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The Night Photography of Troy Paiva

image "Red in the Face" 1955 Chrysler Windsor

 Troy Paiva has been a night photographer for over 15 years. Besides his lectures, gallery shows, and book contributions, he has gained recognition with his two books: Lost America, released in 2003, and Night Vision, which came out in 2008. You can also order prints on-demand from Troy directly -- something I’m very fond of -- through his website:


With a focus on the American southwest, his subjects of ghost towns, planes, and automobiles are given an eerie glow and new life. From Cadillac headlights to crumbling crown moldings, you get the sense you are either on a distant planet or have survived the apocalypse. Troy takes these once glorious buildings and objects and illuminates them under a starry moonlit sky. Here's how our Q&A went down...

Your process takes a lot of patience and involvement; can you tell us a little more about your technique?

Troy Paiva:
Yes, it's meticulous work.  Virtually all my images are time exposures, generally 2-4 minutes long.  The exterior images are predominantly lit by the full moon.  The colored lighting is added during the time exposures with gelled flashlights and strobes.  It's all done by hand–there are no light stands or radio triggered lights.  Because I sneak into so many of these locations, it's important that all my gear fits into a small pack which allows me to get in, shoot, and get out quickly.

I know you recently hosted a night photography workshop, how was that experience?

Yes, Joe Reifer and I just hosted a night photography and light painting workshop in an abandoned high desert junkyard.  It ended a few days ago.  It went exceedingly well.  All the students learned a lot and had a great time.  Some of their work is starting to appear on flickr:  http://flickr.com/groups/889733@N20/pool/

What are your weapons of choice for equipment?

TP: Night photographers tend to be real gear heads, but for me less is more.  I currently shoot with a Canon 20D.  It's only 8.2 MP and it's not a full-frame camera, but I like the fact that it's light and small.  My lighting gear consists of a few flashlights and an ancient and battered Vivitar 285 flash.  I shot film at night in these locations for more than 15 years before moving to digital 4 years ago and I used $40 flea market cameras and $5 garage sale flashes.  I've tried to stick to my original "shooting junk WITH junk" ethos.

Out of the signage, cars, planes, and abandoned buildings, do you have a favorite in particular you like to shoot?

I love all these locations, but for me the aircraft boneyards are the most inspiring and exciting.  There's nothing that can prepare you for seeing an eviscerated jumbo jet flopped in the sand.  They're just epic places.  They are very difficult to access, so when I do, it always feels like a major victory.

Is your work about giving new life to dying objects, about death in all aspects, or is it somewhere in the middle perhaps?

Yes, it's both of those things.  It's about realizing how fragile and finite everything man has created actually is.  It's about embracing the beauty in decay.

Do you think one day you will shoot in other areas of the US besides the southwest, or other countries?

TP: I'd love to.  You buying me a plane ticket?

Have you found cool mementos or weird relics inside the cars or buildings?

TP: Oh certainly, all the time.  When I was younger I'd always come home with weird relics from every trip, velvet paintings from abandoned whorehouses or gas pump parts, but now I don't take much of anything.  My photography has taken on a higher profile in recent years with my books and shows, so it's important to not be perceived as a thief or property owners won't grant me access to their locations.

Any future exhibits, books, lectures, or workshops in the future we should know about?

TP: Joe and I are still ruminating on whether we'll do another workshop.  It was an incredible amount of work.  I swear we wrote 500 e-mails before we ever even got there!  Watch my site over the winter and see if I announce a new workshop for the spring. I'm part of a group show at the Garage Gallery in San Francisco and one at the Boston Convention Center, which moves to Texas in 2009.  I'm in the early stages of another group show at the Carnegie Museum in SoCal for 2009 too.

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