No Pictures at an Exhibition

My resolution to write more seems to be struggling already. As I have said before, life just gets in the way. I seem to have more commitments nowadays even though I work less. Nevertheless…..
I have spent many hours in recent months listening to podcasts and watching videos about photography. Not the gear stuff. These are about the creative perhaps even philosophical side of photography.

Profiles of photographers can be illuminating and I find some of the very best work or art comes from people who have had their grounding in conflict photography. Examples that spring to mind are Giles Penfound, Don McCullin and Tom Stoddart, who passed away this week. Their images are typically simple but complex. The subject is clear and unambiguous but the photos can be layered. Invariably they shoot in black and white and they capture human emotions at their most raw.

How do we transfer those principles onto the street? Human engagement is a start. But the pace of life here leaves little room for that. You have to be very selective in how you impose your desire for a shot on their schedule. I wanted to photograph a small market shop today. I asked and the owner said yes but it was obvious the small shop was busy and I felt I might be standing literally in the path of his business so after a few frames I just backed away. My photograph isn’t worth his lost business. You instinctively know when you see a special photograph and it seems a long time since I saw one of my own. I keep an album of what I regard as my personal monochrome image picks and a second album which is broader and captures more of my wildlife shots too. There are overlaps but in total they are maybe 100 images. Over a decade. Thats less than one a month. The monochrome album has just 34 shots in it. The best have some sort of direct personal engagement. Some are quirky and a few are what might loosely be called architectural – from brutal to sublime.

When I look at those statistics it makes me wonder why I have 9,000 photos on Flickr. For my own context that is since 2006 and averages therefore 600 pa. But it also means only 2 of those 600 each year pass my own quality test. The rest are making up the numbers. In reality that isn’t how I use Flickr. I use it as an easy reference source for my own natural history records. So many shots are just record shots of items that also go on a citizen science database. However I don’t control that so it is not something I rely on. I also have 2 copies of everything on external hard drives. But I can’t claim that 2 pa is a record to inspire.

One aspect of photography that has been much debated is social media. How we use it, how we become hungry for positive feedback and ‘likes’ to the extent that many people shoot with recognition in mind. FB, IG, Flickr, 500PX etc. they all entice us to post in return for the possibility of an image going viral. For me it doesn’t happen. Which is fine although I do wonder sometimes why certain images get little attention. What ‘sells’? Birds, landscapes, pretty girls, quirky street shots….. but one thing you notice quickly is that many of these images are formulaic. They all look similar. One photographer pundit with ‘only’ 500,000 IG followers claimed that the more likes you get the more it degrades your photography. I think I understand what he is saying. There is one London based photographer who is very popular and produces extremely good images. He is instantly recognisable. His style never changes. Is he progressing as a photographer? Is he a slave to what his audience wants. How would they react if he produced something wildly different? Who knows because I have not seen him try.

Perhaps I am at the other extreme and nobody knows what to expect next so they can’t see a theme to follow. Many photography lovers will be familiar with the work of Fan Ho, who had something of a renaissance in popularity in the years leading up to his death 5 years ago. He continues to be widely admired. Rightly so. A new volume of his work was published this week and in it there is an essay on how his art evolved. It seems he was constantly changing his ideas and style. He describes what he was thinking and why his creativity moved forwards as it did. There seems to have been a great self awareness. And he never went online, never posted to FB, IG or Flickr…… He challenged conventions. He cropped aggressively at times and one of his most famous images was a) posed – his cousin was the model and b) manipulated in the darkroom where a critical shadow was added. Nothing is really new. He entered competitions and was always trying to keep up with the latest trends in photography especially when he went on to judge competitions himself. He judged himself not by getting 100 or 1,000 likes but by winning international awards. A slower, more thoughtful and meaningful process. Perhaps that is the lesson.

Shoot for yourself but know how you want to take your art. Don’t rush. Experiment and be different if you feel that is what you want. I don’t know what percentage of Fan Ho’s work was published and how many negatives never got beyond the contact sheet or negative. Digital makes it all so easy.

Only one image per post is my rule. This is a recent favourite. Taken in Central one evening. Simple, uncluttered and eye-catching. And it isn’t in my top selection.


Thanks for reading.

Exploring the Past

The old Central Market has been restored and reopened. I went there yesterday to see what photographic opportunities I could find. Heritage preservation / restoration is not one of the strong points here and the quote below is not atypical.

“An architectural gem has become a sterile cacophony of mostly unneeded shops.”

Some of Fan Ho’s most iconic photographs were taken here.

I went to see if I could find inspiration. I did a recce a few weeks ago and wasn’t sure the magic had been preserved. Set aside the trashy shops and the fact that the tribute to Fan Ho consists of just 3 photographs tucked away where few will find them, what I was after was light. Perhaps I need to try different times of the day but yesterday was disappointing. I found one spot where the harsh contrasts gave some pleasing opportunities but none of the soft rays bathing the main staircase. I think there may be a project here. However photography is about creating in the present not copying the past.

Walking through light 1
Central Market, November 6th 2021 © the photographer

I tried shooting the main staircases and my 35mm lens was probably about the right focal length although I think experimenting with a 24mm lens is worthwhile. Shooting across the staircase a 50mm lens would have been fine. There was just nothing to capture my attention. The image above was taken at the top not the bottom. The entrance from another walkway has people walking through regularly. Ideally what I look for is balance in the figures. Here I am trying to balance the figures and their shadows. It is not quite right but close and I like the pool of light at their feet. This is very 2021 as the only face-lit figure wears a mask that gives his shadow a simian appearance as does the exaggerated hunched appearance created by the angle.

For Fan Ho aficionados like me it is good to know that a new Fan Ho book is imminent. You can order from Blue Lotus Gallery here (I have no financial interest in the gallery!)

Later I found another spot where I think the light and shapes have potential. Called simply The Center this tall office building has some interesting geometry at the base and the shiny metals and glass create pools and ripples of light with hard shadows in sunlight. I sat down to rest here back from the hubbub of Queen’s Road Central. Only then did I see the potential. I think a 50mm lens would have been better but I do have some images taken with the 35mm on my Flickr page.

Every time I go out it is an exploration of light. No two trips are the same. This is the attraction of photography, whatever the genre.

The change

Today I tackled a short but demanding walk. Yesterday I did a longer but less strenuous hike. The seasons are changing. The temperature has fallen a mere 5 or 6 degrees at most but it feels so much better. Humidity is down and the breeze on the ridge of Siu Ma Shan was invigorating. It did not however help me keep the camera steady.

I promised myself I would pick just one image each time if I tried to blog regularly again. It makes me think about why I have selected a particular image. I don’t really know why but plants have never captivated me the way birds and insects have done. I think it is because I simply don’t know where to start. I have a good few reference books but when I open one I genuinely have no idea what to look for. I quickly find the photographs are not sufficiently detailed to key something out. I have tried a couple of plant ID apps and find them very inconsistent.

So why then I wonder did I select a plant today. The chosen one is the beautiful Bamboo Orchid, Arundina graminifolia. It is probably the commonest of the many HK orchids. Even so it is unwise to disclose too much location detail. Orchid hunters will come and dig them up with no hesitation. The clump I found today was a mere 5 or 6 flowers and they are probably passed by dozens if not hundreds of hikers each day. Most probably do not know they are orchids. They are a bit garish, dare I say. Eye-catching if not startling. Run of the mill scrubby hillside shocked by the colour burst. Shocking pink indeed.

Arundina graminifolia
Arundina graminifolia

I felt this might be my only reward for the hard climbs, up and down. The knees took some jarring and later I was happy to relax for an hour or two. Tomorrow I have a session with my personal trainer, who is trying to strengthen my back, improve my balance and enhance my very constrained flexibility. I hope the combination of fitness training and hiking will keep me active longer.

This photo is technically undemanding – little more than a point and shoot. I find it oddly satisfying and reassuring that the complexities of photography can be reduced to such a simple image. I also took half a dozen DNG/RAW files with my phone today. I still marvel that the camera in my phone can produce such flexible files and I can play with them on the phone for immediate posting if I wish. I am definitely subscribing to the phone as a sketchbook idea. The creative process is the end game not the technical data. The orchid is beauty in its simplest form and so it earns its place in my blog today.