20 Stories, part IV

Continued from Part III

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The 14th Century Jedi

I have a close friend who previously used to shoot for National Geographic in South Africa, but has since retired and just makes images for himself. Those tend to be the opposite to the very serious material he made professionally; as he says, he needs to have a means of decompressing at the end of what often turned out to be very dark or heavy assignments.

His personal work deliberately seeks out an element of irony or humour or whimsy; somehow, these compositions come naturally to him. I’ve tried to do the same myself, but somehow the elements don’t come together for me. Maybe it’s what one is conditioned or trained to see; maybe the laws of attraction manifest different things for different people.

I had just finished a session with my final student of the day and was walking back over the bridge to my hotel in the Old Town. I turned around to see if anything interesting was left behind – turns out I nearly missed a medieval Jedi statue doing a little gardening with his lightsaber. I like how this composition manages to blend my usual formalist structure (reducing scale elements towards the bottom of the frame, also increasing in brightness, darker, more open areas framing the outsides) but add that little surprise.

This frame always makes me think of that friend and the subconscious creative influences a photographer exerts over any and every person who has seen their work; we cannot un-see things. All creative work is derivative; it may just not be from near proximity or even the same field. But it would be extremely arrogant of us not to acknowledge the work of others who had gone before to allow us to shortcut the creative process and take things even further.

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Hard work

I have a client in Hong Kong whose company is one of the largest construction firms in the city; many of the large scale civil projects are their work. Over the past 50 years, they’ve arguably played a significant part in the evolution of the city – both due to the sheer volume of sites and the rapid pace of evolution in Hong Kong. I started shooting for them in 2014, and over the past five years have documented most of their early sites as well as their current and ongoing ones. It feels like chronicling the evolution of a city.

My work covers everything from finished formal architectural composition to empty pits to steelwork to marine foundations to worker portraits; in short, pretty much anything and everything. In the course of one assignment the conditions may vary massively from clean room conditions inside a hospital to the bottom of a muddy tunnel hundreds of feet below street level. I’ve had weather sealed cameras quit due to humidity approaching 100% humidity and 50 C heat. Let’s just say that my time on the job has given me a healthy new appreciation for the people behind the scenes who make our urban environments possible.

In doing so, we’ve had to basically create a new style and visual language for the client that can be applied across an extremely wide range of subject matter; I’ve tried to keep the tonal palette relatively neutral to avoid subconscious emotional bias, but at the same time the subject matter and compositions always have a degree of ‘weight’ to them – either through the context of scale, or strong bias towards high or low key with more massive subject forms. The style has undoubtedly evolved over the past few years to be a bit less photojournalistic and a bit more abstract. However, the overriding theme that’s stayed consistent is the intention to show the end audience – in this case, the public using the buildings – something they couldn’t have seen otherwise, and in the process humanize what is not a very warm subject.

I am deeply indebted to one particular person for the continued opportunity to make these images, and for trusting my work enough to give me full creative control and an effectively open brief beyond identifying target sites. What started off as a curious comment on my site many years ago has long since turned into a deep friendship, significant break in my career, a big exhibition, and unique creative collaboration – and for that I will be eternally grateful.

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A friend from Malmo

Shortly after the beginnings of my medium format film experiments, I began an email correspondence with a reader in Sweden. She turned out to be a mature lady, an artist of some note and a V-shooter herself; we hit it off immediately and have kept up a semi-regular correspondence since. Emails that started of talking hardware and art market tips turned into long discourses on creative motivations, family, and personal history. She even gave me a spare 501CM at one point, which I subsequently returned to her after her 203 was stolen.

I felt like I knew this person for a very long time; almost as though she might be a future version of myself returned to give a 50-year younger (and male) version some gentle advice. Like most creatives, I don’t take well to direct orders, but the seed of an idea planted can often yield interesting results many years later.

Following my Hasselblad appointment in 2016, I finally made my first trip to Sweden at the end of that year. After the usual round of operational meetings at HQ, I took the train to Malmo to meet the lady I’d been emailing with for years. To be honest – I had no idea what to expect in person. Fortunately, after a few minutes of small talk, it felt like the email thread picked up where we left off. There are few people with whom I can talk about such wide ranging subjects from which honey and cheese pairings to obscure versions of the Zeiss Superachromat – and yet not feel any pressure in having to break comfortable silences. She had a chance to try some of the new hardware I was carrying back with me to test, and I got to see her paintings; it turns out art ran in the family for both her and her husband.

We drove out to a beach for some typical Swedish winter coast scenes (one of which you see above, set to a discussion on the future of photography) and enjoyed dinner nearby. Too quickly, my visit was over and I had to leave for a client meeting in Lucerne. Such individuals are rare and to be treasured; the internet has made this possible and I wonder if we’d ever crossed paths otherwise. This reminds me though it’s high time to send an email…

Holidays and compromises

I am not proud of the fact that I seem to be pathologically unable to take vacations. Either due to timing of client demands, overlaps of my various businesses or the simple fact that it’s now impossible to operate internationally without unending tasks that have no considerations to actual local time – the reality is I have had to do some form of work for at least several hours each day, every day. The earlier phases of my career in which it was possible to actually not do anything work related for a day or two are but a distantly vague memory. So it was with some trepidation that I booked the first holiday I’d taken with my wife in more than seven years. I knew some bare minimum correspondence would at least be required to keep urgent things at bay, so the laptop came along. And since I’d never been to Istanbul, a full H system came along, too.

Istanbul is everything it’s reputed to be and more – the culture, the history, the food, the people – there is so much to take that it’s easy to suffer sensory overload if you try too hard to absorb your surroundings. It’s also too easy to take everything at cosmetic appearances and remain entirely ignorant. We found that small but intense doses were a good balance of cultural immersion, intellectual interest and diversionary entertainment.

My mistake though was bringing and carrying too much hardware. FOMO is real; it’s also often the cause of the very thing you’re trying to avoid in the first place. You’re afraid to leave the gear in the hotel, but you also want to avoid the fatigue of carrying it (plus your vacation is starting to feel more and more like work: by definition, vacations mean doing something different to the norm). You don’t want to feel too tired to keep walking and experiencing. After a couple of days, I went with just the body and lightest lens I had – a long normal 60mm equivalent (the 100mm). I walked more, shot less, but shot better (I think). I didn’t feel as much subconscious pressure of the equipment obliging me to shoot. I spent more time enjoying and seeing and spending time with my wife.

As it turns out, the world didn’t end, I didn’t lose any clients, but I didn’t exactly fully unplug, either – and my inbox landed up with a four figure count of not-so-urgent things to deal with on my return. Moral of the story: do one or the other, but not a compromise at both, because that will just land up frustrating. Next time, I need to try harder at not working so I’m more productive at working when I return – if that’s not a first world tautology, I’m not quite sure what is.

To be concluded in Part V.

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First published in Medium Format Magazine, June 2019. Reproduced with permission.

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Comments

  1. Monica Lord says:

    Can you explain reducing scale elements towards the bottom of the frame? Thanks

  2. Michael Fleischer says:

    A vivid set of stories, accompanied by very complete pictures!
    The subtle tonality and slightly moody Swedish photo is so well executed; Simple elements, yet catching precisely
    that introvert solitude feeling of the place…(being Danish, I can recognise it).

    FOMO anxiety, yes a tough one – I find reducing equipment to 1 camera and 1-2 lenses combo carefully chosen,
    perhaps a prime and 1 zoom, and then settle to that works well. Of course it will mean some shots/opportunities will be missed
    but that will always be the case anyway…;-) The trick for me is to develop “Not Minding” and make notations for
    another session (if possible)!
    PS, There seems to be missing a photo from Istanbul, or am I wrong?

    Thank you,
    Michael

  3. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    “. . . .it would be extremely arrogant of us not to acknowledge the work of others who had gone before to allow us to shortcut the creative process and take things even further”
    Something I heard on our national broadcaster this morning, about a british composer – he simply junked what he’d already achieved, so that he could make a fresh start. I think I’ve been doing that for most of my photography “career” – although there’s also always been a thread there, that connects it all together. I am also amazed at how much I have been inspired by the creative ideas of artists from other genres, from art to sculpture to music to architecture, and beyond there from history and geography and anything else that drifts past me.
    As someone once said – the person who has stopped learning has ceased to live – and it’s true, in the sense in which he said it – merely “existing” and continuing at the same level isn’t really “living”, is it?

    • I don’t mind starting again – I’m on my third and completely unrelated career – but to say we learn nothing and take no knowledge would be disingenuous and dishonest to ourselves…

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