Imagining a World Without Light

French photographer Julien Mauve creates cinematic images that look like freeze frames from a science fiction movie. For his 2015 series Greetings from Mars, Mauve and a friend dressed up in space suits and posed, tourist-style, in various otherworldly locations across the southwestern United States. The Island of Dragonflies seems to document the remnants of a mysteriously abandoned civilization.

The conceit of After Lights Out, which Mauve created between 2013 and 2017, is that of a world without electricity—think Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, or Lower Manhattan after Superstorm Sandy. “Electricity is something we take for granted,” Mauve says. “We just have to flip a switch on the wall and the lights come on. It’s no longer magic for us, it’s just how things work. So I wanted to question our relationship with this source of energy.”

Each of the images in the series depicts a depopulated, twilight world—it could be either dawn or dusk—that seems to have lost power except for a single, mysterious point of light. In one image it’s a lighted window in an otherwise darkened house; in another, a lit-up office in an apparently empty skyscraper.

Mauve shot the images all over the world, including Argentina, South Korea, and Japan, although the majority were taken in his native country. Less important than the location is the feeling the images are intended to evoke in the viewer. “I love science fiction films, especially Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton,” he says. “They manage to create a very specific mood in their movies. They really immerse you.”

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In some of the images, Mauve used a remote-operated flash to create the single point of light; for others, he composed his shot around a real light source. After choosing the final images, Mauve spends long hours color-correcting them in Photoshop so they appear to come from the same “movie.” For each of his series, he chooses a distinct aesthetic—in Greetings from Mars, a reddish tone predominates, while in After Lights Out he works from a somber palette of dark blues and grays.

Mauve’s photography returns again and again to the theme of our relationship with technology and the natural environment. He wants to foster an ecological awareness in viewers without being too obvious about it. “I’m not trying to lecture people; I just want to make people wonder and question what they’re seeing.” The single point of light in each image, he says, represents the possibility of mankind saving itself from devastation at the hands of global warming, nuclear war, or any of the world’s other existential threats.

“I’m an optimistic person, so I’m hoping that we’ll try to face the dangers,” Mauve says. “Because what we’re doing right now is not working.”

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