When I set out to make a film about light pollution, I knew nothing about bird migration or melatonin; I just knew I missed seeing the stars.
I spent a lot of my childhood in rural Maine, where I fell in love with the night sky. From an early age, I sought to capture it on film. I experimented with long nighttime exposures using Dad’s old indestructible Pentax K1000, a simple cable-release and an unforgivable amount of Kodak Gold film. I was lucky to get one decent shot per roll. But under countless Maine summer night skies, I succeeded in becoming something of an amateur astronomer, eventually attending teen astronomy camp and building my own telescope out of an old cardboard construction tube.
Years later, in 2008, working as a documentary filmmaker under New York’s neon skies, I stumbled upon a curious statistic: For the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population was now living in urban areas. As a species, we’d gradually moved from countryside to city. What struck a chord was the parallel with my own life, my own progression from dark, starry skies to the brilliant, hazy skyline of America’s largest city. There was no denying I’d gained a lot since coming to New York — but what had I lost? And what might we all be losing?
Some three years later, I’d talked to astronomers, biologists, ecologists, wildlife veterinarians, criminologists, lighting designers and Boy Scouts about the myriad ways that artificial light affects our world. The City Dark chronicles that journey and represents an attempt to put into images and words a surprisingly complex set of reasons why, despite our love of the light, we may also need the night.
Shooting a film about darkness presented some obvious technical challenges. After all, the very word photography means writing with light. Even in a city as bright as New York, our trusty HD video camera couldn’t capture what my eyes were seeing. But our production solution proved instrumental in shaping my new relationship to the night. Forced to spend hours every night clicking long-exposure still images (which we would then string together into motion pictures), I had plenty of time to slow down and think about the fact that, to my initial horror, I was falling in love with the New York City skyline. The antagonist of my film had won me over. Was it the fact that the twinkling lights somehow resembled the stars? Or was it my own desire to acknowledge that we humans have a very real — perhaps innate — attraction to light?
Either way, I don’t believe the story of artificial light is a black and white one, a story of good versus evil. Our efforts to curb bad lighting must include acknowledging that there is such a thing as good lighting. And that shouldn’t be hard: We can light our world, for security and navigation, for beauty and art, without ruining our night sky, harming ecosystems or disrupting circadian rhythms.
But to do so — to bring back the stars — requires a few shifts. First, we need to think of the night and the dark as part of the environment, a part of the wilderness that deserves our attention and preservation efforts. Second, we might need to allow simple design solutions — shielded lights, pointed downwards — and the energy savings that come with them to overcome ancient instincts telling us always to push for more light. And finally, crucially, we might simply need to look up more.
I gathered quite a constellation of bruises from walking the streets of New York with my head craned backward, gazing up at all that I could and couldn’t see; and I caught more than a few strange looks as I lay on the sidewalk clicking photos of what few stars appeared above my Brooklyn apartment building. But it was worth the bruises and the puzzled glances: At a time when our knowledge of the universe is accelerating at a dizzying rate, stargazing — even under a city sky — is a humbling reminder of how many questions we have yet to ask.
— Ian Cheney, Director/Producer