Lightfall, Berkeley

Photo: Hamish Reid.

People nearly always pick this as their favourite image from the domestica series I did in Berkeley way back in the Film Era (sometime in 1990). There’s something deeply evocative about an empty couch just sitting there covered in a crumpled sheet; and the various lightfalls and textures on the sheet, walls, and floor probably speak for themselves. (It’s my fave image from that series, too, of course).

For me, though, it’s more than that, necessarily so: it wasn’t a set-up shot at all, it was simply one view of my front room on McGee in Downtown Berkeley at the time, and deeply evocative of a certain time and place. The couch itself was a wreck — the surface was ripped and stained (hence the sheet, the only way to get visitors to actually sit on it), and the morning light in that room just streamed in from the windows overlooking the street like that. I loved the way the light worked in that house (one half of a ramshackle old duplex, actually): it was where the word “lightfall” first entered my mind. And one day I just put a tripod in front of the couch (moving a few other chairs and tables out of the way), put my little Nikon FM2n on it with the 28mm wide angle lens, and took maybe a dozen slightly-different shots of it over a few minutes. I’d lived with the sight for a year by then so I knew the best time of day and year for it, and this image was the result. I developed the film (actually, I think Palmer’s on University developed it, but never mind) and printed it in my darkroom downstairs a few days later. The image has been on my walls here and there (and a dozen places in between) ever since, and I’ve used it as something of an icon on the web in different contexts.

The image strikes a lot of people as lonely, or as an evocation of loss (it certainly strikes me that way at times), but in reality my front room (always a blaze of moving light during the day) was a cramped, busy, and sociable sort of place (hence the suspiciously tight crop on the left — I don’t remember what was there that I had to cut out), and I really didn’t have the loneliness or any sort of evocativeness in mind at all when I took it: I just wanted to show people how the light worked in my front room.