Walking in a Winter Wonderland

Christmas Eve. I have been to the gym and now I want to go out and photograph Christmas as I find it in the local streets.

I am back.

How was it?

Well to be honest a bit of a disappointment.

Why is that?

Well I couldn’t find it.

Find what?


If I were to venture into the bright lights of Causeway Bay, Central, or heaven forfend Tsim Sha Tsui (The Dark Side), I would find Christmas. But they are at least 15 minutes away on the MTR. They are the temples to capitalism, where taking money from the rich to give to other rich people is what redistribution of wealth really means. This is the true meaning of Christmas in HK. Since we moved to be closer to the grandchildren we have deserted the bright lights and gone local. This is an area where foreign devils are not welcome and English is not widely spoken. Not unlike Liverpool, I suppose. The walk covered three districts and took me barely an hour. I walked the main street and lots of side streets in search of Christmas. I must admit I have never really noticed before but today I was looking and not finding.

Eventually I found a man wearing a Santa Claus hat. I took his photo. He saw me and I called across to him: I’m looking for Christmas. He laughed. Not around here he said. They are all boring. He was outside an Indian restaurant and turned out to be the owner. He is Sri Lankan by birth but has been in HK 50 years. I’m 74 he said. I have two restaurants and my family will carry on after me. His staff are Nepali. An Indian restaurant run by Sri Lankans and Nepalis. We chatted for ages and I promised I will go and eat there soon.

After that I found a rather sad plastic Christmas tree for sale outside a hardware store, some baubles on a cafe door and a few stickers including two large Nutcracker figures. And buried inside the local market was some tinsel. Strands strewn across the ceiling.The entire concession to Christmas in the market. Nobody took any notice. I suspect they were antique and possibly subject to a heritage preservation order. As I photographed the baubles the cafe owner came out and peered at me. She saw that I was a foreign devil, rolled her eyes and went back in. The security woman in the market ignored me. The hardware store will probably be trying to sell the small plastic tree again next year. I doubt if there will be a rush even if it goes on sale.

Now I think about it I also missed hearing Christmas music. No carols, no Slade or Wizard, no Oratorios, not even Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas. As I look out of my study window the sky is red and grey. Visibility is very poor and I suspect Santa’s sleigh will miss us again this year. Couldn’t find you for the smog, he’ll say later. Or perhaps the reindeer have been slaughtered, Rudolph’s gralloch smeared across the Lapland ice. Well I couldn’t get to the supermarket, said Santa. A man has to eat and I have 500 elves to feed. Christmas cancelled. No turkey this year, just venison. My suggestion, Santa, for what it is worth, is to nip round to the Ashoka Indian Restaurant on Shau Kei Wan Road. I know a man with a hat just like yours. Spare the reindeer, cheer up the locals and give them a hearty Ho Ho Ho. Show them the joy of Christmas. But don’t be surprised if they aren’t impressed. Now what is the Cantonese for Bah, humbug?

Christmas hat

My OS needs an upgrade

I seem to spend most of my life these days gambling. That is how it feels when I upgrade the software on my phone or watch. It feels much worse when I have to upgrade the OS on my laptops. If my phone upgrade fails it is fully recoverable from the cloud. Ditto the watch. I think so anyway. The laptops are a different kettle of fish. I have two. One is 7 years old and the other barely a toddler of two. I used to use something called Time Machine to back them up regularly but I have so many external hard drives now I haven’t plugged in the back up drive for yonks. Last weekend though I started to get threatening messages warning me things wouldn’t work if I didn’t upgrade. In such dire circumstances the first recourse is always to find a child. The child in question was 38 but she assured me it was a painless experience. Took me ten minutes, she asserted.
At about 4.30pm on Saturday I pressed the button to start the upgrade. It downloaded in about 18m. Ready to install, it announced. And then it did nothing. I waited. And waited. Nothing happened. Eventually as there was no child available I called Apple Care. A very helpful chap called Julius asked me the first question: have you backed everything up? Well, I said, maybe. Some of it yes, some of it possibly not. Or rather, to be precise, no. I presume the sound at the other end was the pre-scripted Apple reaction for ‘another idiot’ – ok, let’s not panic he said. That gave me immense comfort.
Let’s put you into safe mode he said. That didn’t sound attractive. He asked if we could screen share and I said yes but then we had to shut down and I was flying solo. Do you think, he asked with a warranted degree of skepticism, you could press the SHIFT key and the ‘on’ button at the same time? I was up for this and said I jolly well thought I could. Much to my amazement and probably Julius’ complete disbelief, I managed to do it and from then on the upgrade proceeded painlessly. I am now on Monterey. I will need some considerable time before I risk doing the older laptop but that isn’t important – it only has work related stuff on it.
I confidently skipped all the ‘what’s new’ junk and ploughed ahead. Until today it went smoothly. I was shooting some high ISO photos and wanted to run them through the de-noise software I have. It didn’t work. Each time I launched it it shut down. I tried all sorts of things and each time it thumbed its nose at me, farted in my general direction and shut down again. I have been toying for a while with the idea of buying the super-duper Artificially Intelligent DxO software but the cost put me off. Almost any cost puts me off. I am pathologically against any form of unnecessary expenditure. The biggest scam yet perpetrated on a highly suspecting world is the idea of Software as a Service where we have to hand over monthly or annual payments to keep what we already have just in case they decide to upgrade the software. Perpetual licences are out, licensed bandits are in.
Happily the DxO software is available for a free trial and I am about 3 hours in. It most certainly seems to do a good job. But yikes, yarroo and shiver me timbers, the file sizes! My old files were about 55mb and the DxO processed DNG files are about 3-4x that size. My 5TB external HD is going to fill up very quickly. So if anybody has a better suggestion for first rate (cheapish) de-noise software please leave a comment.
Today is the Winter Solstice and the family will gather this evening to celebrate. Assuming we all survive, tomorrow I shall be back in the gym being knocked into shape by my trainer, Miss Whiplash. I’m convinced she has a dungeon somewhere and if I can’t do my push-ups I will be thrown in chains until I cheer up.
Now I need a photo to go with this so I thought I would kill one bird with two stones. Technology and software.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron trying to listen to the radio
Black-crowned Night Heron trying to upgrade his operating software

This is of course a juvenile so should be perfectly at ease with technology. Me, I’m off to renew my Apple Care contract.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Like many photographers I admire and revere Henri Cartier-Bresson. My father introduced me to his work 50+ years ago. I have quite a few books of his photographs.

He was quite shy and protected his anonymity closely. He gave few interviews. Recently however I came across a small book of conversations and interviews he gave. I read the whole book in an afternoon and thought it shed quite a lot of light on him as a man. So immediately I decided to go back and reread, this time taking notes to see what I could distill from the texts. These conversations took place over many years but it is clear that HCB did not change his philosophy much if at all. Here then are my notes.

HCB is constantly immersed in life. For him the point of photography seemed to end when he pressed the shutter. He says that it’s looking that is important not photography. The thing that moves me, excites me is looking at life. I live from day to day. For me only one thing counts – it is the instant and the eternity. Everything I have to say is in my photos. He says: I don’t think about photography I think about life, about form, what interests me , what shocks me. And: My photographs are there. I have nothing to say. The picture projects the photographer’s personality. Photography is a way of living more intensively. Intensity of life is important.

For him the most important subject is man and his life – so brief, so frail, so threatened. And yet there is something revolting about photographing people – requires sensitivity – respect it if people don’t want to be photographed.

His views on the process of taking a picture are probably well recognised. He felt that the difference between a good picture and a mediocre picture is millimeters. In a good picture there is nothing you can crop. Everything is in its place. Composition, geometry, organization and the greatest joy for me is geometry which means structure. Perhaps less well accepted today is his view that it’s form that is primary, not light. He sees the camera as a visual extension of the eye. If my visual appetite isn’t stimulated I don’t lift the camera to my eye. He stated that he photographed instinctively, didn’t shoot with a purpose but with intuition. Permanent tension is the only way to grip reality. ‘To capture life itself’. Evoke not document. Yet he states that photography is not essential to me. It is a way of questioning the world and questioning yourself but photography is not work. He describes it as being fraught with tension.

He noted that photography was his way of keeping a diary; The camera is a sketchbook, nothing more. He added: My contact sheets are my memory, my intimate diary.A contact sheet shows how a photographer thinks – tiny changes until the picture is right.

He denies much of the creativity we seek today, our Holy Grail. I do not believe in inspiration – you have to work, work. I never think, I act, I shoot. Seize the objective chance. And he added that photography does not want to say anything. You have to look and learning to look requires an enormous amount of time. He maintained you either have a gift or you don’t.

This strikes me as a fascinating juxtaposition of the clinical and the creative, joined in the instant of taking the picture. He was adamant that the picture should stand alone. He said I use no flash – it has to be be authentic. He didn’t use a light meter or filters – I know the light. He claimed never to pose a subject and only to press the shutter when the character surged forth. He was not interested in creating an effect. He was just a witness. Photography is made here and now. You have no right to manipulate or cheat. A photograph can only be corrected by making the next one if reality allows it

He had a cultured upbringing. Literature and paintings led to photography. He always maintained that you must nourish your mind with music, art, painting. You need a desire to enrich your mind and to live.

He talks a little about his technical approach. He typically shot at 1/100th and F8-F11; distance set to 10′ / 3m. And on the much debated topic of street photography he comments: Street photography is a joy. The portrait is the most difficult. Most interviews eventually ask about the decisive moment. He explains consistently that The Decisive Moment – Images à la sauvette is a quote from Cardinal de Retz – used by his publisher – not his term. He simply used it as an inscription in the French edition of his book and it was then used as the title. It never went away.

He also, in an echo of today, bemoans absurd laws such as having to ask permission to take a photograph. It is becoming very difficult to take pictures, he says. He also claims to have no interest in changing the equipment he uses. I have had the same camera for years – I am a very bad customer. I have one camera, one lens. It’s intensity that counts (economy of means in order to get the maximum). He famously used his Leica and a 50mm lens although he mentions other lenses too at times. What was photography to him? Photography is not propaganda it is a way of shouting how you feel. Cynicism kills everything. Photography is a means of visual expression but is it an art? What is an artist? Do not try to prove anything at all.

It is clear as the later interviews reveal that he was not comfortable with the way the world was heading. As early as 1974 he refers to a world that is heading toward nothingness.

By 1979 he talks of A world of greater and greater tensions, where the individual counts less and less. To me it seems a suicidal world. There are other possible worlds but how do we turn around? This is an absurd world.

In 1986 he seems almost disenchanted with photography – he had returned to drawing as his creative outlet. The idolization of photography, the acceleration in speed seem to me like a headlong rush that creates more and more disparities, he states.

In 1989 he is even more clear: For me, the great changes go back to 1955….. It is the victory of consumer society and all the consequences of this exponential world, where the planet is plundered. …. this technological world, for me, is a doomed world, doomed by itself; it is a suicidal world.
At the end HCB describes and identifies himself as a libertarian, [I am against all forms of power] yet he was once a communist. He was also deeply impacted by his 3 years as a PoW. He is consistent in his views on religion too: I never had faith. God is an invention of Man. The closest he came to a belief system was Buddhism. At one point he says The only real answer is death (1979). He died on August 3rd 2004, just short of his 96th birthday.

What do I think having completed my exercise in note taking? He loved being private, almost anonymous and felt it added to his ability to blend in when making photos. Perhaps too he felt out of touch with the way the world was changing and in some ways his views seem remarkably prescient. What I wonder would he have made of social media. For him the act of taking the photograph was the end point. He says he didn’t see some of his work for 3 years when he was travelling and sending film back to the office. Who today could live with that? He was often asked how many good images he expected from a roll of film or per day. He had no answer. He simply related back to the quality of what he saw. To make a ‘keeper’ he had to find the right subject matter. He sometimes carried 2 cameras each loaded with 36 exposure rolls of film so he could shoot 72 frames without worrying about changing. How many RAW frames can you get on a 128GB card?

How would he view the street photography of today? He praised form over light. What would he have made of the tsunami of chiaroscuro images that we see? He didn’t reject colour but he felt black and white gave him more control. Colour film was perhaps insufficiently well advanced to meet his requirements for faithful rendition. How many photographers today truly claim that they have nothing to say, the photos speak alone.

He rejected any form of manipulation – no cropping, and for the digital age no composites or doctored photos – perhaps he allowed his printers some dodging and burning but essentially he was the ultimate perfectionist. Would he have changed his views as technology advanced? I recall a wonderful promotional video from Canon when somebody gave Don McCullin a digital camera for the first time. He was almost afraid of it. Yet within a very short time he seemed completely at ease with it and loved what it could do for him. Would HCB have felt the same?

He lists in one interview his favourite composers, authors and painters. It is clear he felt the world was losing an appreciation of the cultural grounding he valued. Did this contribute to his wonderful images or was he as he suggested simply gifted and worked hard to make the most of his gift. He was scathing about photography schools! His passion was to capture life itself and that he did. He was a complex character and I struggle to think of anybody similar in contemporary photography. On one thing he was quite right for sure: This is an absurd world.

I post one image with each blog entry and it seems fair that this one should be black and white and uncropped. So here it is, from Lahore to pay some small homage to HCB’s love of the East.

Badshahi Mosque rework