Documenting a City’s Nocturnal Living
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Earlier this summer, journalists on the Climate desk at The New York Times heard a curious rumor: Phoenix was turning into a city of vampires.
It began when Hannah Fairfield, the Climate editor, got wind that outdoor workers in Phoenix had begun working at dawn and dusk in summer months to avoid the sweltering heat. That gave rise to a photo-driven project about the city, which documents the ways climate change has caused Phoenix’s days to creep earlier into the morning and later at night, away from high sunshine. “It’s so hot during the day that everyone has to come out and conduct their lives and their business at night,” said Matt McCann, a photo editor at The Times who works with the Climate desk.
The photographer George Etheredge spent nearly a week covering this way of life with Marguerite Holloway, the reporter. Before leaving New York, Ms. Holloway spent weeks calling businesses and investigating summer lifestyle shifts that would offer Mr. Etheredge something compelling to photograph when they arrived in Phoenix in early July.
The Phoenix Zoo, for instance, opens two hours earlier in the summer to bypass the worst of the day’s heat. Ms. Holloway and Mr. Etheredge woke up around 3 a.m. to get there as it prepped for opening. Another pre-dawn jaunt saw them guzzling coffee at 2 a.m. to watch a concrete pour at a hospital, before touring the construction site for a new high-rise building until the sun rose.
It was stunning to Ms. Holloway that after living — even briefly — in heat that reached well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, “I could very quickly feel that 90 really felt lovely and the 80s felt positively brisk,” she said. Still, she added, “I learned that I am not heat-adapted.” When she and Mr. Etheredge ventured out to the Piestewa Peak trailhead to talk to people who like to hike in peak heat, “I felt it,” she said. It reached 114 degrees.
Mr. Etheredge recalled photographing Lee H. Thomason, who walks around the trailhead with water and electrolyte packets to help hikers, when suddenly Mr. Etheredge’s flash stopped working. “It was just too hot,” he said, though luckily, “that was the only mishap.” And in the early mornings and evenings, “the light ended up actually being really nice.”
When he gave Mr. Etheredge the assignment, Mr. McCann told him to go “buck wild.” And as far as Mr. McCann is concerned, he did. “I was like, this story could go in 18 different directions.”
Mr. McCann said he was struck by the playfulness and sense of humor in the photos Mr. Etheredge took. “He has this way of finding really odd moments,” like a giraffe hiding his head behind a tree at the zoo, or a pair of feet at the end of a playground slide, Mr. McCann said. “People know what it’s like to be in a slide, and you can almost hear the skin against the hot plastic going down,” he added. “That’s what that photo does.”
Mr. Etheredge spotted an odd congruity when he was finished shooting: the way dust and water both look the same when the sun is behind them. “Water and dust kept popping up in these pictures, and the way they mimic each other was really interesting to me,” Mr. Etheredge said. “Dried soil is something that Phoenix has, it’s the essence of the desert, and then water is something that Phoenix doesn’t have for hundreds of miles.”
In the project’s online presentation, the photos progress from night to day, which became an organizing principle for Mr. McCann. And for Ms. Fairfield and Claire O’Neill, a visual editor and art director who designed it digitally, it was a welcome source of inspiration.
“I had originally put twinkling stars in the background, but was told that that was over the top,” Ms. O’Neill said with a laugh. Instead, she sampled colors from the photos and created a gradient background, a subtle visual motif that, to her, demonstrates the story’s theme of temporality. As you read, the colors get warmer and warmer — and then when it’s daytime, Mr. McCann mused, “it’s sort of like game over.”
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