What would the world’s major cities look like if they were plunged into complete darkness? We get a glimpse during black-outs, like when New York City suffered major power outages during Hurricane Sandy, but those scenes occurred under overcast skies which blocked the stars. There’s a fascinating photography exhibition underway at East Wing gallery in Dubai that explores what we’d see in a night sky if our cities went dark.
Light pollution is an unusual subject for a photographer, who typically captures what we do see and not what we can’t. “Darkened Cities” – the exhibition now underway at East Wing – presents eerily beautiful pictures by French photographer, Thierry Cohen that, at first glance, seem to be of fantastic painterly nightscapes of the most celebrated cities in the world. Look closer, and see they are both a poetic exploration by Cohen and a message about the light and atmospheric pollution of these cities blocks the view of the night skies above.
For centuries the stars have guided human existence, guiding sailors and travelers and inspiring poetry, painting, photography and music. The mystery of the night beckons; we feel deeply moved by the stars and their trajectory across the sky. Children wish upon them, some believe that spell out our destiny, and science aims to unlock their secrets.
Yet, increasingly, we can’t see them – particularly from the grand cities that Cohen photographs. Light pollution is a side effect of urban development. It is excessive and misdirected artificial light that spills beyond its area of functionality into the public realm. Simply put, it’s any alteration of natural light levels in the outdoor environment caused by artificial light sources. It competes with starlight and disrupts our connection with the natural nighttime environment.
Since 2010, Cohen has traveled from mega-cities to deserts, giving the stars back to his viewers but also attempting to help raise public awareness about the destructive nature of light and atmospheric pollution. His process involves a highly detailed study, involving a mix of astronomy, travel and digital skill. For each image, he travels to places free of light pollution, but on the same latitude as the subject cities. He then photographs the observable skies and overlays them on the architectural base images.
There’s a vivid message of what we lose out on when our cities “never sleep”. Learn more about the global dark-sky movement which is working to cut light spillage. The International Dark-Sky Association is a non-profit advocacy group worth looking into. And if you are in Dubai, stop by East Wing. Darkened Cities runs until Thursday, 20 November.
All images from East Wing.