Aug 16, 2017

“I take pictures in a very specific way which is to go out in the middle of the night by myself and shoot just blank walls over and over and over again until it starts to make sense.”

Frank Callaghan sets the timer on his camera and walks away. We huddle under a hulking blank wall of a tenement on the PNR railroad and the sliver of overgrowth it slices between Osmeña Highway and the dimming crowdedness of San Andres, and it’s dark, very dark, as it always is.

Photographer Frank Callaghan brought us to the PNR railroad during the shoot.

“Night shooting is what I do because the light’s not changing at all. It’s dark and quiet and nothing changes,” he mutters, in a voice just above a whisper.

“Time kind of stops, and you can really take your time with things.”

And so we take our time, watching the orange haze above us stay the same. The camera clicks, and he wanders back.

Best known for his spacious urban nighttime images, tonight Frank is doing what comes best to him, which is keeping quiet, waiting, and, possibly, seeing what many do not.

“I think of form, of shape, color, light, time,” he explains. “The way they’re all interacting, the way they factor into a photograph.

“It’s also the process, how it develops, what you’re being drawn to, what you’re shooting, what you’re thinking, and how all those things become part of the picture.”

I’m interested in how photography has the ability to express things which you can’t put into words and [how] it can kind of transcend boundaries. 

At this point, the question of what it all means inevitably comes up, and Frank, with his camera, his tripod, and his possibly superhuman night vision, answers.

“I’m interested in how photography has the ability to express things which you can’t put into words and [how] it can kind of transcend boundaries. There are more nuanced and subtle things which you can’t really talk about and express in a different way. There are ways to access that through this process, and through the use of a photograph, and the photographic process.

“It’s precise and completely imprecise at the same time. If you ask me what a particular picture is about, I have no idea.”

The idea forms after, when he gets home, and the blank walls make sense.

Frank sees a world very similar to ours quieted by night, eroded by time, littered by the evidence of other people. Deserted cityscapes dominate his work, as if these photos were an exercise in what it could feel like to be the last person left alive (at night) (with the electrical grid still functional) (this is important). In one of his earliest shows, “Stranger,” he approaches unfinished office towers, and cracks of blue fluorescent light glowing from doorways and windows. Silvery roofs of corrugated galvanized iron roofs (and the tenements we currently huddle under) cluster in his photographs in “Dwelling” and “Quadriptych.” His last series, Deadends,” resulted from his frustration with getting lost in London.

But the frustration is always worth it.

At the time of the shoot, Callaghan just returned to photography after a three-year hiatus.

“It comes together in that—” he snaps his fingers, eyes sharpening. “That moment where a photograph actually works after trying for so long where it doesn’t work at all. This one moment where you’re like, ‘That’s it, that’s it, that’s it, I can feel it.’ Things start tingling and everything’s like, ‘That’s it.’

“There’s meaning that emerges in a picture. When you look at all the pictures, another meaning emerges when you put them side by side.”

At this point, he pauses, searching for words.

“You can’t exactly express why, but it just doesn’t feel right.”

He pauses again.

“You keep on going, and you’re on a trail, and you add another one and another one, and at a certain point the series is complete, and you know it’s done.”

There’s meaning that emerges in a picture. When you look at all the pictures, another meaning emerges when you put them side by side.

An element of quiet pursuit is present in Frank’s images, as if he were a modern-day, solitary, sleepless Hansel, leaving modern-day breadcrumbs in his modern-day woods. Spaced apart only by the hundreds of nights he’s stayed awake, and the thousands of steps he’s taken, Frank’s work comes together possibly as a wordless journal, a love letter to blank walls, to moonlit horizons, to alleyways that end, to always being slightly lost.

Perhaps this is the reason that he hasn’t taken a photo in a while. “Three years,” he laughs, “because my life has actually made a lot of sense.”

These days (or nights) Frank Callaghan wakes up before noon, and sleeps the next day at 3 a.m. He is married now, does “several other things,” and possibly takes fewer walks. But three years after the last photo he took, Frank Callaghan is here again.

“It felt like time to begin. I don’t know why. I never start out knowing why. Meaning emerges afterwards.”

It’s dark, very dark, as it always is, but Frank gathers his things and shakes his head.

“You’re never in complete darkness,” he says, and above us, the sky glows orange, the windows glow blue, and it’s never been brighter.

This story originally appeared in Southern Living, November 2016.

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