Photography is all about light, and most pros will tell you natural light is the best light. Olivo Barbieri would disagree. He spent over 30 years roaming cities at night, capturing deserted cityscapes. “Every day with nightfall the world is transformed and lives a new identity,” Barbieri says.

Barbieri started shooting nightscapes in Italy in the early 1980s. Over the years he’s shot in dozens of cities throughout Asia, Europe and North America. His images pop with unearthly color. Apartment buildings that are innocuous by day are shrouded in mystery. Intersections crackle with the blurred lights of passing cars. Harsh sodium lights give a power plant an otherworldly glow. Barbieri achieved his luminous hues with medium and large format cameras until 2008, when he went digital. His exposure times varied anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, allowing him to get that flood of ethereal light.

Ersatz Lights: Case Study 1, East-West, Hatje Cantz, 2015Ersatz Lights: Case Study 1, East-West, Hatje Cantz, 2015

The photographer often ventured out just after sunset and sometimes worked into the wee hours. Barbieri likens his work to “espionage and meditation” or “like a detective who spied someone.” He sometimes waited patiently for an element to enter the scene and complete the shot, like a man with an umbrella. “Often I spent three or four hours in front of a tree in the dark, with so little light that I did not see my shoes,” he says.

The best of the images he’s made over the years appear in Ersatz Lights: Case Study 1, East-West. The German word ersatz means substitute or replacement, and Barbieri is interested in how technology alters the world and how we interact with it. “In this project I tried to tell how the world has changed in recent years and how technology has made possible new ways to do it,” he says.

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The Oddly Beautiful Artificial Light of the World’s Cities