Every once in a while, an artist bursts forth with such a profound impact on a genre of art that it forever alters its course. Troy Paiva is one such artist.
Troy is the author of four books, with a fifth to be published in early 2021. His images have been featured in many gallery and museum shows, magazines and album and book covers. This is part one of a 4-part interview, discussing his history, evolution and gear, post-processing, lighting aesthetics, influences and composition.
At first glance, it would seem that this person dropped in from outer space, bringing a new approach and aesthetic to night photography. His influence is so widespread that you see people in many other countries, many of whom might not even have any idea who he is, exploring abandoned areas and light painting in a bold manner. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about his history, influences, thoughts and approaches to composition.
Troy before night photography
“My father was a Flight Engineer on DC-8s and 747s in the ’60s through the ‘80s, so I grew up in a house surrounded by aircraft and machine aesthetics. Being a California kid, I was also surrounded by car culture and I loved all of it. My mother came from a long line of artists, and she nurtured my abilities from an early age. In the late ‘80s I ended up working in the design department at Galoob Toys totally by accident. I came in as an intern, a gopher, a runner for the department.”
Inspired by the talent around him, Troy stepped up his game and was eventually promoted to designer. There, he worked with various media, designing Micro Machines cars and much more. It was here that he learned how to be a working artist, honing a well-informed sense of composition and color theory.
“I was 29, drawing and painting for a living. I wanted to do something creative for fun that didn’t overlap the things I did in my day job. My immersion into night photography was an offshoot of that job–I was looking for something creative and personal that wasn’t art-directed by others.”
The seed is planted
Now-legendary photographer Steve Harper taught the world’s first college-level courses on night photography at The Academy of Art in San Francisco. “My brother Tom was in the class with Lance Keimig and Tim Baskerville in 1988 or 1989. Tom invited me along to a lecture/slideshow by Michael Kenna and I snuck along on one outdoor lab session down in the seedy old China Basin district.”
Although Troy never took the class or spent much time with Steve Harper, he was inspired by his ideas. Tom gave him his handouts on exposure and film stock. He was further galvanized by Tom’s work, as well as the images of Chip Simons, O.Winston Link and William Lesch.
Troy’s work, however, was something different. Similar to how inventors might take existing ideas and combine them to form something new, Troy boldly combined light painting, night photography, and his love of urban exploration with a traditional sense of composition, slamming them together into something altogether fresh. I doubt in 1989, he realized he would be creating images that would ignite a worldwide cult of sorts. “Ha, LOL, no way!” he says.
Exploring abandoned areas
Troy has a long history of exploring abandoned areas. “I’ve been interested in abandoned roadside and spooky derelict stuff since I was a kid. When I started night shooting these places, I spent a lot of time at libraries trying to research this recent past. At the time there were no books about abandonment of post-World War II roadside sites like Route 66 and drive-ins. All I could find was Old West history from the 19th century. The first few John Margolies and Michael Karl Witzel ‘roadside’ books were just coming out, but it was all historic or contemporary photos of still open sites with only a handful of day snapshots of abandoned sites.”
Early isolated experiments
“No one was shooting time exposures of abandoned roadside sites at night … let alone lit like this. So I knew I was embarking on something different. In the 1990s I felt isolated. There was no one to talk to, no internet to surf, no ‘culture’ of people doing this. I just hit the road and winged it. Every single step was an experiment. I didn’t have the unlimited budgets of O.Winston Link or Chip Simons, so I had to get results some other way.
“The extent of my research and premeditation in those days consisted of old paper maps with circles and notes scrawled on them and thinking ‘where can I park the truck that it won’t be in the shot?’ The less planning, the better. To this day, I prefer Kismet and letting the scene dictate what I’m supposed to do, rather than me forcing some preconceived idea on it.”
A non-photographer’s approach to night photography
“Unlike virtually every night photographer/light painter I’ve ever met, I didn’t come to this as a further exploration of photography. I didn’t do other photography before I started night photography and light painting, and I still don’t do other photography. I’ve never considered myself a photographer, specifically. Night photography is only one part of a lifetime of creative output.
“My lifelong background in the arts gave me the freedom to experiment with these largely forgotten old techniques, ripe for updating with a little modern exploration. I wasn’t encumbered by previous photographic knowledge, or a ‘you can’t do it this way’ attitude.”
The unforgiving world of night photography on film
“This old film work is where it started for me. Film means no chimping the shot on the back of the camera. All you can do is set up using the viewfinder, zone focus and lock it open for a while. Throw some light around, shrug and hope you got it right. Did I get the shot? No idea! It was ‘do one, pick up the camera and go do another set up.’ The only time I did multiple tries was if I wanted to attempt a different lighting or color approach, or if I knew I did something obviously wrong, like kick the tripod leg.”
Of course, digital technology would bring about many opportunities for further exploration of Troy’s techniques. We will explore the evolution of Troy’s gear and his first steps in the digital realm in the second part of this article.
Troy Paiva’s work can be found here: