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Never having visited Savory Cafe in Takoma Park—but having glanced at Jim Saah’s hard-edged photo essay “The Midnighters” on the Web—I expected the place to be an open-all-night greasy spoon. But when I went there to view Saah’s mounting of prints from “The Midnighters,” I discovered that Savory is a pleasant, multilevel coffeehouse that straddles the line between yuppie and crunchy, and closes at 9 p.m. In other words, it’s not a place where you’d find the night owls from “The Midnighters” hanging out.
“The Midnighters” is prefaced by an appropriately noirish introduction by George Pelecanos, in which the famously hard-boiled D.C. novelist reminisces about his father’s early shifts in the coffee shop he owned on 19th Street NW between M and N. (“The Midnighters” is not the first time Saah and Pelecanos have run into each other; a couple of years back, Saah took photos for a Washington City Paper cover story on Pelecanos.) The show’s 15 images follow bakers, air-traffic controllers, bartenders, graveyard-shift radio hosts, police officers, and Metrorail train repairmen.
His eye and technique are solid, but a few photos stand out artistically. In one of the best, Tastee Diner waitress Terry Ramirez looks existentially exhausted. She told Saah that she often works a day shift and then a night shift, with only a couple of hours’ sleep in between. “It doesn’t affect me at all,” Ramirez says, except, “I’m a little grouchier, maybe.” In another, cabbie Sandy McKoy zooms past oozing streetlights exaggerated by Saah’s long exposure. He also frames the two bakers in the show amid the fruits of their labor—not in some self-consciously arty way, but casually and matter-of-factly.
Saah deserves credit for expanding the viewer’s horizons in both time and space. Not only are his subjects working during hours few of us ever see, they are also working in places most of us will never occupy: Keith Sanders works nights at D.C. General’s trauma center, and twice, after shifts spent saving the lives of others, he’s had accidents while driving home half-asleep. “It’s not natural” working the wee hours, Saah remarks. “It’s dangerous.” —Louis Jacobson