Roger Vail: In the Still of the Night

Tonal richness is often the quality first mentioned in reviews of his work, and indeed, the reproductions here only hint at the depth and detail contained in his prints. Where at first glance viewers might see clear night skies, Vail sees solid black spaces against which he can denote scale, line, light, shadow, reflection, movement and stillness. In this portfolio, it matters little if Vail’s lens is focused on the spewing machinery of an oil refinery or on pier pilings embedded in soft, wet sand. There is a method behind his magic.

In a phone interview conducted last October, Vail spoke from his home on California’s central coast with relaxed authority, humility and the polished articulation of a seasoned artist-educator. As facile with the spoken and written word as he is with image-making, Vail taught photography for 43 years at California State University at Sacramento (CSUS) before retiring in 2013. In conversation he demonstrates a breadth of knowledge and understanding of photography, and a deep love for the medium to which he’s devoted the past 50 years of his professional life. Vail is currently creating new work, and has recently returned to the darkroom after many years to revisit the bodies of black-and-white photographs he produced between 1969 and 1996. He is both reprinting some favorite images and discovering others he may have overlooked the first time around.

Born in 1945, Vail recalls no significant art influences from his Chicago childhood—though he traces his love for carnival rides to times spent at Riverside Park. He suggested to one interviewer that machinery was never put to better use than toward the construction of those rides. Vail claims he was “literally reborn into a world [he] was much more attuned to at 18” when he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). There he earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the late 1960s. He began as a painter, switching to photography, he says, simply because he thought he was better at it.

He recalls his time at SAIC reverently; as one of “high energy; the whole circle of people always working; Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the ID (Institute of Design), and at the School of the Art Institute, where photography was still considered a bastard art form. I almost liked it better,” Vail says, “the insurgency—the minority status.”

When asked further about his training as a formalist Vail points to the exhibition catalog Taken by Design: Photographs from the Institute of Design, 1937-1971 (The Art Institute of Chicago, 2002). In it one finds a comprehensive narrative in words and photographs tracing the origins of conceptual photography back to the Russian Constructivists and principles first developed and espoused by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany. Beginning with his relocation to Chicago in 1937, Moholy-Nagy established successive incarnations of interdisciplinary art and design schools inspired by the Bauhaus. (The last of these, the Institute of Design, exists today as a program within the Illinois Institute of Technology.)

“The enemy of photography is the convention…” Moholy-Nagy said. “The salvation of photography comes from the experiment.” That ethos permeated the culture he promoted, and it was welcomed and embraced by Moholy-Nagy’s faculty at ID. He liked to hire outsiders like Callahan and Siskind, whose students in turn taught Vail at SAIC. His instructors included Ken Josephson and Barbara Crane, who had just joined the graduate faculty, and Vail also cites Arthur Siegel and Hugh Edwards, a curator in the printmaking department, as important mentors. The curriculum and training in the technical aspects of photography was rigorous, to say the least.

“My education with the people from ID instilled two things in me,” says Vail. “First, the craft of black-and-white photographic printmaking, including the zone system and everything else Ansel Adams taught in his books The Camera, The Negative and The Print. And second, the need, the imperative, to use the medium as an act of discovery, pushing beyond its limits, if possible, through formal exploration of the properties of the medium: tone as light, texture, line, time exposures, etc. The first and second points are somewhat contradictory, and my job was to find my own synthesis in work that would be different from anyone else’s.”

Those two points intersected soon after graduation. Vail had been making time exposures at night with large-format cameras for a couple of years, beginning with hand-painted facades and storefronts, trying to achieve as rich a tonal range in his pictures as possible. His first carnival ride image was made with a 30-second time exposure. Later, he wanted to capture the full movement of the rides, which are almost always three minutes long.

Vail produced two groups of these pictures, the first in the early ’70s; the second, a set of palladium prints in 1996—and it’s not hard to see why they have proved to be among his most popular. Vail’s camera lets us see something familiar in an entirely new way, inviting us to wonder, for example, at the phenomenal presence of a perfectly symmetrical, interstellar orb named CHAOS. These are visual records of eternal moments; seamless syntheses of abstract and concrete reality, of stillness and motion, masterfully rendered in full detail. As a group, Vail’s carnival ride pictures also remind us of a more innocent time in America, conjuring memories of warm summer evenings, first dates with teenage crushes, and of riders’ screaming howls of laughter pealing through the night.

Vail also produced a set of large-scale digital color prints made from scanned transparencies of carnival rides in 2001. Saturated reds, oranges and blues often dominate the palettes of these photographs, creating a pleasing warm glow. Striking in their own way, these pictures are no less spectacular than those in black and white. (One such image appeared on the cover of a 2006 issue of Life.)

Other of his color work deserves mention here, too. Vail’s series of reflections is a tutorial in abstract composition and spatial relationships—subjects whose importance he’s noted over his many years as an educator. “Too much photography is taught in a vacuum,” he says. “It’s too self-absorbed. Students are not learning enough about other mediums. In addition to my photography classes I also taught one in Art and Photography, in which media overlapped and the emphasis was on where and how they’ve historically influenced each other.”

Vail’s own Piers series proves a case in point. As writer Paul Raedeke put it so beautifully: “…On one level, the images are an illustration of the paradoxical wisdom of Lao Tse, who observed that the soft action of water was sufficient, over time, to destroy rock… Although the pilings present the illusion of strength and durability, we know that they will not endure the relentless action of the waves; this is the folly of building on a foundation of sand.” (As visual counterpart to Raedeke’s observation, one needn’t look further than at Hokusai’s paintings, The Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji.)

One wonders if there are philosophical underpinnings or a worldview guiding Vail’s selection of subject matter. “I don’t know anything about a worldview,” he says. “If there is such a thing in my work it will take someone else to discover it. My work is, in itself, a series of acts of discovery. My viewpoint only forms as I make the work. And by then, my ideas of what the pictures mean are no more valid than anyone else’s. Preconceived notions of what I am about to do have never worked for me. So the suggestion that photography is an opportunity to express what photographers are already thinking and feeling isn’t true in my case. I’ve always found it necessary to clear my head of any such thoughts and let my eyes take the lead.

“My friend and colleague, the great photographer Enrico Natali, who practices Zen, insists that what we photographers do in the moment is very much like a form of meditation, that is, [we] enter into states of heightened awareness. Once I’ve found things that become compelling pictures, such as the tanks at an oil refinery at night, I keep going back and back until there is no more that I can discover. And in those moments of discovery and making there is no distinction between form and content…”

Fact File
Roger Vail’s work is represented by the Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla, California and the JayJay Art Gallery in Sacramento. His photographs reside in numerous public and private collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Princeton University Art Museum and Museum of Modern Art, New York. To learn more, visit

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Airplane Lights and Stars