Ed Panar, Winter Nights, Walking

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2023 by Fw:Books (here) and Spaces Corners (here). Hardcover, 220 x260 mm, 112 pages, with 78 black-and-white reproductions. There are no essays or texts included. Design by Hans Gremmen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Back in 1985, Aperture published a thin volume of black-and-white photographs by Robert Adams called Summer Nights. As its title implied, the thirty-eight landscapes inside were made by Adams while walking in the suburban foothills of Colorado at night. The streets are empty, the glow of the sky turns vistas into silhouettes, and as the night darkens, the city lights come on in the distance. Along the way, Adams notices the shadows, trees, houses, parked cars, sidewalks, weeds, and the bright glare of the streetlights, and as he meditatively moves, we can almost hear the fullness of the warm summer silence, from the buzz of the bugs to the slow tread of shoes on the pavement. In 2009, Adams expanded and re-imagined the photobook with Steidl, creating Summer Nights, Walking, which introduced a new generation of photographers to his modest but somehow sublime nocturnal wanderings.

So armed with a little photo history, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where Ed Panar found inspiration for his recent photobook Winter Nights, Walking – in the choice of his title, Panar has made the photographic breadcrumb trail pretty explicit, in case we might have missed it. And while Panar’s project certainly has more than a hint of homage embedded in both its conception and its aesthetics, it smartly avoids a trip down memory lane or a deliberate following of Adams’s footsteps. Panar is a contemporary photographer from Pennsylvania, so the landscapes that surround his life in and around Pittsburgh are quite a bit different that what Adams found out West decades ago, and of course, Panar has reversed the seasons, opting for the crisp, cold, and sometimes snowy nights of winter.

What Panar has borrowed most from Adams is his sense of meditative intention, testing the idea that an everyday landscape might reveal some of its mysteries (and hidden beauty) if visited with enough attentive patience and repetition over time. Over the course of a decade (from roughly 2013 to 2023), Panar methodically walked the streets and hillsides of his surroundings, making photographs that feel steeped in this calm restraint. Whether the night brought cold temperatures, wet drizzle, or the fall of fresh snow, Panar seems to have been there to witness the changing moods of these modest neighborhoods.

Many of Panar’s images feature roads, paths, alleys, or staircases built through the hilly woods, where we look down the road as if walking along with the artist; images of trees, houses, and other small discoveries are seen from this same vantage point, as though we had turned or glanced upward to notice something along the way. There are no people in these pictures, so we have the road to ourselves, allowing us to walk right down the center if we want, or simply to amble along in the mottled darkness paying close attention to the details that we miss during our usual daytime bustle.

Often Panar’s images are lit by a single street light on a electrical pole, with a paved street down the center and the backs of houses, fences, garages, brick buildings, and scrubby hillsides sitting quietly on either side in the stillness. The compositional and tonal variations in these scenes are subtle, with parked cars, tire swipes on wet streets, hulking shadows, recently plowed roadways, and even a hanging American flag creating a sense of particular location. In notable images, three street lights fall into a line, and hilly neighborhoods dense with houses look down to the city in the distance. Even more magic happens when the snow starts to fall, the whiteness covering roads and rooftops, dancing around bridges, muffling sound, and blanketing geometric stairways through the nearby woods, with the snow on sidewalks and streets lying untouched like scenes from a Pittsburgh-style winter wonderland.

Winter Nights, Walking is grounded in movement and observation, and as the pages turn, we watch as Panar walks and looks. Light catches his eye in multiple forms – not just the splashing glare of the street lights of course, but also the warm glow of lights inside windows (and the corollary of hollow dark houses empty of that life), string lights hung from porches and twisted around tree trunks, and the flickered light of the city down below. Like Adams, Panar also returns again and again to trees, from textural observations of trunks and bark to the flattened tree forms of silhouettes and cast shadows, with the added variable of new snow piled on branches creating further mixtures of light and dark.

Snow turns out to be the defining aspect of many of Panar’s strongest photographs in this body of work. When he turns away from the built environment and ratchets down his attention to smaller details, he finds plenty of treasures, nearly all amplified or enabled by the snow. Snowy footprints, tracks in the snow, a pathway around a pole and across the street, and even a few animal hops all offer visual evidence of now invisible presences. And when the snow piles up, it covers cars, stairs, sidewalks, and even a mailbox in a soft fluffy blanket of white, the sparkling crystalized sweeps and sculptural towers untouched by disrupting feet or hands.

Panar isn’t the first photographer to discover that when the snow is coming down, pointing a flash up into the tumbling flakes can create some unexpected visual effects. But this familiarity doesn’t diminish the contagious joy to be found in Panar’s falling snow pictures. When the flash bursts into the darkness, it turns the tiny flakes into flared circles of whiteness of different sizes, sprinkling his compositions from edge to edge like layers of Yayoi Kusama’s dots. The visual additions to the landscapes have an abstract quality, but mostly they feel fantastical, like extraordinary moments of illuminated grace in otherwise ordinary circumstances.

In the end, I can say that I was genuinely surprised by Winter Nights, Walking. I fully expected the photobook to recall Robert Adams, in ways that would be obvious, and predictably gentle and thoughtful. But Panar’s book is actually much better than that, and I feel a little bit sheepish for not taking it seriously enough up front. Yes, it makes its overt almost tongue-in-cheek nod to Adams, but it also creates an aggregate portrait of Pittsburgh that is quite a bit different than the Three Rivers, belching steel factories, industrial has been that we have come to expect. Winter Nights, Walking is lovingly perceptive, in a way that makes me want to wander the same forgettable streets and be reminded of what it means to photographically pay attention to something with such care and openness. Panar’s photographs feel fleeting and temporary in the best possible manner, their delights (like the white bow lying discarded in the street) reveling in quiet, slowed down, overlooked nuance. As such, I apologize retroactively for assuming this photobook would be overly easy, when in fact, it’s awfully hard to consistently see the world with the kind of gracefully controlled patience displayed here by Panar.

Collector’s POV: Ed Panar does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar). A selection of print from the Winter Nights, Walking are available from Spaces Corners (here).

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