After the sun goes down, fluorescent, halogen, incandescent and moonlight rise, and the world becomes something else—an artificially lit stage. This is when Philippe Mazaud gets to work, photographing dark, empty “sets” with no actors.
In his black-and-white photos, ordinary details that barely register during daylight hours come to life under concentrated spots of light. A lit bulb inside a house in a quiet, plain neighborhood becomes a glimmering beacon. Tire tracks in sand take on an eerie whiteness. Condensation inside the window of a portrait studio becomes a silvery-gray glow. Plants in an outdoor planter, healthy and green by day, look bone-dry and stark.
“None of it is meant to be sinister,” says the athletic Mazaud, sounding half French, half younger-generation American NPR commentator. He’s talking among big developing trays, a big enlarger and an 8-by-10-inch camera in the airy, day-lit studio of his home in Reno. With the closing of a couple windows, the studio converts to a darkroom, where he preserves the subtle strangeness of night on large, dark prints.
“There’s certainly a sense of desolateness,” he continues. Mazaud has been photographing at night for about 10 years, always favoring the uninhabited nooks of rural areas and less densely populated cities over spectacular skylines or recognizable icons. He’d drive around Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was a graduate student in math (he’d had a brief art-school stint years before), intrigued by parking lots and other spaces that were well lit but devoid of human activity.
Mazaud, who was raised in densely populated areas like New York City and Paris, was intrigued by the empty suburban parking lots and other spaces he found in the Midwest and the West.
“There was a kind of downgraded science-fiction aspect,” he says. They reminded him of “worlds that had once been inhabited and then life had just disappeared. Sometimes empty parking lots look like lunar landscapes.”
Mazaud’s photos do have an otherworldly look, but they keep at least one foot planted in realism. It’s the mix of natural and human-made elements that keeps him returning to the unspectacular night-lit landscapes and recording what is mysterious but real, theatrically “staged” by training a camera on the right spots, something like indulgent but not idealized or abstracted.
A similar combination of qualities shows up in another group of photos, which Mazaud has been working on for a few years but not yet shown publicly, of portraits of himself and his wife, Wendy, lounging in the desert or near the forest.
“I’m interested in a mix of biographical and staged, and the intimate versus the landscape,” he says of the emerging series. The images take a detour from the usual Edward Weston-ish, figures-in-a-landscape tradition in photography and hearken back to Manet’s paintings (remember the 1863 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe [Luncheon on the Grass]?) without losing sight of the experiential nature of contemporary landscape photography or the complexity of dramatic portraiture.
Mazaud, now nearing completion of a three-year, post-doctoral research post in mathematics at the University of Nevada, Reno, is enjoying a new level of success as an artist. After a gallery show in Paris last year and some discussions with a New York gallery, he has a full summer schedule of exhibitions in Northern Nevada, including solo shows at the Nevada Arts Council office in Carson City and the Oats Park Arts Center in Fallon.