Saville’s exposure to photography began early, with her own family. “My father and older brother were avid amateur photographers,” she says. “They would set up a camera on a telescope and things like that.” Although she found it fun to observe, she wasn’t at first inspired to take pictures. However, both her parents were professors, which afforded some family sabbaticals to Europe. “We took a ship from New York Harbor to Italy, where we stayed for a whole year,” she recalls. “Living in Italy and driving through the city made me more visual.” During the family’s travels abroad, while her mother was going to “every church in Rome,” her father was shooting a lot of Kodachrome transparencies.
Saville learned to enjoy sewing, as her grandmother was a seamstress. This sparked an early interest in fashion. “I started looking at Vogue magazine, and I thought of the pictures as magic in some way,” she remarks, “but it took me a while to figure out that it was the photographers who created the images.”
Being drawn to New York, she attended Pratt Institute with the intention of majoring in fashion design. “That’s a joke now,” she laughs, “because I even find it hard to shop.” Nonetheless, she credits her initial interest in fashion for her developing awareness of shape and design. She also took her first fine-art photography course at Pratt. “I quickly discovered that photography was much more interesting than fashion as a career for myself; I really got hooked on it.” The students shot film, developed it and made contact sheets in a traditional darkroom. “At the time, people thought of 8x10s as pretty big prints,” she recalls. Her teachers encouraged students to shoot pictures in the street-photography style of Garry Winogrand or Henri Cartier-Bresson. “We were supposed to always have our cameras with us.”
When asked why she enjoys shooting at night, she replies, “It was kind of an organic process. At first, I appreciated the light and took pictures at various times of day.” Some of her earlier images included ballet and other theatrical scenes. “I was thinking about the work of Degas, and I tried to bring out highlights and shadows.” Because Europe became such a visual influence, she learned to appreciate architecture at twilight and night. “Buildings at that time of day had a rather surrealistic look,” she says. “It didn’t matter whether I shot at dusk, night or pre-dawn. I was more interested in the idea of a ‘dark city.’”
Although she has worked in black-and-white as well as in color, Saville says that color seems to work better when capturing the separation between a building or foliage and the sky at night. The images in Dark City use color and light from the sky, streetlights, neon signs and surveillance lighting. She also had the privilege of witnessing the printing process of the book — in Italy. “They’re real artisans there,” she says. Acquainted with the Night, by contrast, features beautiful black-and-white images. Because there is a little light in the sky at twilight or dawn, as opposed to late at night, she tends to photograph most often at those times. “I can’t shoot in the middle of the night, as things appear a little flatter.”
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) recently commissioned Saville to photograph New York’s Grand Central Terminal — a very exciting project for her. “One city block west of Grand Central Terminal has been demolished and they’re building a skyscraper, which will be nearly as tall as the Empire State Building,” she says. “What’s special about it is that when one approaches the Terminal at Park Avenue and 42nd Street, the lighting on the building at twilight makes it look like a palace.” This MTA Arts for Transit project is titled “Grand Central Revealed” and features Saville’s illuminated 40×50-inch duratrans images of Grand Central Terminal on the concourse level. It will be on display for the next three years. “It’s a big thrill for me, something that’s right up my alley,” she says.
When asked about special shooting tips at night or in low light, she says, “I feel that I get the best quality by shooting at a low ISO, so I try to keep this setting pretty modest, around 200. I’ve been shooting digitally for the past few years, but I occasionally use color negative film.” She has been including more people in her images lately, and she uses faster ISO settings and shutter speeds to freeze their motion. She notes that today’s digital cameras are getting better at minimizing graininess, or digital noise. “It’s kind of exciting to try hand-holding a camera at a high ISO,” she remarks. “But for exhibitions and publishing, it’s best to use a tripod and a low ISO setting.”
Saville teaches workshops in New York at the International Center of Photography and New York University. “I always encourage my students to use manual settings,” she states. “This may seem obvious, but some people who are not professionals like to use the automatic settings on their cameras.” She says that the beauty of using manual settings is that one can have more control over focusing in quirky shadow and light situations. She points out that cameras look for contrasts when focusing. “At a dimly lit party, I often look for a guy with a white shirt and dark tie, dark hair and a pale face, or something like that, so that the camera can latch onto something to focus.” She also recommends that students focus manually, bring a flashlight and/or use their car’s headlights to help focus on their outdoor subjects at night.