One of my greatest laments is the decline in the use of large flashing blade sign neon lighting as part of urban placemaking. Neon lights added so much colour, animation and playfulness to the downtown streets of most North American cities in the middle of the 20th century; today they have all but disappeared. Even in Vegas the iconic mega neon signs have been laid to rest in a graveyard. (Learn more: Las Vegas: Neon Boneyard)
In the '50s and '60s bright, bold, flashing lights were synonymous with the nightlife fun that downtowns used to offer. Today, most of our downtowns are visually sterile, corporate and just plain banal for my taste.
While LED lighting is bringing some of the colour and a bit of the animation back to urban placemaking, they are not as playful as neon - at least not Calgary. In some cities, there are amazing light shows on the sides of buildings, but they are usually temporary in nature.
The Calgary Tower and Langevin Bridge changing LED lights are a nice decorative feature, but the show isn’t bold enough to add a WOW factor. Neon lights flashed quickly off and on, like an excited heart beat, while Calgary's LED lighting fades in and out slowly.
Fort Calgary and East Village lighting adds some colour at night, but doesn't light up the sidewalk and create any electricity in the air like Neon lights can. Even in the daytime the cartoon like neon images added a playfulness that is simply missing from our modern urban streetscapes.
Recently, by accident, I discovered I could create some pretty surreal and abstract lighting effects by very quickly moving my new Sony RX100 III camera as I took a picture.
My “learning” happened one evening when I wanted some night photos of the LED lights on the Langevin Bridge for a Condo Living Magazine feature titled “Bridges Over the Bow.” For some reason, I moved while taking a picture, which resulted in streaks of coloured lights across the sky over the bridge. It looked kinda cool so I kept it. The image haunted me and the idea of creating my own downtown light show intrigued me, so I headed downtown a few nights later to experiment.
It was fun to see what would happen as I jerked the camera different ways to see what kind of image I would get (I hope nobody was looking as my technique undoubtedly made me look a little deranged). It was also frustrating, as I didn’t have any control over the images. Definitely hit or miss.
But in the end, I love the playfulness of these images with just hints of Calgary’s architecture. There is diversity of light is delightful - to my eye anyway. The images are a wonderful combination of fireworks, neon lights and northern lights. There is a surreal narrative at play in some, while others look like something from a '60s acid dream (not that I would know anything about that).
I need some feedback, so I thought I’d share some of the images with you and invite your candid comments.
Richard White, March 15, 2015