The Brazilian writer Coelho Neto first called Rio de Janeiro a Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City) in deference to its tremendous physical beauty. It’s true; this unique union of mountain and ocean along Guanabara Bay is quite breath-taking. But Rio is also the third-largest metro in South America, and home to over 6 million people. It throbs through the night with incessant activity — at work and at play, sparkling in the glow of artificial light.
Yet it seems that even lovely Rio has lost touch with a huge inheritance of natural wonder: the celestial ceiling of the night sky. Unfortunately, as in all major cities, urban lights have woven an impenetrable veil — a cacophony of photons that block access to the astonishing stars above.
The French photographer Thierry Cohen has created a series of composite photos, Villes Éteintes (Darkened Skies), which reconstructs what the stars would look like above major global cities like New York, Paris, Hong Kong — and in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. In an eloquent essay on Cohen’s site, the photography critic, Francis Hodgson, describes viewing these images:
We think we see bright night skies over cities. Very traditional, very poetical. Actually, what we’re seeing is the opposite. These skies are an indictment and a lament. These are the skies that we don’t see.
the Secret of Darkened Cities
Beneath the stark beauty of Cohen’s photos is a thoughtful, precise geometry. He hasn’t simply swapped in an arbitrary group of stars to make a cut-rate simulation. In actuality, he’s recreated the real skies we should be savoring. For each cityscape, Cohen recorded the exact time, latitude, longitude, and angle he was shooting from. Then he journeyed to a remote area at the same latitude — far from any light pollution — and captured the unveiled heavens.
In the case of Rio de Janeiro (and São Paulo), the photographer travelled to the Atacama — a plateau desert in Chile. As the Earth rotates, the very constellations that were above Rio, unseen a few hours before, are revealed in the night sky of the Atacama. A century ago, that same patchwork of light was still visible from Rio’s city streets. Now, sadly, it’s been obscured by the glaring 24-hour illumination of modernity. It’s a loss that Hodgson eulogizes:
There is an urban mythology in which the city teems with energy and illumines everything around it. Cohen is telling us the opposite. These are cold cities, cut off from the seemingly infinite energies above. It’s a powerful reversal.
the Solemnity of Rio de Janeiro
The common impressions of Rio include sunny beaches, Carnaval, and a bustling nightlife. These photos reveal a city more sombre in spirit. Familiar landmarks — Pão de Açúcar, the beaches of Copacabana and Leblon, the spaceship-like curves of the MAC in neighboring Niterói — appear to be almost humbled, muted beneath an awesome vault of stars.
The truth is that the Southern Cross and other landmarks of the night sky in Brazil have existed for millions of years, while Rio’s architecture is but a few centuries old at best. Through Cohen’s eye we begin to grasp the relatively minor impact our species can claim in the universe.
There’s a more ominous interpretation of his atmospheric work, as well: perhaps the cities are abandoned — barren of any human existence at all. Is this a post-apocalyptic vision of Earth without us? Cohen himself, as quoted by photographer Sophie Butcher, remains more upbeat:
The sky is a link between human beings. It is a representation of what Earth should be — without borders and without war. I am creating a bridge between the two environments.
The photographer spent three years working on “Darkened Cities” — crisscrossing the globe to make these evocative photos. The series is on display at the Danziger Gallery in New York from March 28th until May 4th.
Thierry Cohen in brief
Photos: Thierry Cohen