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Portfolio & Interview: Teri Havens on Last Light

Photographer's Showcase Portfolio & Interview: Teri Havens on Last Light Photographer Teri Havens believes there is solace in the night, and indeed the images from her series Last Light — new this week to the Photographers Showcase — are imbued with a sense of midnight calm. photo-eye's Lucas Shaffer asked Havens about her photographic practice and the process of creating the series.
Jack's Place, Delta County CO, 2013 – Teri Havens

Photographer Teri Havens believes there is solace in the night, and indeed the images from her series Last Light — new this week to the Photographers Showcase — are imbued with a sense of midnight calm. Beginning in 1991, Havens has taken to the street under the cover of darkness to photograph American vernacular vignettes — perhaps tame in daylight — but given dramatic center stage under the spotlight of a full moon or streetlamp. Inherently, Last Light places a focus on traditional nightlife, corner bars play a central roll and are accompanied by a supporting cast featuring an inn, a casino, and the white bell tower of a West Virginian church buried in the woods — perhaps a subtle reminder that every Saturday night transforms into a Sunday morning. photo-eye is excited to welcome Last Light to the Photographer's Showcase; photo-eye's Lucas Shaffer asked Havens about her photographic practice and the process of creating the series.

Water Hole, Wolf Point, Montana, 2012 – Teri Havens

Lucas Shaffer:     How did you get started making pictures? How long have you been a photographer?

Teri Havens:     I got my first camera for Christmas when I was six; it was a Sears Instamatic with — and this is really going to date me — flashcubes. But it was when I got my first car that I really started covering some ground. Photography became a way of trying out new things, an excuse to drive around and end up in odd places, to meet new people and become a part of their lives. Later, when I was studying photojournalism at the University of Texas, I became interested in printmaking, and spent many late nights the darkroom. I actually got in some trouble with a professor for working in the lab after hours. And when I traveled I took along my chemicals and enlarger so I could develop film in motel bathrooms. Sometimes I would get a job waiting tables and settle into a community for a few months. I’d rent a cheap apartment and cover the windows with aluminum foil so I could print. About three years ago I took a platinum/palladium workshop with David Michael Kennedy at his studio in El Rito. The experience of working with David elevated the possibilities of photography and printmaking to a new level.

Burlesk, Detroit, 1991 – Teri Havens

LS:     When did the Last Light series begin, and what is the inspiration behind the project?

TH:     It actually started in Detroit twenty-five years ago, when I took a night shot of an old burlesque hall on Woodward Avenue. About three years ago I found the negative languishing in my files. I Google Street Viewed the address on the building and found nothing recognizable — it was as if everything in the photograph had been scrubbed from existence. I think this need for constant renewal and reinvention is a uniquely American phenomenon; we seem to continually be striving to rebrand, reboot, replace. So I immediately became interested in finding places that are still around but probably won’t be for long, structures with a certain texture and grit that are a hairsbreadth away from being snuffed out by the gleaming homogeneity of modern society. I’m drawn to places that have endured, that have held their ground while everything around them is changing. I tend to look for buildings that are detached and solitary. I’m drawn to them for their aesthetic qualities but also as defiant symbols of self-sufficiency. And the night breathes life into them. I’ve always been attracted to isolated, lonely landscapes. The emptiness makes me feel like anything is possible.

LS:      What challenges did you encounter while making Last Light? Are there any moments while you where photographing that stand out to you?

TH:     I think the hardest part in creating this series is finding subjects. There are very few bars that have all the right elements for what I want to convey.  I look for simplicity in design and minimal signage – nothing causes me more distress than those insidious plastic banners supplied by beer companies. They are everywhere, displacing the old neon signs that have become too expensive to repair.
Silver Sage Saloon, Shoshoni, Wyoming, 2012 – Teri Havens

I came across the Silver Sage when I was driving through the night across Wyoming. Glazed from three nights sleeping in my van, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking for, but finding a good bar is like finding true love; after all those barren miles, heart and mind dulled from drifting - there it is. Suddenly. Unexpectedly, right in front you. It’s almost unbelievable. I get a little crazy. Can’t eat – can’t hardly breathe until I get the photograph.

The truck out front belonged to the owner, Keith, who lived upstairs with his wife Holly. He was pretty drunk and disappeared shortly after I started shooting.

Holly was inside knitting in a recliner in front of the T.V. There was a giant stuffed beaver on the bar. We hit it off right away. She told me that she used to be married to a wealthy rancher, but that ended a long time ago, and this life suited her much more. I could totally understand. Living above an old bar like that seems wonderfully romantic.

Nobody else came in all night. And that’s the way it often is in these places.

No major events or epiphanies, just a quiet authentic connection.

LS:     How are the pictures made? What is your process like?

Hill County, Montana, 2012 – Teri Havens
TH:     These images were captured using either moonlight or ambient streetlight. Many of the exposures are very long — some up to twenty minutes. Often it is so dark that there are things in the photograph I don’t see until the image is processed. Sometimes I spend several nights photographing the same scene until I get a shot I am satisfied with. If the bar is busy I wait until closing time when there is only a single truck in front of the bar — usually belonging to the bartender or owner. For years I have been a dedicated film photographer, but for this series I conceded to digital technology because it allows me to more easily clean up images, take out glare and reflections, and smooth out anomalies. It also makes it possible to accommodate the full spectrum of tones in night photography. If a scene has a wider range of tones than the camera can capture in a single exposure I’m able to create composites: I’ll take one exposure of the main part of the subject — the building or surrounding landscape — and merge it with a shorter exposure of the moon or other bright elements in the scene in order to create the final image. The finished platinum/palladium print is a hybrid of modern digital technology and 19th century printmaking techniques. Although I strive for all of the elements of fine art printmaking, photography is, for me, primarily a means of exploring and documenting fragments of a vanishing America.

Fireside Inn, White Clay Nebraska, 2014 – Teri Havens

LS:     Who or what are your inspirations? Are there any specific photographers or artists you are paying attention to?

TH:     As far as influences, there are many: The vintage images of Stieglitz and Brassa├» are examples of the highest standards of night photography, and I’ve always admired many of the WPA photographers, such as Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott and Walker Evans for the beauty and compassion in their portraiture. But I’m always looking at new work too. There is so much out there right now that is really good. I just saw a photograph of Atlantic City by Andrew Moore in the latest New Yorker that blew me away. I also find a lot of inspiration in literature and music. I would love my photographs to nail the modern cultural landscape the way Annie Proulx does, or capture the American condition like James McMurtry’s songs do.

The Bait Farm, Silver Springs, Nevada, 2013 – Teri Havens

View the Last Light portfolio

For more information and to purchase prints please contact Gallery Director Anne Kelly at 505-988-5152 x 121 or