Photographing the shadows of the night
Whilst San Francisco sleeps in the middle of the night and Pacific Ocean fog rolls into the Bay Area, photographer Christopher Soukup is transforming the still and eerie streets into cinematic masterpieces.
Using emerald green, neon lights, and the stillness of the night, Christopher captures empty cityscapes and reflects his vision through mysterious atmospheres like an Edward Hopper painting. Growing up in America's industrial Rust Belt during the 1970s made him appreciate the vehicles of that era before globalization changed the country's automobile landscape forever. He uses cars and mist in a moody fashion, transporting you back to his vision of the past.
"Still from movies never made," says Christopher about his work. This description evokes the sort of emotion most feel when looking at his images, sometimes a chilling aura of danger, or to halcyon days of American industrialism. From working in Silicon Valley to vintage camera film to conflicting feelings about his style, we find out his story below.
Hi Chris, can you tell us about your background and what you do?
I currently reside in San Francisco, California, and have done so for the past decade. Before moving to the Bay Area, I grew up on the east coast of America, mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My background is in business, with a career in business and IT industries, working in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Although there is some room for a certain type of creativity in the business and IT world, it is not necessarily the type that appeals to me the most. Starting out as a creative outlet, photography has now turned into a serious endeavor for me.
Your images are aesthetically quite chilling. How would you describe your style?
For certain, my night work errs on the side of evoking feelings of unease. I strive to hover right on the line between ominous and calm, and I leave it to the viewer to determine which side of that line they fall. At the heart of my photographic style and approach, I think of myself as a minimalist.
What made you want to use classic American cars as your subjects?
I was born in the 1970s and grew up in Rust Belt cities and areas like northern New Jersey, Baltimore, and mainly Pittsburgh. I recall the smokestacks, the grime, decline of industry, and run-down buildings. As a kid, I rejected those things. While living in California, I feel quite far away from these places–not just in distance, but in how people live now and back then. Now, I have a different appreciation of those things I rejected from Rust Belt cities, maybe a sense that I missed something along the way. Most of the classic American cars, which are not in their best condition, really put me back in that time period as a kid. These automobiles are ones I can distinctly recall riding in or that had seen shuffling along a boulevard in the past. Like architecture, these cars from the 1960s to early 1970s have a certain character. For me, this is not really nostalgia, or not at least in the way that it is typically defined, that being hearkening back to a time or place that was better and simpler... I just don't think that applies to the 1970s and early 1980s.
Do you not get the same magic with newer or foreign vehicles?
It's about the time era. During the 1960s and early 1970s, the American line-up was far more prevalent than any foreign vehicles. I suppose most of the foreign cars of that era still on the road were more of the luxury or exotic class, something one might find parked today outside a stylish home in Palm Springs. I think I am a bit more drawn to daily driver, working-class subjects than say a beautiful vintage Alfa Romeo. As for newer cars, I do wonder what has been produced in the past 15-20 years that could instill the same feeling in me that those cars have done. If driverless vehicles take off, maybe today's Prius will have the same lure as say, a 1971 Buick Riviera, but I highly doubt it. Once cars became consistently rounded with non-descript grills and headlights, I think they have lost that aspect of style and uniqueness. In my photographs, these cars are more like elements that link the viewers to moments in the past, rather than the sole subjects in itself. At least, that is what it is for me, as the photographer.
What's the best time for you to go out and photograph?
I used to photograph a lot of black and white landscapes, which are best done during the edges of daylight. So I am still programmed to think that those are the best time to go out and photograph. But for cinematic photos, the night is the best time and when a simple place can turn into something far more interesting and naturally a bit uncomfortable. There are plenty of challenges when shooting at night, but one of the best benefits is how the light holds steady. It's not like standing along the ocean, realizing that there may only be 4-5 minutes of great light (and sometimes even less time), and you need to be primed to take the best shots.
What made you pick up your camera and start shooting originally?
There were two main factors. The first was a desire to do something creative. Performing arts, writing, and being a musician was mostly off the table, but photography was a more natural pursuit for me. The second was having the opportunity to see prints made by Ansel Adams, cliché as that may be, his body of work jump-started my desire to create my own.
Your work has a misty and mysterious Zodiac Killer feel to it. Is that down to San Francisco or something you wanted to capture more personally?
The foggy and misty climate are definitely elements in San Francisco that I wanted to utilize in my photographs, but I never intended to evoke a Zodiac Killer feel to them. I do want to create a space between calm and unease, which would capture the eyes of the audience and almost forces them to choose which feeling they want to take from the photograph–the calm of the night or the discomfort from the darkness and mystery. In sum, it would be much more about what I want to capture personally rather than fitting a narrative with San Francisco.
I can see a bit of Edward Hopper in your images, is that a fair resemblance to make?
As a big fan of Nighthawks, the Edward Hopper classic, I take your question as a compliment. I think my photographs are influenced more by other artists and photographers who create cinematic style work. To answer your question, I do not intentionally emanate my work after Mr. Hopper; however, I think the reasons why I like Mr. Hopper's work are the same reasons why I make the photographs that I make.
Do you photograph with a Hasselblad 500cm and Kodak Portra160?
Yes and yes. The Hasselblad 500cm and Kodak Portra160 are the film camera and film I use the most. There is a lot of good film being manufactured, but I have grown accustomed to the muted colors of Portra for night photography. The Hasselblad might be as old as me and is a joy to use.
What sort of atmosphere or reaction do you think people get from your photographs?
Most people seem to respond with how moody the image is, and/or how much the image looks like a scene from a movie. People recognize the image may be uncomfortable to look at, but have a hard time putting a finger on why. They also seem to recognize there's a certain minimalist element to the images that should evoke a sense of calm at the same time. These conflicting elements often lead to the viewers asking me a series of, "How did you create the image" types of question. As the viewers strive to overcome their unease with logic and order over the feelings they get from the images.
All-time favorite film?
I have two that really stick out for me, one might be unexpected and the other would seem highly relatable. The first is Apocalypse Now. Many stories within the movie, a huge story of the making of the movie and what I would describe as beautiful classic cinematography. The second was Mulholland Drive, by David Lynch. A series of moody, unnerving scenes set to a compelling score along with a complex storyline made this a favorite for me from the first viewing.
An age when American industrialism and motos ruled, Christopher uses photography as a time portal to an era where he rejected certain belief. Explore some of gestalten's motor titles.