Night Atlas is about getting lost in the late-night shadows of a city. Windows are dark save for the occasional blue flicker of fluorescent tubes as some lone worker toils through the evening. Bright neon glows against the black sky. Car tail lights stream down the street. The dim sidewalk is empty.
This is the tale of my night walks through four unique cities: Winnipeg, Chicago, Regina and Minneapolis. Walks filled with ambiguities as I randomly wander down streets and back lanes, chasing lit windows or bright signs. Journeys documented in blurry streams of colour. Silent progress mapped with precise satellite breadcrumbs, later to be stripped down to mysterious white strings on dark, dark backgrounds.
Back in 2009, I started to toy with mapping tools. The idea was to expand on the ideas I was exploring in my earlier Walk Project. I wanted to combine photographs taken while on a walk with the physical manifestation of the path itself. At the time, I had no idea how these elements might merge as a cohesive visual form.
The project started in 2009. My wife, Gail, and I were in Chicago. Having arrived quite late after the long drive from Winnipeg, we checked into the Downtown HoJo Motor Hotel on LaSalle - lamentably demolished in 2015 to make way for an apartment tower - and headed to the Chicago Loop. We were on an amble, guided by no more than illuminated statues and attractive storefront displays, causing us to turn here or there as we built our own pedestrian loop through the dark Chicago streets, back to the hotel.
This was the first time I tracked our path using a small global positioning (GPS) device. I was initially interested in its ability to provide location information for the individual photographs I was taking en route.
But it was the actual track the device created that intrigued me. It was a wildly knotted string dropped on a map of Chicago. The satellite signals that provided precise location information to the GPS unit got lost in the canyons of the Loop. Our route was only vaguely traced.
I liked the look of this line that we had walked, scrawled across a Google Map base layer. A line created with thousands of specific data points yet missing enough bits that it barely made sense. It looked more like art than science.
This led to several experimental walks in other cities. In 2010, I completed GPS-tracked night walks at home in Winnipeg as well as Regina and Minneapolis. As a side experiment, I also undertook dawn walks while visiting the last two cities.
In 2011, I made my first attempts to integrate tracks and photos from each walk into a visual statement. The series was tentatively titled Atlas of Reveries. I got close, but still wasn’t happy with the results. So I put the project aside. Until 2015. The Winnipeg Architecture Foundation (WAF) offered me a show in their space. I saw this as an opportunity to rework the Atlas of Reveries project. These nocturnal explorations of the urban environments looked to be a good fit with an organization dedicated to architectural design.
Now called Night Atlas, each city in the series uses a unique system of icons that graphically locates the photos on a “map” panel showing the walk’s track. These icons then float away, each landing on one in a series of six photo panels where they take on new roles. By their angle or location or colour, they correspond to the location of the photo on the map. And, as an abstract element on a photographic image, the icons add a graffiti-like commentary.
There is an element of intended mystery. The Google map layer has been stripped away to be replaced by a purely graphical backdrop. The photo location icons are more notional than factual. The keen viewer needs to decipher their graphical code to relate map location to photo. And the photos are blurred renditions of map locations, taken while in motion as I walk the walk.
All elements that might comfort the night tourist are gone.