An Out Of Body Experience
My friend Russ and I seated at Jardin De Jade in the 1933 Slaughterhouse, Shanghai. As we dined, I rested my camera on the table, pointed up and “guessed” the shot of the two amigos in the glass ceiling.
To be honest, every time I visit the old abattoir in Hongkou it feels like an out-of-body experience. In the mid-1930s, more pigs and cows met their fate in this huge, maze of a place than anywhere else in Asia. Today, where the animals once waited on death row there are boutiques, design houses, coffee shops, the Ferrari Owners Club, a Ducati bike restaurant and a desperately sad, over-the-top Russian eatery called Red Square.
This image is part of my ongoing series called “Night Visions” : monotone photographs (often hand-held) late at night on the streets of Shanghai’s northern district of Hongkou.
A sole light illuminates a derelict Shikumen lane. Most of these forgotten communities date back — at the very most — to the early 1900s, but at night they seem much older, almost medieval.
What the light does not show are the walls of the old American tobacco warehouse (now a ceramics factory) … the wooden buttresses holding up the crumbling brickwork of the stone-gate walls … the smell of oldness, mold, decay and piss ….
It is the lack of light that I find attractive … looking for the story, those small points of interest — vignettes — in the heart of darkness.
90mm tilt-shift lens, f/2.8 at ISO 6400.
Peace Of Mind
My Conflexions series of pictures continues — mirror images taken during or just after rainstorms. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but I love the impressionistic quality, the random liquid colours and shapes. Sometimes, the images are crystal clear, at other times … a bleeding storm of colour, light and shadow. There’s a purity to these images taken in water, which is often in stark contrast to the subjects being photographed. Nobody could ever say that Shanghai is a pure city (is any city, really?). One learns the hard way that the streets here are paved in lies, deceit and treachery. What appears on the surface to be magical, fresh and simple is often complex, rotten and fraught with danger …
For this reason, my Conflexions series is a liberating experience: I often get soaked taking them, my gear also gets drenched, but at the same time I find it a necessary thing — a form of Opus Dei self-flagellation that makes me feel good and hopeful about this most enigmatic of cities.
Also, the impermanence of water is a visual analogy of Shanghai itself … nothing here is permanent: buildings, people, relationships … Shanghai more than any other city I have ever visited is a place writ in water.
Are the images worth the effort? Artistically, perhaps not. Personally, absolutely.
This image, taken last night: the Swatch Art Peace Hotel — 90mm tilt-shift lens at f/2.8 and 3200 ISO.
There is a melancholy quality to many of the older streets in Shanghai, and this often only becomes apparent after dark. It’s not just the dilapidated buildings, grimy shop fronts, piss-yellow lighting and the blackness beyond; you can see it in the body language of the people — the hopeful smile and empty gaze.
Stories From Old Shanghai
Shanghai at 9pm yesterday evening. The coldest night of the year with temperatures plunging well below zero. Combine this with biting winds from Siberia and it’s easy to understand why I had the Bund and bridge to myself at this relatively early hour.
The building on the left is Shanghai Mansions. Art Deco. Circa 1935. There are so many anecdotal tales about this imposing, batlike structure; here are two of the less well known …
- In 1938, all fifty-eight licensed opium hongs in Shanghai had to pick up their opium requisitions from the Opium Suppression Bureau on the fifth floor of Broadway Mansions.
- French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson — father of modern photojournalism and co-founder of Magnum Photos — lived in Broadway Mansions for a year from the middle of 1949, covering the fall of the Nationalist government and the creation of the People’s Republic of China.
The bridge on the right is Waibaidu. Completed in 1907. Squat, grey and singularly unattractive yet strangely compelling (a bit like the city itself). As with Broadway Mansions, the bridge has many stories to tell. Here are two:
- The final (or lowest) stage for a courtesan in Shanghai in the 1930s was known as “walking the Garden Bridge”, which involved soliciting on the bridge.
- During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Red Guards renamed the bridge — giving it the highly original appellation of Anti-Imperialism Bridge.
Canon 17mm tilt-shift lens, tripod-mounted and set to Bulb: f/22, 45 seconds and ISO 50.
Ships In The Night
The Huangpu River at night, viewed from the northern end of the Bund. This image was taken well after “lights out” (between 10pm and 11pm) … when the kitsch levels come down a notch.
A single ship ploughs a furrow through the cold dark waters. I use my 90mm tilt-shift, employing full tilt and shift at f/2.8 at IS03200 — a handheld image — no easy thing in sub-zero temperatures without gloves. I focus on the moving ship. I want the remaining lights on the Bund and flags to be blurred — impressionstic shapes and vague colours. Darkness, light, darkness … and movement.
The Scarlet Dragon’s Lair
Beware, ye, of the dragon’s lair,
for ye are juicy medium rare.
Once or twice a year — on special occasions such as the Lunar New Year — the Oriental Pearl Tower (the symbol of modern Shanghai) is “painted” scarlet instead of with the usual multi-coloured fairy lights.
This photograph was taken yesterday evening, about three hours before the Year of the Dragon roared into life with fireworks, firecrackers, a few flakes of snow, and the coldest evening of the year to date.
Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens. Manual: f/11, 1 sec at ISO 800
I normally use a tripod for my night shots, but sometimes - just sometimes - I enjoy the freedom of a single lens and no gear-filled bag to weigh me down. The Canon 5Dii is hardly discreet and my night lens of choice is the 90mm tilt-shift. In other words, a brick with an old-fashioned manual lens. I’m not looking for crystal clarity or stock shots. This is personal, so I have no qualms about pushing the ISO up to 3200.
The result is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s raw and noisy. But then again, so are the streets of Shanghai, even at night.
Canon 90mm tilt-shift lens. Manual: f/2.8, 1/30 sec at ISO 3200.
The Wok Family
Tanggu Lu on a bitterly cold, rainswept night in Hongkou. It is only 8:30pm but the streets are already deserted, a combination of the inclement weather and rapid approach of Chinese New Year (meaning that many migrant workers have already departed the city to journey back to their respective home towns for the holiday).
Canon 90mm tilt-shift lens. Manual: f/2.8, 1/80 sec at ISO 2000.
Red Lantern Blues
During the day, Qipu Lu is a vibrant potpourri of stalls and shops. It is alive with people … steaming food stalls, hawkers and street vendors, cars, bikes, trolleys, carts … tourists and locals. It can at times be busier than the streets around Yu Yuan. At night, however, when the shops close and the bargain hunters return home with their plunder, the area transforms into something that is almost the complete opposite: sad, desolate, dark and peope-less …
This image was taken last night standing on a bridge over Sichuan Lu looking back onto Qipu Lu. It was cold and raining heavily. A few stragglers rushed home beneath the scarlet of Chinese New Year lanterns.
Canon 90mm tilt shift lens. Manual: f2.8, 1/6 sec at ISO 3200. The Canon 5Dii handles noise very well even at ISO 3200, but I still had to run the image through my favourite noise-reduction software before proceeding further.
Heart Of Darkness
It’s a strange thing: Shanghai on dark and moonless nights — when the only illumination comes from anemic street lights — can be a claustrophobic place. This lonely food stall at 1am in Hongkou is a perfect example. There is definitely something claustrophobic about the night … enhanced by a single lighted window, the wet tracks on the road, the row of lights, vague shapes and shadows. Not an unpleasant sensation, I tried to capture it here by using a wide-angle lens and employing both tilt and shift.
Canon 17mm tilt-shift lens. Manual at f/4, 1/6 sec at ISO 400.
A LIght In The Dark
A firework illuminates the uninhabited remains of a soon-to-be-demolished Shikumen in northern Shanghai. This old lane is almost completely dark, but the brief introduction of pyrotechnics (not by me) gave me enough light to focus and shoot.
Canon 17mm tilt-shift lens. Despite the firecracker, I had to shoot at ISO 3200, f/4 to obtain 1/40 sec.