Under Cover of Darkness

Belfast by Night just doesn't compare to Paris, but Fergus Jordan's exhibition does have its charms

On a practical level, Fergus Jordan’s Under Cover of Darkness is fairly straightforward. These are images of Belfast city at night, under sodium lighting from streetlamps. Simplicity like this is generally no bad thing. If film noir and Alfred Hitchcock have taught us anything, it is that often the most disturbing and emotionally affecting scenes occur where the viewer cannot see them.

This idea translates well to still image photography. Just as creative use of light should be explored, so should creative use of darkness, and not just to create a sense of terror either. Look at the work of artists such as Brassai. His collection of night photography, entitled Paris de Nuit, used similarly lit photographs ‘in order to capture the beauty of streets and gardens in the rain and fog, and to capture Paris by night’.

The lighting technique and night-time theme are not the only similarities between Jordan and Brassai's work. Brassai’s photogtaphs captured the essence of 1930s Paris wonderfully (both bustling city centres and silent suburban corners), whilst Jordan’s exhibition is a series of 13 images of undeniably similar Belfast locations, all empty.

Presence and absence are key themes in the work, but this feeling of repetitiveness is where the exhibition begins to fall down. The accompanying blurb goes some way to explain this as ‘evoking a succession of endless questions that draws the viewer into a download spiral of heightened anxiety and paranoia’.

At an exhibition such as this, such information can add another layer of understanding, enhancing the experience and offering fresh viewpoints. However, I believe that the images themselves should always be strong enough to stand on their own. Sadly, this is not always the case in this show.

In fairness, the images are something of a mixed bag. Some utilise the cityscape to good effect, drawing the viewer in and forcing them to examine the darkness.

The most prominent example of this is the first image of the show, ‘The Edge of Darkness’. This photograph is the largest in the exhibition and presented without a frame. Double yellow lines by a curb draw the viewer into the darkness, encouraging them to study it for connections and shapes.

The images on the whole are formalistic and a lot of thought has clearly gone into their composition. Too many of them feel far too flat, however, neither ‘permitting the stimulation of tension’ or ‘scrutinizing presence and absence within the framework of post-conflict society’.

Furthermore, the exhibition suffers from what I can only assume is an unintentional flaw. Aside from the first image, the work is displayed in glass frames and under neon lighting. It is difficult to study images comprised primarily of darkness through your own reflection.

Under Cover of Darkness has its moments. The images are not without charm, and a larger format certainly suits the subject matter. Sadly, however, too many of these photographs fail to grip this viewer.

Under Cover of Darkness runs at the Golden Thread Gallery until November 5.