City buildings lit up like beacons, rural landscapes aglow in moonlight, star-studded skies and blazing Aurora Australis: they're the stars of a new book by photographer Grant Sheehan that highlights striking vistas many of us rarely see. Why? Because we're asleep. Sheehan has spent hours capturing a new perspective on local landscapes by working under cover of darkness to photograph New Zealand at night. Using high-tech equipment, including a modified camera purpose-built for astro-photography, he crafts pictures that are familiar but strange. On the eve of Halloween, we share excerpts and photographs from his limited edition book.

Even under a night sky, there is a haunting beauty about old cars in Horopito.Photo / Grant Sheehan
Even under a night sky, there is a haunting beauty about old cars in Horopito.Photo / Grant Sheehan

Why am I standing here?

The icy breeze has dropped away and a light frost is starting to form on the grass around me. It's two hours after sunset, and now that my eyes have adjusted to the darkness, I can make out the faint soft glow of the Milky Way core as it appears to slowly rise up and over the horizon to tower above me.

As I stare up at it, the blackness around me affords no point of reference and I experience
a slight sense of vertigo. Then the thought occurs to me that it is the sky that is moving, not me.

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In spite of the reverse being true, the vertigo disappears.

My location is the cliff top above the glacier fed Tasman Lake, near MtCook. The cold air
is completely still and looking east to the mountains that comprise the Liebig Range, I see
there is a dim red glow in the night sky, complements of the Aurora Australis manifesting some distance to the south.

The Castlepoint lighthouse caught under the light of a super moon. Photo / Grant Sheehan
The Castlepoint lighthouse caught under the light of a super moon. Photo / Grant Sheehan

The thought strikes me that on any clear night, in locations away from light-polluted towns and cities, countless photographers around the world . . . are gazing out and up into the night sky, hypnotized by the power of an ever-expanding vista that reaches out into infinity.

And, whether photographing, or simply watching and visually exploring, I remind myself that however tiny and unimportant we maybe in the scheme of all this, we are still a part of it, both physically and emotionally.

As photographers, earthbound we maybe, yet through this medium, we can reach out and touch the universe, with our eyes and our minds.

Darkness, the colour of infinity
It is rare now that we experience total darkness while out in the landscape at night.
There is usually some light in the distance, a glow in the sky from a distant light source, either artificial or natural. But on those occasions we do, it can be both exhilarating and disturbing.

In total darkness one can feel cloaked, invisible, a sense of having stepping outside one's self, both unseen and unseeing. Alternately one can feel lost, trapped and disorientated, disconnected and sometimes fearful.

As we all know, fear of darkness is embedded in our DNA, a nod back to far
distant times when home was a cave or flimsy hut, and when hungry predators came out to hunt after nightfall.

When moving around at night was hazardous in rough terrain or unpredictable weather,
when enemies could attack without warning,when tales of evil spirits were told
and believed . . .

Sometimes, standing alone in the blackness . . . you can almost imagine you are a float in the night sky. A little like the amazing scene in the film The Life of Pi, when Pi, the tiger and their boat are becalmed in the Indian sea, the water so still it reflected perfectly the star-filled night sky, giving the impression they are floating in space.

Stars above and stars below . . . On other occasions, in a different mood, the
dark sky can seem to press down on you, as if it has weight. Maybe it does; the weight of the mysterious elusive dark matter that theoretically permeates the universe.

Lowdown

The Night Watchers
New Zealand Nightscapes
Text and photography by Grant Sheehan (Phantom House Books, $165) is out on November 7.