As a city sleeps, a lens left open

It probably isn't fortuitous that the first exhibition of the work of a living photographer at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, presents classic images that follow in the long tradition of black-and-white photography. Norman McBeath's nighttime images of the University City's streets and buildings also add to this tradition.

He prefers black and white because, he says, "you are not matching it with reality. There's a more emotional aspect to it. More about form and light - the elements of photography."

It is also no accident that it is Oxford itself that is the subject of these compelling photographs, though the subject matter does not at all limit their universal aspect: They are about silence, stillness, urban and historical mystery, man-made environments, and the strangeness of night. The more you look at them, the stranger they seem. This is "a different world," in McBeath's words.

"The shadows are the clue - the buildings are only shadows of shadows," writes novelist Jeanette Winterson in the introduction to the book that includes all the photographs on display. "In the night-world, the darkness should not be depended upon. It may disappear. It may be a mirage. The solid world of objects gives way to a world of images; empty space and points of light."

McBeath is also a notable documentary photographer. Documentary photography is very fast. But with the night work, the exposure lasts about four minutes.

This slow exposure contributes crucially to the character of the images. It makes these apparently uninhabited streets seem even more lonely than they actually are. In "The Turl," shown here, a ribbon of light streaks through the air above the street's surface. It is the light from a cyclist's helmet. The lengthy exposure records this moving point of light, but there isn't a hint of the cyclist or his bicycle. Similarly unrecorded are people walking past.

This sense of loneliness is "part of what I wanted to look at," says McBeath. His images reduce the images of a city to an unpopulated place, in which stones and railings, columns and windows, not to mention the ubiquitous bicycles left by their undergraduate owners - and even the old-fashioned street lights - all hint at the constructive intervention of humanity, but also dreamingly suggest that these urban artifacts have been abandoned and that people have retreated or vanished.

"Cities are so cluttered," McBeath points out. "There are so many people, so much detritus, so much noise there. These pictures are all very quiet, very much a different world." They are also kind of timeless, setting up an "oscillation" between now and the past.

The exhibition, 'Oxford at Night,' continues at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, until July 23.

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