November 25th, 2010

How a Roast Duck Sees Chinatown

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Food by Christopher DeWolf

Melbourne’s Chinatown as shot with a camera made from a duck

Earlier this week, I paid a visit to Martin Cheung‘s studio in the Cattle Depot Artists’ Village in To Kwa Wan. I was there to speak to him about his work with pinhole photography, a medium that uses crude, handmade cameras to record images that often look as rough as the devices that made them.

We spoke for awhile about Cheung’s fascination with pinhole photography. It’s meditative and not as aggressive as conventional photography, he told me, and it forces you to consider the process of taking a photo rather than the result. He showed me how to make a simple pinhole camera with paper and tape. Then the conversation turned to ducks.

Cheung studied art in Melbourne, where he also worked in a Chinese restaurant as a waiter and kitchenhand. Nine years ago, in his final year of study, Cheung had a thought: “Roast duck is such a symbol of Chinese cooking, so I wanted to see how the duck saw Chinatown.” So he bought a roast duck and turned it into a pinhole camera.

The first two attempts didn’t amount to much; the duck’s oil and bones ruined the film. But after a bit of experimentation — putting the duck in the fridge before shooting made the oil less drippy — Cheung finally got the result he wanted: a duck’s eye view of Melbourne’s Chinatown gate. (Or to be precise, a duck’s belly view, since the hole was in the stomach.)

Cheung has been dabbling with the “duck cam” ever since. The things that make it so difficult to work with — the oil, the bones, the variable skin colour and texture — are also its strength, giving the photos it produces an unpredictability that even the most hastily-made paper camera can’t replicate. There’s something visceral about the images made with the duck cam, as if the photos are being digested.

Most recently, Cheung went to Guangzhou, near Bruce Lee’s ancestral village, bought a roast duck and used it to take a photo of the Lee statue on Hong Kong’s waterfront, a popular subject for tourist snapshots. That performance alone would satisfy some artists, but Cheung admitted to me that he still hasn’t been able to figure out the duck cam’s meaning as art.

“It’s funny, but artistically, I don’t have enough content,” he said. “It would be more meaningful if I could buy a live duck, roast it myself and make everything from scratch. I’ve been to cooking classes but I haven’t got the right technique for making a good roast duck.”

Step one: buy a duck

Step two: take photo with duck

The result: Bruce Lee as seen by a duck from his ancestral home

Lest you dismiss Martin Cheung as a circus act, let me remind you that he has a serious body of work beyond the duck cam. I’m particularly fond of his recent series of pinhole photos of women next to windows.


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2 comments

  1. Sue Anne says:

    I would be most interested in a close up of this incredible contraption. Amazing that one can come up with that and figure out the the dynamics and technicalities (oil, fat etc) of it. I like that Martin’s motivation for this project, to focus on “the process of taking a photo rather than the result” – all photographers need to slow down and recharge once in a while.

    November 26th, 2010 at 1:10 am

  2. Christopher DeWolf says:

    Here’s a series of photos that documents exactly how Cheung made his first duck cam in 2001.

    And here’s another compilation that depicts the creation of the Bruce Lee duck cam. Full version here.

    November 26th, 2010 at 1:43 am

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