Night Procession by Stephen Gill, reviewed by Robert Dunn

First comes the hunger. An actual physical urgency to make pictures. I feel it all the time, especially if I haven’t been out shooting for a couple days. I’m in New York City. I hit the streets, take the subway to different parts of town, camera ready, more important, my mind ready, seeing everything—it’s the seeing everything, the way my eyes sweep the streets, wanting to catch every subtle detail—any movement, gesture, even color fluctuation—that might make a picture. Or a person whose expression is redolent of emotion. Or a store window replete with an intriguing arrangement of objects. Or … something I don’t know will make a good picture till I lift my camera and try to grab it.

Daido Moriyama works this way. He called his third book, from 1972, A Hunter, and explains in a reissue that “I hunt images.” Daido, inspired as he says by Kerouac’s On the Road, heads out to “feel actuality and chaotic pulses of splinters of external world littered on, and of crossing narrations and lyricisms.”

That sums up a type of photobook I’m often most drawn to: books created by an inner urgency simply to take photos, to discover pulses of meaning, then cross narrations and lyricism to make a photobook from them. This is usually not a book to fulfill an external assignment, or follow a planned theme. It’s inner compulsion. Private beats. Spontaneity. Working with what’s around you. Discovering in that world a poetry of images that speak to what’s within us all….

Which is why I’m so impressed by Stephen Gill’s new book, Night Procession. As Gill explains, he left England in 2014 for south Sweden, the town of Österlen, where his partner, Lena, was from, to raise his family. No more East London, he was in the wilds now … yet still with that need to make photos, to hunt images….

As Gill explained in the Financial Times, he was ready for the new challenge, “looking forward to making work that would not feel restricted and suffocated by modern photographic technology, nor would project an inaccurate impression of the natural landscape we had become part of.” Gill has always experimented wildly in his photobooks, and now he saw a new opportunity: to take shots of nature teeming through the forests at night.

From an essay included with the book by the esteemed Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, a neighbor of Gill’s in Österlen, we learn that Gill was out every day, afraid of boar, for sure, but also hiking and kayaking through his new land. And hunting pictures.

Knausgård also reveals that Gill has a singular condition in which he’s “unable to separate information,” meaning that to Gill in any given scene all information has the same value, the same relevance even if one element is truly important and everything else not. Gill tells Knausgård that he believes photography is his way of controlling this recently diagnosed condition, which makes total sense since at essence photography is choosing significance out of a rush of information—choosing this shot, not that one; this edit, not that one. As I’ve often put it to myself, I hope to see everything, but always know (and hope to photograph) only that which is most telling and significant.

But to overcome an actual psychological condition? Safe to say that for Gill his hunt for pictures sounds truly urgent and necessary.

So here he is in this new land, new terrain, doing what he does: making photographs. Yet also cut off from the totality of the forest until a new idea comes to him. As Gill tells us, he found himself particularly curious about the “idea of stepping back as the author of images, to give space for chance, and to encourage the subject to step forward.” So it wasn’t enough to stomp around the intense forest, he needed to step away from it, let the forest be itself. To do that, he did his best to imagine where a deer would drink from, an owl perch, and set up cameras with motion detectors, “so that the subjects would orchestrate and perform and take on the role of author while I was likely to be sleeping. This was nature’s time to speak and let itself be felt and known.”

As coincidence would have it, I was recently in a cloud forest in Costa Rica, where I took a night walk looking for any kind of wildlife. We didn’t see much, though I did turn up on a leaf an inch-long national-symbol tree frog! At the end of the walk we saw a short video made using a motion-capture system similar to what Gill employed. Nice shots of monkeys and ocelots … but nothing remotely artistic. So what is it about a photographer who can create his singular art while dozing far from where his camera is set up? Does his dreams somehow cast forceful spells into the forest? Move the birds and animals into compelling, revealing position? Let their true spirits come forth?

I can’t answer that, of course, but the photos in Night Procession are uniformly vivid, spectral, haunted—the work of a true artist.

In Gill’s book there’s plenty of fauna: startled deer, glaring boars, water-sniffing fox, death-eyed elk, wing-flapping owls; and plenty of flora, too: stark tree branches, heavily patterned leaves, snow-catching reeds. It’s nature! Many shots lean heavily toward abstraction, Gill is happy to show us water swirls, woodsy streaks, ripply boar skin, a deer’s hind legs, snow flows, shell whirls, even photos with nothing distinguishable in them except that purest of photographic truth: patterns of light and dark rendering their own meanings. (There are also a few shots of humans, a couple presumably of his children, another of a pair of hands picking berries.)

As he’s done with many of his books, Gill doesn’t simply print the photos he’s taken (though publisher Nobody has done a beautiful job rendering the shots onto the thick matte paper), he often physically fools with them. Some shots are close to a simple black and white print, others are tinted (most often a yellowish green, though there’s one photo that’s reddish-brown with splashes of ice blue), and a number are messed with more extensively, a quality of Gill’s work we’ve seen many times before. In Night Procession, he tells us in the Financial Times piece, he used “plant pigments … from the surrounding areas to make the final master prints.” The simple change in how each photo has been prepared keeps the book always surprising, and full of near physical delight.

And a true book it is. Broad in its range of shots, but all of a piece. A book with an intention, true: capture the forest (where Gill now lives) at night. But as with any work by a great photographic hunter, what results takes into account happenstance, luck, dismay, surprise, and edits it all down into a book that feels inevitable. The hunt is all, whether on the streets of Tokyo or New York City or in the wintry forests of southern Sweden. And the reward? A book full of these magical shots no one would otherwise see, nocturnal forest rituals far from human eyes.

Footnote: The enclosed Karl Ove Knausgård piece is one of the least cantish, most revealing essays accompanying a photobook since Kerouac’s be-bop intro to The Americans. Knausgård says insightful, brilliant things about Night Procession, photography, and the nature of reality—especially how reality, in photography, is both actual and unreal, always a secret world of transmogrifying detail and compelling abstraction. As Knausgård understands, what Gill has done here is to leave behind the personal that usually defines meaning in a photograph (by selection and editing) and let it float into the nonpersonal, the forest doing its nighttime thing. Gill “has moved towards the zone in which the local content of the motive and the universal content of the image have scraped and grated against each other.”

Yes, somehow Gill is in the forest even as he sleeps miles away, even as he’s in each photo even though in truth the image is just a deer gazing dolefully at a hidden camera. Because it’s his book. And his secret place (now ours, too) so wondrously captured in Night Procession.

Night Procession by Stephen Gill can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Carnival of Souls are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.