When you first turn off the lights at night, you see only darkness. A seemingly consuming black engulfs you. But as you wait and your eyes adjust, a new world starts to emerge. Soft light comes at you from impossible directions. Details emerge from enigmatic obscurity to form recognizable shapes, moving from mystery to imagination. It’s a patient time that can’t be reproduced with the harsh light of day, but rather has to emerge slowly and carefully as dusk slips away and night settles.
For German-born photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann, night light is the most enchanting and interesting light of all. He has made a career of capturing long exposures all around the world, turning everyday and even mundane scenes into fantastic worlds filled with beautiful light. He reveals his surroundings with the same patience it takes for your eyes to adjust to darkness when the lights go out, showing a reality that’s not altered by post-manipulation but also not readily visible to the naked eye. With a camera as his tool, Rittermann captures what we cannot see and shows us the vivid variety alive in the shadows after the sun goes down.
Photography became Rittermann’s world at an early age. “My dad was a pretty good photographer. Then one day my brother came home from Boy Scouts with a funny little photo of a model slot car that he had built. He said, ‘Look, I made this.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ And he said, ‘No, I made the print.’ I don’t know what happened, but that was it for me. I thought, ‘You can make these things?’ I was 12, and that was a defining moment.”
After that, his parents had trouble keeping the family camera out of his hands. As a way to appease him, they gifted him with his own camera. “They gave me a Kodak Instamatic and film for what was supposed to be a year’s supply, which I blew through in about three days,” he laughs. “It wasn’t that much film. They thought that five little Instamatic cassettes would be enough for a year.” The bug had bitten, and Rittermann seized every opportunity to immerse himself in photography. He took journalism classes in school, was head of the yearbook and managed to get the only key to the school darkroom so that he had access to his passion whenever he wanted. Even when he entered the corporate world to pursue a career as a pharmaceuticals rep, photography remained his driving force.
Eventually he reached a boiling point and had to make a choice between his day job and his photographic passion. “I was at the Arles photo festival in 1980 or ’81, and afterwards I had this epiphany: it was like a waking nightmare that I had to go back to my job. I just decided right then and there to quit. I had to hate what I was doing so much I blew up my whole life.”
He adds, “I was photographing all the time while also doing my job. It was more than a hobby; it was what I really wanted to be doing. But having to show up for work at eight o’clock every morning, five days a week, eats up your time. I wasn’t very good at my job because I was so distracted with my photography.”
Rittermann severed his ties with home and moved to the U.S., where he was excited by the photography that was happening. He started out in New York and made his way to the West Coast, constantly seeking out connections in the photographic world or galleries that would show his work. “It was not an easy transition,” he admits, “but it was fueled by conviction.”
More of this article can be read in the Winter 2013 issue.