Photographing Montreal's urban spaces at night during lockdown

Follow photographer James Brittain's lens as he explores night time and urban spaces during the recent pandemic lockdown in Montreal, Canada, with his latest series, ‘Night Walks'

Night Walks James Brittain
(Image credit: James Brittain)

The pandemic lockdown found photographer James Brittain spending time at his base in Canada, where he joined the Montreal community in staying indoors during spring this year. For a photographer who frequently travels the world shooting amazing architecture, the situation presented both a change and a challenge. Work had to be put on pause, and the escalating global health crisis was putting pressure on everyone's mental health too. For Brittain, the solution was to turn to his innate creativity for some balance and relief.  

Between March and May, the photographer produced a new body of work, created as a direct response to the pandemic lockdown in Montreal. ‘I started going out for walks with the camera after dark in our neighbourhood,' he says. ‘Venturing out and making images seemed essential – both to experience how the public space felt, and to process my own thoughts and feelings. I chose to work after dark because this was the time when the sense of uncertainty and anxiety felt most intense – in the community and for me personally.'

Night Walks series by James Britain

(Image credit: James Brittain)

Entitled ‘Night Walks', the series explores different scenes of the city's life – or lack thereof – after dark. The choice of location for his frames was key to convey the feeling Brittain had in mind, but the scenery itself was not that important, he explains. ‘I wanted the photographs just to be about the feeling and atmosphere of confinement, and I chose places that felt unrecognizable and anonymous.' 

With lockdown regulations being pretty strict, he simply drew a 1km radius circle from his front door on a map and wandered within, in search for the right spots in the handful of streets available there. It was slow work, as it required him to revisit places a few times before capturing the perfect shot - everything needed to be just right, from the surrounding illuminated windows to street lamps and even passing vehicles. 

There were challenges there that he hadn't initially anticipated. ‘The first few outings were unproductive, and I came home late at night several times feeling very frustrated that I wasn’t making anything interesting,' he recalls. ‘Photographing at night is different from doing so during daylight. The way I look at things and frame images during the day felt immediately irrelevant.' Perseverance paid off and the series now comprises 18 dark and atmospheric images that feel beautiful and haunting, at the same time still and loud in the absence of life. 

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This is not Brittain's first personal project of course – the photographer has been active for over 18 years – but it does still represent a series of firsts in this creative's portfolio. ‘This is the first time I’ve made a series of photographs at night, and obviously the first in an international pandemic,' he says. ‘It’s also the first time I’ve attempted to make pictures that were at least equally to do with my own feelings at the moment of capture – uncertainty, anxiety, isolation – as about the physical conditions of the spaces visited.'

Night Walks by James Brittain

(Image credit: James Brittain)

Night Walks series James Brittain

(Image credit: James Brittain)

Night Walks James Brittain series

(Image credit: James Brittain)

Night Walks James Brittain montreal

(Image credit: James Brittain)

Night Walks James Brittain series montreal

(Image credit: James Brittain)

Night Walks series by James Brittain montreal

(Image credit: James Brittain)

INFORMATION

james-brittain.com (opens in new tab)

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture Editor at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018) and Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020).

With contributions from