Dark narratives

Photographer Jason Tannen explores the light and shadows of film noir

“The Letter” by Jason Tannen

“The Letter” by Jason Tannen

The Edge of Night, photographs by Jason Tannen, showing through Oct. 22 at Butte College Art Gallery. Reception: tonight, Oct. 1, 4-6 p.m.
Butte College Art Gallery
Arts Building
Butte College
3536 Butte Campus Dr., Oroville

The images are captured in deep black and stark white with myriad shades of gray conveying the subtle textures of surfaces, both physical and emotional, that we normally perceive and interpret through a veil of color. The settings and characters might remind you of the realist paintings of Edward Hopper, or the seedy scenes and characters from Tom Waits songs, or most likely the chilled emotional ambiguity of classic film noir films such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon.

These images are part of The Edge of Night, an exhibition of noir-inspired black-and-white photographs by Jason Tannen that runs through Oct. 22 at the Butte College Art Gallery (with a reception today, Oct. 1, 4 to 6 p.m.). Until his recent retirement, Tannen curated Chico State’s University Art Gallery for 16 years. Before moving to California to teach photography, Tannen earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. CN&R caught up with him on the eve of the opening to talk about his new show.

CN&R: What are the biggest challenges of capturing images in black and white, and what inspired you to work in that form?

Tannen: For me, black and white focuses on the essential elements of light and shadow, image and emotion in ways color cannot. The technical challenge is in capturing essential detail throughout such a wide range of tones. The main inspiration for The Edge of Night images was [the] film genré film noir. These American crime films of the 1940s and 50s were dark in look and tone, with a cynical vision of the world. As a photographer, I was inspired by how they took full advantage of black and white, with bright highlights and deep shadows to evoke a sense of mystery and menace.

How did you find/pick the setting for the images in this show?

I’m always on the lookout for promising locations, and what they look like at night. I’m particularly drawn to settings that relate to human interaction—restaurants, bars, hotels and motels, modes of transportation and communication. Then I bring a person, or persons, into the scene and photograph the situation.

The emotion of the woman’s reflected profile in “Letter” looks very genuine. How do you capture that with your subjects?

In the case of “Waiting,” the location is Union Station in San Diego, which has a distinct film noir vibe, and I brought in a character dressed for travel to highlight that feeling. In the case of “Letter,” I asked the subject to imagine a knock on the door. The classic noir actor was essentially impassive, an archetype with a mask-like expression–think Veronica Lake or Robert Mitchum. This underscores the fatalism of their situation, and I’ve sought to capture that element as well.

Are the characters you use people who just happened to be on the scene? Did you stage the “scenes” or capture moments as they occurred?

My work at the Butte Art Gallery combines a candid documentary street photography style—with its focus on composition, form, light and shadow—along with an approach where I involve myself more directly by bringing characters into the scene. The characters are people I know, or introduce myself to and ask for their participation. My interest in cinematic form extends to the basics of film structure. Thus, the images can be organized to suggest any number of dark narratives.