Old France, Vientiane, Laos, 2005
France ruled Laos, along with Vietnam and Cambodia, from the 19th Century until the middle of the 20th Century. Only fragments of decaying French colonial architecture remain in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. This is one of them – a decaying house near the city center that is still inhabited. It was falling apart, covered with ugly electrical wires, and virtually walled off from public view by high fences and trees. It was unreachable. Which gave me the idea for this image. I abstracted the house as a series of fragments, partially hidden from view by bushes and trees. The warm glow of late afternoon light beckons, but the tangle of vegetation keeps us away. It sets up a tension, which goes well with the theme of decay, the long decline from grandeur.
Opium Museum, Chiang Rai, Thailand, 2005
The Golden Triangle embraces parts of Burma, Thailand, and Laos that line the Mekong River valley. For centuries, it has grown poppies and traded in opium and later heroin. As an educational venture, Thailand has built a spectacular museum documenting the history of this sordid story. I was not allowed to make any photographs inside. While the building itself was well designed, its architecture and setting were not particularly unique, so there was little reason for me to photograph it on its own merits. I did make one expressive photograph that afternoon, however, just before we left Thailand for Laos. I positioned myself at the end of the museum’s long outdoor walkway, framed by columns, and plants. I did so because of the warm light, and the striking shadows thrown on the end wall by a perforated overhang. I waited for a person to come out, and wanted that person to be anonymous, walking away from us rather than towards us. I wanted that person to be small, to create scale incongruity. The Thai authorities had prevented me from commenting visually on any aspect of the drug problem this building was built to explain. But they could not prevent me from making this shot, which comments on the nature man’s relationship to institutions. A young woman came out the door and began walking rapidly away from me. I felt as if she was somehow trying to escape from the overwhelming institution that surrounds her. This is a building picture on one level, and social comment on another.
Teak Fantasy, Bagan, Myanmar, 2005
Very few wooden buildings survive from the days of ancient Bagan. One that does, however, is a monastery constructed entirely of teak. Its facade is covered with intricate carvings, a fantasy in ancient wood. When I stood back and tried to photograph the whole incredible façade, all I had was an image describing what the building looked like – a literal post-card type picture. The closer I came, the more I saw of the fantasy the artisans brought to this structure hundreds of years ago. I finally decided to concentrate on a single sculptured figure. It stood at the very center of the façade, and was surrounded by pointed projections that resembled tongues of fire. I was able to position the figure within the deeply shadowed black diamond-shaped area. Otherwise foreground-background mergers could easily have destroyed the coherence of this image. By stressing only the single figure, I am able to abstract the building, give it character and express the skill and creativity that went into it.
Starting Over, Bridgeport, California, 2004
This home on Bridgeport’s Main Street is under renovation. I talked with the man doing the work. He told me that this is the original wall of the house, stripped down to what it had looked like when it was built over 130 years ago. He said he had removed eight coats of paint applied during the 19th and 20th centuries. He was about to begin applying its first 21st century coat. Why should I bother shooting it? What could this building mean to me, or to you? I see a story worth telling here. My photograph of it works as expressive photography because it is abstract, showing only a small portion of the house and suggesting the rest; it is incongruous, because of its temporarily distressed appearance; and it is rich in human values, suggesting the longevity of a house much older than anyone who has ever lived in it. It is this last aspect that I stress here by juxtaposing the colorful living leaves with the bare wall and that black, empty window, just waiting to come back to life again. It is if these symbolic life forces are clamoring to take over this house, and somehow restore it to its former glory. A final touch: the woman who has purchased this house and is ordering its renovation is a descendant of the family that originally built. It’s in good hands.
Old Barn, near Wellington, Nevada, 2004
Caved in roof and all, this old Sierra stone barn speaks of a time long past. I photographed it in a fierce wind, which churns the autumn sage into frenzy at my feet. Instead of shooting the barn and using its environment as context, I shoot its overwhelming environment, and use the barn as context. Without the brilliant colors and and flying branches of the heather threatening to engulf it, this picture would be little more than literal description. I am expressing the longevity of this barn by stressing its colorful setting. It is wild, grasping, and virtually all consuming. Yet somehow the barn has outlasted all attempts to obliterate it. Damaged as it may be, it still endures.
The Abbey, Mont St. Michel, France, 2004
Crowned by its medieval abbey, Mont St. Michel rises from a small, quasi-island, separated by one kilometer of waves from the mainland at high tide. A village, established in the Middle Ages, grew up below its fortified walls. Its ramparts and location repelled all assaults and the Mount became a symbol of French national identity.
I had to struggle to make an expressive interpretation of Mont St. Michel, because every shot I made of it looked just like a perfect post card. There is nothing wrong, of course, with a post card picture, but that is not what I try to make. (If I wanted post cards, I would buy them.) In fact, an earlier version of this image was just such a post card. It was well composed, well exposed, and showed viewers exactly what this famous historical landmark looked like. It was identical to this image in every respect but one – it did not have a tiny cloud hovering just behind the Abbey’s soaring steeple. That tiny cloud makes all the difference between a literal picture and an expressive picture. One small cloud in a vast blue sky is a scale incongruity. And to have it float directly behind the steeple atop the spiritual heart of France, is another incongruity. Not to mention a powerful symbol. Somebody up there must be watching over the Abbey today. Providing a bit of additional context for what I consider to be almost a supernatural moment, is the almost completely shadowed house on the left playing against the old stone wall on the right. The more I look into the blackness, and think of its symbolic meaning, the more I think of all of those dead souls who once lived in this haunting village. What had been a literal, descriptive post-card picture, now expresses an idea, and I believe expresses it well.
The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain, 2004
The Guggenheim, Frank Gehry’s architectural masterwork, has been likened to a beached ship or a gigantic flower. I photographed it from across the Nervion River on an overcast afternoon, when it looked more like a medieval castle wearing 21st century armor. I have seen many photographs of this building but never one like this. Why? Because most photographers prefer to shoot buildings in just after dawn or at dusk, when the light is warm and textures show brilliantly. Or else at night, when light abstracts and color astounds. But I was not given any choice in the matter. When to shoot the Guggenheim was out of my control, because I was on a tour that spent only a few hours there. As the fates would have it, the skies were leaden. As any travel photographer on a tour can tell you, you play the hand that you’ve been dealt, and try to get the most out of it. I immediately realized that context would have to replace beauty as my point. So I hiked across a bridge and took a position opposite the museum, using the shimmering Nervion River as reflective base for my image. I then noticed that although the skies over Bilbao were dark, there were still clouds at work in the sky. So I waited for a dark cloud to approach the amazing curved titanium panels that Gehry uses to cover the building. When it got close enough to echo the thrust of Ghery’s panels, I made this photograph.
I used my spot meter to expose for light playing the towering central panel – the only one panel that seems to picking up a reflection at this time of day. (You can see another, much closer image of this central panel in my Gallery Two on Incongruity). My shot gives the building its brooding, medieval look by abstracting most of its detail except for that panel, and stressing its shape instead. A close study also reveals tiny people walking past the museum on the other side of the river, adding scale incongruity and showing just how big this museum building really is. (The neighboring building and arch at the right are not part of the Guggenheim, but they are exhibition halls. You can view the striking reflective surface of one in my Gallery 12 on Color.) This picture of the Guggenheim Museum would not make a pretty postcard image because its dark, coppery colors defy viewer’s expectations. I don’t think the museum would want to use it in its promotion, either, because overcast days don’t really show off the reflective qualities of Gehry’s panels. (See my discussion of that in my Gallery One on Abstraction.) Yet I feel that this image does tell a story. It becomes an abstraction that excites the imagination, making us think of other things and allowing the viewer to fill in his or her own details. It speaks of its huge scale, and makes a visual reference to Spain’s own historical context -- its massive ancient castles and fortresses standing guard across great moats. This picture defies convention and takes a few chances, a fitting match for Gehry’s daring, controversial architecture. What does my picture say about this building to you? Please leave your own comments, questions, and suggestions below so I can respond and we can all learn more from them. Thanks.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China, 2004
I rarely will make a picture of a building by just putting it into my frame and squeezing the shutter button. The result would be literal description – what I call a “postcard” shot. If I wanted postcard pictures, I would buy postcards wherever I go and leave my camera at home. But for me, photography is an adventure in story telling. A postcard view is unacceptable. I must somehow alter or change the building’s appearance to make a point or express an idea capturing what I consider to be the essence of the structure. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the most familiar building in Beijing’s Temple of Heaven complex. Originally built more than 700 years ago during the Ming Dynasty, the 130 foot high, three-level wood structure was constructed without a single nail. Rebuilt in 1890, its central tower – a pagoda made up of three circular stories -- is its identifying feature. I emphasize that feature by stressing form over detail. Although I made this photograph in the middle of the afternoon, I give it a dawn or dusk effect by deliberately underexposing it. To do this, I trained my spot meter on the sun itself, which floats behind a layer of Beijing summer haze and pollution. The sun plays a major role in ancient Chinese theology – the emperor came here every year at the winter solstice to thank the gods for the last harvest. By exposing for the sun, I emphasize it, making the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests very dark, and challenging the imaginations of my viewers to fill in the details for themselves. (I take no credit for the tiny bird flying between the first and second story – it just happened to be passing at the moment of exposure.) This ancient structure becomes far more mysterious as a photograph than it actually looks. You can almost hear those imperial prayers to the sun coming from within.
Fogbound Forbidden City, Beijing, China, 2004
The key to taking pictures of buildings and structures is simplification. I try to find a single important aspect of a building and somehow emphasize it photographically. The most important complex of historical buildings in China, the Forbidden City is a walled collection of gates, palaces and gardens that covers 180 acres of space. Twenty-four Chinese emperors and their retinues of maids, eunuchs and concubines roamed its 10,000 rooms between 1421 and 1911. It is impossible to tell the whole story in one picture – there simply is too much to say about such a stupendous historical, architectural, and artistic site as this. For this image, I concentrated on a single, simple idea – scale. The Forbidden City is big, and I wanted to embrace it all yet still not show it all. I had to find a way to grasp it, yet abstract it, implying its scale but not describing it. I visited the Forbidden City twice. On my first visit, with an organized tour, I explored the inside – hall-by-hall, object-by-object. On my second visit, I returned by myself, but never went inside. Instead, I climbed Coal Hill, which stands just behind the Forbidden City within Jingshan Park, by far the best spot to appreciate the sheer scale of the palace complex. Nature had stepped in by adding fog to abstract the scene, allowing me to photographically imply, rather than actually describe, the nature of the Forbidden City. The complex is designed as a linear series of huge gates, courtyards, halls and palaces. Using a 245mm telephoto conversion lens on my digital camera, I was able to flatten perspective, zoom over the trees in the foreground, and pull the great structures closer together as they recede into the fog. The closer you look at this photo, the more you’ll see. The fog simplifies the image, yet there is still fascinating detail visible. Note the tiny figures entering the gate at the bottom – they tell us how large the structure is. A small bird wheels in the sky overhead – capturing it was not a matter of luck. Digital imaging is free – there were many birds flying about, and I shot this scene twenty or thirty times until I was able to place one in the right spot.
Forbidden City moat, Beijing, China, 2004
I often seek the essence of a building by shooting something else, using the building itself as context rather than subject matter. I do this here to comment on how China’s emperors protected themselves within a walled city for nearly 500 years. They built a 30-foot high wall around their palace complex, and then surrounded it with a 160-foot wide moat. The moat is my subject, not the Forbidden City. Instead of just shooting the moat from anywhere, I walked to a corner, and created a frame within my camera’s frame out of the walls of the moat as they came together. My 24mm wideangle converter lens exaggerates thrust of these walls, making the moat look even wider than it really is. The wideangle perspective reduces the size of the tower at the corner of the walled city, emphasizing the width of the moat and the thickness of its walls. The foggy weather creates an ethereal atmosphere, a perfect context for the shimmering reflection of the Forbidden City adrift in the waters of the moat.
Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Xian, China, 2004
This historic pagoda was built during the Tang Dynasty in 652 as part of a Buddhist temple complex. It was among the tallest structures in Xian, at the time the largest city in the world. To move beyond a postcard view, I walked through the surrounding neighborhood until I found these life-sized Tang Dynasty wrestlers made of bronze. They bring the dynamic flavor of the time to the scene, while the tower itself acts as context. Using the wideangle end of my zoom lens, I moved in on the figures until they dominated the frame, and filled in with the pagoda and is surrounding structures as background. Without the incongruity of those 1300-year-old wrestlers at work, this picture would be only a literal description of a building.
Hall of the People, Chongqing, China, 2004
A staggering thirty million people live with the jurisdiction of Chongqing, making it the largest municipality on earth. Yet I chose to use only one of its residents in this image. He has deliberately placed himself in the middle of a huge staircase, before one of the city’s largest and grandest buildings, its Hall of the People. He seems to be eating something, and has a bag at his side. I arranged this picture very formally as a study in scale incongruity. This lone figure, dwarfed by the grandiose structure, certainly tells a story. Perhaps I should have titled the picture “Hall of the Person.” A few moments after I made this shot, the local police asked him to depart. Apparently they took a dim view of his use of the facility.