Images of midnight

Why do the drinking and drugs and the music have to go hand in hand?'

The question is the fundamental inquiry behind Dan Urbano's exhibit of nightclub photography running through Sept. 2 at the Johnsonese Gallery. The more subdued and introverted work of urban photographer John King of Chicago also hangs on the Bucktown gallery's bare white walls.

Perched on top a couch in his vintage, cozy Bucktown home, clad in baggy khaki shorts and a worn navy-blue t-shirt, 28-year-old Urbano rationalizes his beginnings as a nightlife photographer ten years ago: 'I got in for free.'

'I started as a rave kid thinking this was a way of life and that I was documenting something that was a subculture,' said the Boston-bred photographer. 'I thought someone would some day need these photos.'

The former Chicago Scene magazine photographer now questions some of the excesses of ravers who knocking back liquor-laced Red Bulls at dance parties that rage until morning. But his veiled criticism does not come across in his eclectic show at Johnsonese, 2149 W. Armitage.

In Urbano's love letters to midnight, color is the driving and enlightening force. For while people, alone or in masses, are the focal point of most of the pictures, one neon-inspired tone usually dominates each photo.

Holding the shutter on some shots, a technique that allows the camera to catch people and objects in blurred motion, Urbano captures the vague, foggy atmosphere of a club at night. Glare and wavy phosphorescent lines – the reflection of barroom lights in mirrors and windows – lend the images a bright looseness.

In one vertical photo, a dark-skinned model gazes wistfully into an unknown distance. Composed from below, the woman's orange and black print knee-length dress take up the left half of the photo; darkness and a bright yellow light – an electric light no doubt but reminiscent of a moon – evoke the word goddess on the right side.

'Timeless,' Urbano calls it, because the woman's jazzy style cannot be pigeon-holed to a single decade. She is from 1920s bootleg New York, or she is from 1960s mod London, or she was born yesterday and the photo was taken tomorrow.

Satire is only apparent in Urbano's photos after one has heard his story - which means that satire is not present at all. The images do justice to the nightlife scene because they successfully conjure up nocturnal demons. The martini glass is held in a heroic light, the lioness queen of the clubber's jungle. It is impossible to study 'Martini @ 1 am' and not flash back to your own last late-night Vodka Vermouth.

In order to prove to a gallery clientele in their 40s and out of the clubs that Urbano is not just a tequila-drenched snapshotter, gallery owner Chris Johnson included three external city shots taken along the Chicago River.

In an effective combination of conventional and unconventional architecture, azure light reflecting off the river, and street scenes, Urbano proves his composition is not merely serendipitous.

'Chicagoans really love their city and they really love pictures of their city,' Johnson said. 'My clients who aren't into the nightclub scene can still appreciate his work.'

Only a year after arriving in Chicago, Urbano is already packing to move back to Boston with his wife and 15 month-old son. Here, Urbano's services are so desired that he regularly turns down work; Boston is less of a sure thing.

Regardless, he is ready to bid adieu to the nightclub scene. This show is largely about pulling away from that industry, in part because the photographer finds it difficult to continue his booze-soaked midnight lifestyle with a family at home.

'I'm a pretty nocturnal person,' he said, adding, without a hint of doubt in his voice, that he was doing what was best for his family.

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