Tell me a story……….

Once, long ago, I was in a pub. That in itself was not remarkable. I was involved in a darts match. I could throw a good ‘arrow’ in my day. Went out on 161 once. At the end of the evening someone remarked that I had not been paying attention to the event but had spent my entire sojourn ‘people watching’. And so it is, even today. I find people fascinating. Let’s be honest. Good friends are good friends, even after 30 or more years but I rarely seek out the company of strangers. But watching them? Aha! That is different. Every person has a history but to most people it is hidden. We make our judgements on superficial factors: appearance, voice, accent, clothes, make of car and dare I say, on occasions the camera used.

Photographing strangers invites you to construct your own history. From the simple portrait to the complex story image how you interpret the subject may be a country mile away from reality. That does not matter. The good photograph is layered and as the old Yorkshire saying goes, “there’s nowt so queer as folk”.

People are, aside from being individuals, part of a generation, a class, a race and every other box you care to slot them into. Personally I like the thought that the moment in time is there to compare with past and future times. How much of today’s wonderful and wide ranging digital documentary portfolios will survive the way of prints from dad’s box brownie.

I look back at pictures my father took in the 60s and 70s. They show a different world. My brother and I building towers of cards or dominoes in between squabbling. Me gazing into the window of Coyne’s (I think) in Widemarsh Street (or was it Church Street?). They sold Corgy and Dinky cars. Probably Matchbox too. I must have been about 7 at the time. People reflect the norms and customs of the era. A generation is shrinking. Three score years and ten was probably three generations. Grandparents, children, grandchildren. The rule of thumb probably has not changed but I am convinced we have generations within generations, such is the pace of change. On a course I attended last year a visiting ‘expert’ described how his 3 children aged 18, 12 and 5 had incredibly different attitudes towards and aptitudes for technology. I doubt if any of the children has ever built a tower with playing cards. I saw a lego exhibition recently in which great buildings, indeed sites, of the world, were portrayed. We had Meccano. Lego existed in the most basic of forms. The idea that we could create a passable imitation of the Taj Mahal would never have flitted across our minds. (Am I the only person ever to have been disappointed with ‘the real thing’?)

I love photographing across the generations. It moves me when I see the bond surviving across the years. If there is a bridge to cross we should run.  Here are two images:

The good…… just looking at the smiles cheers me up. Are they grandmother and granddaughter? No idea but there is a carefree spirit of fun that radiates from either end of the age spectrum. Don’t argue about the quality or otherwise of the image. It is not a technical critique. Would I have been happier without the background figures? Of course but they were there and cloning them out, Soviet style, isn’t my style.

Maybe the look on the girl’s face is just a fleeting moment that misrepresents her thoughts but it is an image that makes me think and wonder. What is in the the old lady’s mind? What has her day been like? Where is the young girl hurrying to? There is real purpose to her stride. Where did the flowers come from? Are they to give or received? Why does she seem to glance disdainfully at the old lady? We will never know and we can imagine what we will.

People watching is fascinating. People photography is challenging. It is however rewarding. Shooting with a rangefinder and film is even more so but that is for another day. And all this from someone who actually is at his happiest away from people. That is a contradiction I have not yet fathomed for myself. To be continued……… maybe.

Opera for beginners

After some confusion over tickets I found my seat under the tin roof of the temporary Opera House. Row eight. Just left of centre. The air conditioning was entirely natural. A cool breeze from outside blew through the bamboo structure but the sheer density of bodies was enough to ensure I was going to get a free sauna with the performance.

The Chinese Opera was taking place in my local town, Sai Kung. This is the week the people celebrate the goddess Tin Hau. According to Wikipedia, Tin Hau “is the indigenous goddess of the sea who is said to protect fishermen and sailors, and is invoked as the patron saint of all Southern Chinese and East Asian persons“. As Sai Kung is indeed a town of fisherfolk originally this is a very important festival. The area has been an attractive base for Hong Kong’s western residents for many years. It is rural yet only half an hour by car from Central in good traffic. Many houses have gardens and the influx of expats has driven a thriving economy for locals and expats alike. From haute cuisine to hiking, Sai Kung has it all. Sad then that I saw so few Westerners in the Grand Old Opera House last night. A few wandered by, stood at the side and took a few pictures then moved on.

I faced two challenges. The first was the tight packing of the seating. At 6′ 4” tall (in my heyday)  I found it tough to squeeze myself into such a narrow row. And I had no idea what the story line was. There seemed to be scholars, warriors, bureaucrats and lovers, all in spectacular costumes. Yet how they interplayed I still do not understand. The first hour was deadly serious and then a character came on, who was evidently the light relief. Roars of laughter. Possibly at my ignorance. I could tell he was the funny man but I am afraid I didn’t get the jokes.

In front of me people wandered around freely, coming and going with a constant supply of food. As the lights went up once everybody seemed to be tucking into what looked like hot, black bean soup. Just the thing for a sultry summer night. A vendor appeared with boxes of what appeared to be bottles of eucalyptus oil, presumably to cure the swoons brought on by the heat. Covent Garden this was not.

When you first hear the music and singing of Chinese opera it seems discordant and rather cacophonous. If you settle down and spend a little time it is much like the Cantonese language. It starts to make sense. It is not “Die Zauberfloete” but then I doubt if the locals of Sai Kung would be blown away by the Queen of the Night either. I rather enjoy it and of course the real attraction is the costumes and make up that make the performances tailor made for photography.

I took 2 cameras and 3 lenses. I tried the M9 with a 90mm ‘cron and the 0.95 noctilux but for the onstage antics these were not right. The best kit was a very old F2.8 70-200mm Canon lens and my 1D mk IV body using ISO 800 and typically EV -1/3 to a full stop, depending on the lighting and the brightness of the costumes. White sleeves under bright lights blow the highlights at EV and needed a full stop off to hold.I was around 135mm focal length most of the time.

So here are a few shots from the opera. I hope you like them.

At last, the 1957 show

Why is it that a shot I think is “ok but nothing special” seems to have resonated with others.

Here is the image:

It started as a colour dng file taken with my M9 and the amazing 50mm Noctilux 0.95. I cropped out some empty paving in the foreground and some distracting bright highlights at the top. I burned some of the still bright areas and I lifted the shadows a little and dodged the bottom left hand corner up to and including the people seated. The bulk of the processing was done in Lightroom 3 and then Silver Efex Pro v2.

For the techies it was shot at 1/45 handheld, ISO 160, F5.6. The speed was not quite enough to stop the blur on the girl’s heel bit otherwise it is pretty sharp for handheld.

Certainly I think it has that certain Leica creaminess to it. Smooth as one person said. Another suggested it looked like it came from 1957 and another suggested the girl’s dress added that retro look. The buildings are old and the scene is typically crowded for any old Hong Kong town shot. No space wasted. The balconies are used to the full. So maybe the attraction is in the nostalgia, the black & white adding to that feel of something missing today where everything is HDR and Velvia saturated. And just to pacify Velvia fans, I shot Velvia for many years before I went digital. Nothing wrong with it. Or maybe I mean the late, great Kodachrome… How did Paul Simon put it?

You give us those nice bright colors 
You give us the greens of summers 
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah! 
I got a Nikon camera 
I love to take a photograph 
So Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away

Or perhaps it was Steve McCurry? Sorry, Steve. We’re all Kodachromed out. I am sure though that NIK can replicate Kodachrome just as they can Tri X.