No Dark In Sight: A Photo Exhibit On Light Pollution

Jan 11, 2018

For a while now, Bill Davis has been having trouble sleeping.

“I found myself waking up a lot at night and not necessarily always knowing why,” said the Western Michigan University associate professor of art.

“As a photographer, I am bound to these days to the digital environment — which means having a laptop and being exposed to blue light.”

"We need to value natural darkness as much as we value natural or artificial light"

After hours of looking at that light, it started messing with his sleep patterns. You see, artificial light confuses our bodies into thinking that we should still be awake.

But as a photographer, Davis says he was always taught to see light as a friend.

“So I kind of had this crisis. I now see artificial light as a frenemy,” he said.

In his photo exhibit “No Dark In Sight,” Davis takes a critical look at this frenemy. His work will be on display this month at two locations in Kalamazoo — WMU's Office of Sustainability and Diekema Hamann Architecture in downtown Kalamazoo.

For the project, Davis snapped nighttime photos in Kalamazoo, Chicago, Cincinnati, northern Kentucky, and numerous stops in between. Some are textbook examples of light pollution — like a photo Davis took from a Lake Michigan beach that shows an orange glow coming off the Chicago skyline.

The Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio, December 2016
Credit Bill Davis

Many of Davis’s photos help us to think about light pollution in places that we never thought of before — like a holiday light display at the Cincinnati Zoo.

“Trees that are so gagged with Christmas lights, you can’t even tell it’s a tree anymore,” said Davis describing one of his photos. 

Davis says this photo shows how artificial light can be both beautiful and grotesque.

“I understand the relationship of light to celebration. I understand the cultural metaphors for light and darkness," he said. "I think we need to value natural darkness as much as we value natural or artificial light.”

Artificial light at night doesn’t just mess with your sleep cycle, says Davis. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, light pollution also increases your risk for obesity, depression, diabetes, and breast cancer. This is an especially big problem for people that work overnight.

It’s likely going to get worse as more people start using brighter LED lightbulbs. Davis says because he’s been staying up late taking pictures, he’s experiencing some of the same health issues as third shift workers.

“Even when I’m speaking to you right now, I’m a bit tired because I’ve been going out in this crazy cold weather in January to photograph,” said Davis. 

He says this time of year the skies are especially well-lit in Michigan because of light reflecting off the snow.

In addition to his photos from the Midwest, Davis is also planning to visit two places that are drastically different when it comes to lighting. The first is Las Vegas, what NASA calls the brightest spot on Earth. The second is Machu Picchu in Peru.

“Incans — and much of what they did is still available for us to consume — used and managed light to propel their culture in I think much more natural and reasonable ways,” Davis said.

A Kalamazoo baseball field at night near Western Michigan University's campus, October 2016
Credit Bill Davis

What’s unreasonable? Davis points to a photo he took of a baseball field in Kalamazoo.

“It’s almost impossible to tell it was shot at 11:14 p.m. in the evening and oddly there’s no one in it,” he said.

Davis says that, for our health, we need to think critically about what places we choose to light and when it’s time to switch off.