Category Street Photography

“Neon Hong Kong” – Project diary (2)

I now understand why artists paint with elephant dung, or why photographers convert a flat panel truck into a giant, mobile, pin hole camera. This year has seen a major shift in my work and how I view myself. I have always known that I wasn’t satisfied with taking pretty pictures but struggled to know what more I could do with photography to give it meaning (for me).

This was made more difficult for me because I struggle with extreme social anxiety and so doing anything personal that others might see/interact with is very difficult. This year I finally reached a point, after several years of thinking about projects, where I was able and determined to put some of them into production. By that I mean that I would plan an entire project with a set minimum number of images that would constitute a complete project for me and then begin work producing those images (knowing that the project could still evolve and change during production). This is very different from my previous photography (mostly Architectural and Street Photography) which was undertaken on a more ad-hoc basis, with no clear idea of what would constitute a whole/complete project.

The first of these was my “Loss” project and the second is “Neon Hong Kong”. The topics for both are very different but they both share something in common. For me, the process is becoming as important as the end product. By that I mean that thinking about what constitutes a complete project, planning it, conducting research and doing multiple test shots (and continuing to test even when I think I may have a potentially final image) are all as important as the final image. In the case of “Neon Hong Kong” I have spent several months researching the locations of Hong Kong’s neon signs. From an initial list of over 220 potential locations (many old signs have long ago broken or been removed altogether) I have finally whittled it down to a list of about 125 locations that will be worth an in person visit. My process for this was to visit each location in Google Maps Street View. While the images in SV aren’t necessarily current it still helps a lot because, if a sign has disappeared in an image taken in 2016 it is a good bet that it has not reappeared since. At the time of writing I have visited about 15 locations and have 8 images that I consider may be part of the finished project. I also have a greater appreciation of elephant dung or the construction of automotive pin hole cameras as part of the artistic process.

It just remains to be seen if I am still in love with the process after several weeks pounding the pavements of Hong Kong in 31+ degrees C heat and 80-90% humidity.

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Streets of Hanoi

The Centre Of Attention, Hanoi, Vietnam. 2018.
The Centre Of Attention, Hanoi, Vietnam. 2018.

I recently returned from my second visit to Vietnam – my first to include Hanoi, and I would rate it as one of my favourite cities for Street Photography. This is in large part due to the crowded nature of the city creating an environment that is ideal for social interactions of various types. The city (much like Ho Chi Min City) is famous for the chaotic mass of scooters that fill its streets. At least chaotic was the impression I got when I first arrived. On closer inspection however, it became clear that the chaos had an inner order to it, like the flocking of birds or the shoaling behaviour of fish.What appears to be a crazy and chaotic mass is actually a huge group of individuals all being careful not to collide with each other. Having recently witnessed a Hong Kong taxi driver speed-up because a pedestrian had the audacity to cross the road in front of them, I would certainly say that Hanoi drivers are far better/safer than those in Hong Kong. They seem to work to two simple rules: #1. Don’t hit what’s in front of you (however badly they behave), and: #2. The sooner I let this person pass me the sooner they are out of my life and not bothering me.

My First Driving Lesson
My First Driving Lesson

Attempting to cross the road, which at first appears to be a exercise in stupidity, turns out to far easier than in many other cities. The sheer density of traffic makes speeding next to impossible and rule #1 above means that scooters and cars will literally go out of their way to avoid hitting you. All you need to do is step forward into any gap in the traffic and then keep moving forward at a uniform pace. The one thing you mustn’t do is step backwards as most vehicles attempting to avoid hitting you will do so by driving behind you.

For anyone wanting to do Photography in Hanoi you should definitely visit Hoan Kiem District (aka the Old Quarter) and Ba Dinh District (aka the French Quarter) where the government offices are located. A day of Street Photography goes very

Pho Soup Noodle And Beer
Pho Soup Noodle And Beer

well when fuelled by a morning cup of Vietnamese Coffee with a pastry, a Bánh mì (Baguette filled with pate, pickled carrots/diakon and often chicken or pork) for lunch and a bowl of Pho (soup noodles) with a cold beer for dinner.

The area around Hoan Kiem Lake is especially good at the weekend, when the area is converted into a giant pedestrian only zone. Locals take to the streets with youngsters dropping bags for goalposts to enjoy a game of street football, groups of music fans listening/dancing and parents giving their kids their first driving lessons (ride on electric toy cars).

Since returning to Hong Kong I have been experimenting with Bánh mì recipes. I have found that the key to a great Bánh mì is the chilli oil. Obviously a fresh baguette, crisp pickled carrot/daikon and a tasty pate are important but to be really great it needs just the right amount of chilli oil smeared across the sandwich. Just enough to give that chilli tingle up the spine. Hopefully this will mean that I can continue to enjoy a little bit of Vietnam at home while I wait for my next return visit.

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Is street photography art?

Answer: Yes (or at least it can be).

If you want a more wordy answer here it is…..

Art* is the manifestation of the intent to create art.

If I build a shed to store my tools it is a shed. If I build the same shed in a gallery as a commentary on the need for a refuge to escape the boredom of suburban life, it is art. Anything can be art if it is produced with the intention that it is art.

Whether or not you like it, or it is good art… or what good art is… or if it is possible for there to even be “good” and “bad” art…. whole different shed full of tools.

* Art = the product of human creativity produced for the purpose of communicating a message.

 

Then and Now (3)

How, What, Why – for me these were the three stages of photographic learning. How to operate my camera, what to include in a photograph and why on earth am I photographing this thing?

Over the last few years it has been the Why that has consumed my attention and had by far the greatest impact on my photography. I am pretty sure that some people would say it has had a detrimental impact because, in the early years, I focused on the What and the What was beautiful things. The result was pretty pictures of beautiful things which, within a couple of years began to bore me. The reason was simple. They had no meaning for me; no Why. Just being beautiful wasn’t interesting to me. I wanted to take photographs that were more than just skin deep.

A good example would be the above photograph I took in Sri Lanka in 2012. A beautifully detailed old padlock on a chest at the Dutch Hospital in Colombo. I thought it was pretty then and I think it’s pretty now but beyond that it has no meaning for me and as such doesn’t. If I were to photograph it now I might do so as a commentary on the power that colonial nations exerted on their respective colonies but at the time it was just a picture and for me retains little interest after the initial appreciation of its surface beauty.

I was reminded of the Dutch Hospital padlock while out on a photo-walk back in January of this year. I came upon another padlock (though this one was

Portrait of people rushing by

certainly not as beautifully aged and wonderfully textured) attached to a set of shutters. I momentarily toyed with the idea of spending time photographic the padlock but very quickly dismissed that. Far more interesting for me was the idea of trying to capture (distorted) images of people rushing by reflected in the shutter; a rather abstract commentary on the speed of modern life. While I am sure many people will find the earlier image visually more appealing it is the latter image that I keep returning to, puzzling over the distorted shapes and trying to extract some little extra detail that I did not notice on a previous visit. In fact, while writing this I just realised that one of the figures reminds me of The Flash (the DC comic character) leaning forward at an extreme angle as he rushes along in a blur. Sometimes I think the greatest improvements in your photography come not from upgrading your camera’s firmware, but from upgrading your own firmware instead.

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What it means to me (1) “People passing, never meeting”

I spend a lot of time thinking about photography. When I’m not taking photographs it’s a pretty good bet I’m thinking about taking photographs. More and more often I am specifically thinking about what my photographs mean to me. When I first took up photography I took pictures of nice things. Hopefully some of them were nice pictures of nice things but, over time, these images became less and less satisfying and I came to realise the problem was that they had no significant meaning for me. This post then is the first in an occasional series in which I attempt to crystallize my thoughts as to what a particular image means to me.

The image above, “People passing, never meeting” is part of my Modern Life series which focuses on the way we live our lives in a modern urban environments and how our technology, and that environment, impact upon those lives.

Human interaction is not my strong suit (to put it mildly). Since childhood I have had trouble interacting socially with new acquaintances or in groups of more than three or four people (even if I know them well). Over the years my quest to understand my own inability has resulted in my paying particular attention to how others interact (or don’t). For me escalators (and this image specifically) epitomise the impact of modern technology on the manner in which we live and interact. On the surface it is designed to make life easier as it whisks us effortlessly along a fixed path to our destination.

Unfortunately there is no pause button (unless you want to set off an alarm) and people are moved relentlessly in different directions down their own enclosed paths, with almost no way to interact. A fleeting glance or a wave to a friend is the best you can hope for before life hurries you off in different directions. The escalator here is a metaphor for the many technological wonders that should be a power for good but which in many ways limit or freedom to move around and interact directly.

Don’t let fear ruin your Street Photography.

There’s an awful lot of bad Street Photography floating around the Internet. Facebook groups and photo web forums filled with dull image of people walking down the street or standing talking on their mobile phones or, worse still, the backs of people walking down the street. Some of this, I’m sure, is simply the result of poor photography. The barriers to entry for Street Photography are very low. Got a mobile phone, live near a street? You can do photography in the street, even if you have no understanding of what makes an interesting photograph. But lack of photographic ability is not the only cause of bad Street Photography, at least it certainly wasn’t for me when I started out. One of the biggest causes is fear.

Fear of taking the shot

I spend a lot of time thinking about my photography. Not just about the pictures I want to take but also about the ones I have already taken. Am I getting better or worse? What did I do wrong and how can I improve in the future? One of the problems I recognised quite early was that, while shooting on the streets, I was afraid to take the shot. I would see something interesting about to happen but I would hesitate. I was worried I would miss the shot, I was worried my camera settings weren’t right, I was worried that my subject or someone else would notice me and react badly. All of this would go through my head and I would hesitate…. until it was too late. The moment had passed, the scene had shifted …. and then I pressed the shutter. The result was the back of someone walking away or a poorly composed shots of a potentially interesting subject obscured by the out of focus arse of a random passer-by.

Exception Alert: Photographs of people’s backs do work in certain situations.

  • Body Language – the subjects body language is clear enough to tell you what they are feeling.
  • You know something they don’t – Something interesting is happening that may impact on them but which they are unaware of – but you aren’t.
  • Joint viewer – They are not the real subject of the image but, like you, they are observing the real subject.
Street scene. Elgin Street, Hong Kong
The group at bottom right with their backs to the camera are joint viewers.

Luckily I have always been very critical of my own work. I am usually able to admit that I did not get the shot I wanted, that the resulting image isn’t as good as the one I envisioned…. hell just admit it, it’s bad. It is speedily despatched to the Recycle bin or locked away in a dungeon to be visited only when I want to remind myself of all the things that can go wrong while shooting. Unfortunately it seems there are many people out there who aren’t as good at burying their mistakes. The result is the vast array of bad photographs similar to those described above that are flooding onto the Internet daily. Many of these images are accompanied by something I refer to as the “post script”. An often lengthy treatise written by the photographer on all the interesting features of the subject or a description of the really interesting things  their subject was doing just before the image was captured; all of which are absent from the actual image. The post script is not a commentary/critique of what is in the image or why you like it, nor is it necessary context for the image; it is an explanation of the things you failed to capture that would have made the image good. As such it’s a clear sign that the shot was a failure.

Fear of missing the shot

Unfortunately, once you have overcome your fear of taking the shot there is an even more insidious enemy laying in wait at the next street corner – Fear of missing the shot. It’s a little more difficult to diagnose because it shares some of the hallmarks of bad photography – namely poorly composed or boring images. But it is not a lack of photographic skill that is causing the issue, it is fear of missing the shot. I remember being worried that if I took the time to compose the shot I wanted, or moved to eliminate a compositional problem, I would miss the shot. But the counter argument to that is that if you don’t wait for the decisive moment and you don’t compose the image properly you end up with a mediocre photograph that doesn’t properly show the decisive moment.

But what happens if, while you are composing the shot, the subject moves off or stop doing whatever it is, before you can get that great shot. Well, you just saved yourself from taking a mediocre photograph.

Site update – projects

The latest update to my site is now complete and I have added in a Projects section where I will showcase some of my personal projects on specific themes.

The first two projects posted are “Between The Steel & Glass” (https://danmarchant.com/portfolio/hong-kong-life/) which is a street photography project; and “Art of Architecture” (https://danmarchant.com/portfolio/art-of-architecture/) which includes fine art photographs of a selection of buildings.

New York City Spring

My review of New York City

It’s very clean (no litter) but at the same time grimy and run down. I like the style, it feels like a comfortable pair of old jeans.

Lots of mediocre, grab and go, food but equally loads of great restaurants. Some cheap, some expensive…. something to suit everyone.

there is an air of aggression with drivers constantly hooting and pedestrians with a “get out of my face” attitude…. but its all for show. As an Englishman I don’t really like anyone that I haven’t known for at least 20 years being friendly to me but I will make an exception for New Yorkers. It feels far more genuine than in LaLa or SF. Random strangers were coming up to me and asking/talking about Photography while I was shooting.

Theatres up the wazoo. Literally, you can’t move for tripping over theatres which is great for culture lovers.

 

3 Hours in Mong Kok

One of the best bits of photography advise I ever received was “buy an iPod”. This advise turned out to be especially useful last week when I spent 3 hours in Monk Kok.

Men relaxing and taking a smoke break in a Mong Kok alleyway

Mong Kok is a densely populated area of the Kowloon peninsula in Hong Kong. The area has everything from the glitzy jewellery shops and brand name stores of Nathan Road all the way down to the counterfeit handbag stalls of Tung Choi Street’s Ladies Market.  The crowded side-streets are lined with stalls, shops and hole in the wall restaurants; and all manner of interesting alleyways run between them. In short, Mong Kok is a wonderful place for Street Photography – 3 hours in Mong Kok is worth a week anywhere else.

The shops, the stalls and the thronging crowds are all a great source of interest but I particularly like the traditional Hong Kong butchers and fish shops. You will often see traditional Hong Kong butchers standing on the street stripped to the waist in Hong Kong’s oppressively humid summer heat, serving customers from the open front of their shop; while the fish mongers fillet fish with a practised small flick of the cleavers they wield.

If you are not careful the conditions for street photography can be challenging, especially in summer. Not only is it hot and very humid (98% RH) but you can also find yourself constantly moving between wide streets/bright sunlight to narrow streets, covered market stalls and dark alleyways which will require constant adjustments to your camera settings. The key of course is not to keep moving. Find a good location and wait, looking around constantly in order to see opportunities before they present themselves. In other words, wait for the picture to come to you – which is where the iPod comes in. Yes, I realise they have now been discontinued but the advise was given to me back in 2011. Technological redundancy aside, the point was that patience is as important in street photography as in any other genre. Instead of walking around, stumbling on an image and then trying to grab a shot. Find yourself a good location, turn on some music and wait for images to present themselves. Keep looking for interesting people before they are right in front of you, see where they are heading, re-position if necessary and wait for something interesting to happen, that way you will be ready to press the shutter when the opportunity materialises.

If you would like to see more of my Street Photography check out my Projects page https://danmarchant.com/projects/ or look me up on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/dan_marchant/