Darkened Cities

Seeing the skies of the world's best cities—if we all just turned out the lights.
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Dec 26, 2013 | By David Ethier

Above: San Francisco 37° 48' 30'' N 2010-10-9 Lst 20:58

Born in 1963, Thierry Cohen became a professional photographer at age 22. A pioneer of digital photography, Cohen has had exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo and the Musee de l”Homme; he was an official selection of the Mois de la Photo in 2008. 

Since 2010, however, Cohen has focused, exclusively, on one project: “Villes Enteintes” (Darkened Cities). The series represents the world’s major cities without a trace of light pollution.

Rio de Janeiro 22° 56' 42'' S 2011-06-04 Lst 12:34

How does Cohen achieve a cityscape wherein one can actually see the night’s sky? Once he’s found an image within his chosen city, Thierry takes meticulous notes: time, angle, latitude, and longitude of the exposure.

He then tracks the Earth’s rotation and goes hunting for perfect darkness. What would have been seen above the city’s sky will eventually reappear over a desert—Joshua Tree, Death Valley, the Mojave, Sahara, or Atacama Desert—all places he’s traveled to in order to capture the right sky.

Hong Kong 22° 17' 22'' N 2012-03-23 Lst 16:16

In using his notes, Cohen is able to create stunning—and stunningly accurate—images of a night’s sky that has been lost to its contemporary inhabitants. But, the work isn’t simply about the creation of an interesting picture; as it draws connections between disparate locations, Villes Enteintes also asks its audience to consider the consequences of living in cities that never sleep. Is there an inherent separation that emerges from masking the evening’s stars?

But there also exists a notion—made popular by Wendell Berry (go to 8:30 of this talk)—that a perceived separation has more to do with language than place. 

Paris 48° 51' 52'' N 2021-07-14 Utc 22:18

The idea is, it’s our incessant categorization of environments that frames and reframes our surroundings. By naming a heavily populated area “urban,” we disqualify it from “nature.” And, in doing so, we may be missing the forest for the trees: all that is—is of the Earth, neither “nature” nor “urban.”

We may often need a night (or five) out of the city to reconnect with nature, but Thierry Cohen's photographs make us wonder—no matter where we find ourselves—what it would be like to appreciate our natural environment.

New York 40° 44’ 39’’ N 2010-10-13 lst 0:04

Paris 48° 50’ 55’’ N 2012-08-13 lst 22:15

Los Angeles 34° 06’ 58’’ N 2012-06-15 lst 14:52

Los Angeles 34° 03' 20'' N 2010-10-09 Lst 21:50

Paris 48° 51’ 03’’ N 2012-07-19 lst 19:46

Shanghai 31° 13' 22'' N 2012-03-17 Lst 14:47

São Paulo 23° 33’ 22’ S 2011-06-05 lst 11:44

Hong Kong 22° 16' 38'' N 2012-03-22 Lst 14:00

Images ©Thierry Cohen.