Conjuring Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles
Better Call Saul writer Vince Gilligan commented in a recent interview in NY Magazine, that he and fellow series creator, Peter Gould, have been “ripping off Edward Hopper shamelessly over the last two years”. Gilligan was referring to Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, in which two lonely people sit at a counter drinking coffee in an all-night diner. Gilligan says: “We love that image of an island of light surrounded by an ocean of darkness.”
That phrase, “an island of light surrounded by an ocean of darkness” also seems like a good starting point for describing Catherine Corman’s photographs in Daylight Noir. Corman’s book is an attempt to visualize and photograph locations described in Chandler’s novels, from The Big Sleep, to Lady in the Lake.
Each of the scenes she photographs is captured in high contrast black and white, many using a technique known as vignetting, where the brightness or saturation is reduced at the periphery the image centre to create a dark halo or border around the photograph. The technique not only draws attention to the centre of the frame, but emphasizes the effect of “an island of light surrounded by an ocean of darkness”.
The images mirror Chandler’s writings, which often seek out moments of grace and beauty to highlight the darkness and corruption that surrounds them.
Here’s one example where Chandler uses a sort of literary vignetting in a passage from The Big Sleep.
A yellow window shone here and there, but most of the houses were dark. A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog. The tires sang on the moist concrete of the boulevard. The world was a wet emptiness.
The lit windows form the centre of the image, and highlight the dark, dank world surrounding Philip Marlowe. It’s the moment where Marlowe is driving Vivian Sternwood back from Eddie Mars’s gambling club. Marlowe is attracted to Vivian, even infatuated with her, but has also begun to realise that she is corrupted by the murky world around her too. The two are trying to flee the “rotten little town” for a moment of escape and intimacy, but the darkness follows them.
Corman uses this quote to accompany her image of the Del Rey Beach Club (above). The building glows white, just off centre, surrounded by dark hills, and palms silhouetted against an ominous sky.
Corman’s haunting photographs highlight the melancholy of sunny places tarnished by shady goings on. Here sunshine is not a cause for carefree joy, but offers only a starker, crueller contrast to corrupt world it illuminates.