pulsating shop window signs – a heartbeat that nobody sensed at that hour. Above me, brilliant Jupiter punctured the ink black starless sky: my lone guide. The pallid streetscape felt hostile; many of the shop fronts shuttered and chained. The scene looked surreal – like a movie set: a makeshift street of propped-up shop fronts, painted with pools of light from street lights, waiting in anticipation. Modern layers of glass and granite mask the Art Deco style. Perhaps hoping to outdo their Brixton, Auckland Park and Westdene neighbours; steeped in Joburg’s cultural history and enjoying ‘Corridors of Freedom’ conservation and heritage status. However, nothing can compare to Melville’s bohemian subculture of creatives, students and professionals, one of the reasons I was there.

With me were several passionate photographers from the B&W Group of the Alternative Print Workshop (APW) – all with a collective aim to shoot night photographs for APWs ‘I Love Melville’ Black & White Street Photography Project. Like moths to a flame, we were drawn to the minimalist Studio Gesso gallery on the corner of Seventh Street, with its brightly lit interior spilling out onto the pavement. A beacon. A place for us to connect in this unfamiliar experience.

Photographs standing at street conrner intersection outside Studio Gesso
B&W Group members discussing the street photography project

The group’s jovial mood disguised serious photographers with serious equipment and temperament. Standing casually at an intersection, traffic lights colouring us shades of green then orange then red, Janus Boshoff – APW’s co-founder and project coordinator – shared his expertise of exposure guidelines and reciprocity failure. (For the uninitiated, film has an exponentially diminishing response to exposure at very low light intensities and needs to be accounted for by making longer exposures.) With safety a primary concern, Janus made sure the Melville Security Initiative and CSS Tactical kept a watchful eye on us. Soon everyone was exploring the street with their cameras – hushed voices and solitary silhouettes bringing back a human presence to the street.

Photographs standing seventh street taking photos
Alternative Print Workshop’s Janus Boshoff (left) assisting photographers
Photographer planning to photograph a shopfront
B&W Group photographer, Creston Greenberg, planning to photograph a shopfront

Night photography opens up a magical world with new possibilities. It is also about extremes; reducing a scene to its basics – pools of available light and featureless shadows requiring longer exposures. The quality of the low light helps create an out-of-this-world atmosphere, transforming a mundane monochrome scene. The best way to capture this is in black and white because of the possibilities it affords over colour – a greater tonal range with more subtle graduations. Well-known photography author Roger Hicks wrote: Because a colour picture is closer to reality, we tend to look at the subject instead of the picture. A black-and-white picture, on the other hand, is more distanced from reality: we see the subject as the photographer visualised it.

Dawn greeted us with its eerie electric-blue glow. Venus tugging at the blinds to reveal a new day. Traffic increased, signalling the start of the daily grind and an opportunity for us to photograph the streaks from the moving cars’ headlights. Feeling exuberant after my early morning, I can’t wait to see how the B&W Group visualised their experience of Melville, adding to its vibrant history and cultural significance.

Sky glow as dawn approaches
Glow of dawn changes Melville’s skyline

The project, capturing the hustle and bustle of this community in day and night, will culminate in an exhibition of hand-printed black and white photographs of Melville at Studio Gesso on the 10th of June.

Previously published

This post was originally published on the Alternative Print Workshop’s Facebook page

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