Michael Neff is an artist, photographer and printmaker currently living in Brooklyn. For his ongoing series “The Night Shadow,” Neff outlines the contours of city shadows with chalk and then photographs the resulting drawings. While the original chalk drawings nod to the ephemerality of the shadows themselves, the photographs serve to document those temporary moments, both showcasing and preserving the play of light and shadow in the urban environment. The Night Shadow project includes imagery from cities and towns across the US. Here, Neff shares a selection of his New York City chalk drawings and offers some insight into his motivations and process. –V.S.
I am interested in looking more closely at the spaces and objects that surround us in our daily lives. It is easy not to be present, especially in New York, and I try to keep myself open to the out of place, surprising juxtaposition, or formal beauty that can be found by walking out the door. This point of view has led to projects ranging from investigations of grocery store price stickers to photographs of the spaces around big box stores. Ultimately, my work stems from an instinct to point at something and say, “Look!”
The Night Shadow project began in March of 2006. I was living and working in the West Village. I often worked late and on my walks home I began to take notice of the shadows along my route — primarily ones cast by exterior lights on buildings and street lights, but sometimes by interior light shining through a window. I did some drawing experiments in 2002 where I sat in a café and repeatedly traced sun-cast shadows of window lettering on my table. The sun moves quickly in relation to something so small so I would start at one end of the type and work my way to the other. By the time I was done the whole shadow had moved and I would start again. The end result was very much like Heidi Neilson’s Long Island City Sundial project; it almost felt like animation.
I chose chalk for this project because it seemed right. Much like shadows, chalk is impermanent. I also recognized that many shadows fall on buildings and my intention was to share something beautiful and surprising, not anger home or business owners. By choosing chalk over paint or ink, I left the outcome up to those who chose to engage. If someone didn’t like the work, they could wash it away or wait for it to rain.
I draw and photograph all of these works at night. Night in New York City is surprisingly bright. During the day, shadows change quickly, which inevitably results in distorted tracings. Shadows cast by electric lights gave me the opportunity to spend time on each piece and make very intricate drawings. I once spent 3 1/2 hours making a drawing on Hudson Street that was probably 150 feet long and 8 or 10 feet wide.
The photograph is an important part of the process, acting as documentation and a vehicle to share the work, so the fact that the drawing is fugitive doesn’t bother me. But I enjoy hearing that people have run across the drawings in person. There haven’t been that many and they don’t last very long, so there’s something special about encountering the work out in the city itself.