The Midnight Playground of Xavier Nuez

This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Professional Artist. Click here to download or purchase other archive issues.

A night owl with a predilection for roaming darkened alleyways and ruins in blighted urban areas, photographer Xavier Nuez has built a daring body of work prowling the streets after hours. Having acquired his street smarts at a young age, Nuez started his Alleys and Ruins series nearly two decades ago.

“I realized there were two things I loved shooting: urban decay and night scenes,” Nuez recalls. “Together, they were just pure magic. I noticed I was able to communicate ideas very powerfully this way, and I made the conscious decision to begin a series based on this theme.

“Alleys and ruins seem to have always been part of my life. As a teen and young adult, I would explore them, day and night, with and without a camera, because they were so fascinating and intense — so different from the day-to-day, ordered structures and activities. I was rebellious. On weekends, alleys and ruins in Montreal [where I grew up] were often places to hang out with friends, who were sometimes understandably reluctant. I would bring a bottle of booze, and we’d explore together. Invariably, I’d create converts. My friends grew to love our strange adventures.

“Then there’s the darker side to my relationship with these spaces. My dad was a homeless kid for a couple of years. It was not something he spoke of often, but he had tales of sleeping under stairwells, and of rummaging for discarded food, left behind at farmer’s markets. These tales terrified me as a kid, and I wondered if that could happen to me.

“Many years later, in my early 20s, I started to experience serious bouts of depression and sudden waves of social anxiety. I returned to this fear that I might end up homeless and living in an alley. I started looking at these spaces with a strange brew of fear and optimism. I convinced myself that even if that was my fate, I could live with that.”

That realization opened a floodgate of creativity for Nuez.

 

Over the years, he has visited numerous cities, including Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, Los Angeles, Kansas City and Minneapolis. Distilling the beauty of these alleys is no easy task. A typical night requires a great deal of patience and savvy to be productive. Shots are not easy to find. To get the perfect composition, Nuez will return to certain spots several times. Nuez shoots his photographs with 50-year-old Hasselblad film cameras and 120 mm film. To help capture the vivid colors, he brings portable lighting equipment and colored gels. The darkness demands long exposures to realize images, and leaving the shutter open produces surprising hues. It is not unusual to take more than an hour to capture a photograph.

For all the eerie splendor of Nuez’s final images, the spaces that interest him most are often putrid and neglected. The neighborhoods are dangerous, but Nuez tries to mitigate this by bringing a guide or lookout. Regardless, Nuez will encounter a city’s other nocturnal denizens: drug addicts, the homeless, gang members, clubgoers, graffiti artists and rats. He has had run-ins with the police and many close calls where he has had to run and hide from the locals.

“I think this strange blend is evident in the series. The images are a celebration of life, but they are photographs of fearful places. They are beautiful and repulsive; they inspire joy and dread; they are both calm and on edge; scenes of extreme contrast, with bright colors and dark shadows.

“The areas I like to shoot in are not places that attract your ordinary citizen. Places to rejoice and yet mourn, where life and death stand side by side. Yet I feel at home in them, while constantly being on my guard.”

© Professional Artist May 2011