February 12th, 2014

The Seedy and the Debased


The week I moved to Hong Kong, I went to the Peak. It’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re a first-time visitor or recent arrival to the city: take the tram, bus or (if you’re a little more savvy) minibus up to the cluster of shopping malls that has risen from what was once a retreat for British colonials yearning for the mists and cool winds of home. The view from the Peak is exactly what you expect it to be, because it’s the view that has become the photographic flag-bearer for Hong Kong: a porcupine’s back of skyscrapers riven by the churning waters of Victoria Harbour, mountains rising and falling in all directions. It’s the scene that accompanies news reports on Hong Kong’s stock market, or the latest worries about swine flu. On particularly smoggy days an obscured version of the view is used to bemoan Hong Kong’s chronic air pollution.

It was not smoggy when I visited the Peak. In fact, it was one of those brilliant late-August days when an ocean breeze clears the sky. It would have been possible to see all the way to China, if it weren’t for the mountains on the horizon; in Hong Kong, views are never limitless. As the sun slipped below the horizon, the city lights flickered to life and the harbour glowed turquoise, its surface criss-crossed by barges and ferries that looked from the Peak’s elevation like so many toys. From below, you can always spot the Peak lookout because it seems to sparkle – the result of hundreds of camera flashes igniting at any given time.

As tourists gathered around, cameras chirping and flashing, I turned and walked to a less popular lookout, this one facing west, where the green hills of the Pok Fu Lam Country Park roll towards the East Lamma Channel. That was where I encountered another set of photographers, only this time they weren’t interested in the view – they were taking photos of two young women, one dressed in a short black shirt and low-cut teal top, blonde hair extensions forming curls around her cleavage; the other was dressed like a schoolboy, with an electric blue wig matching the lapels on her uniform. They pranced around the lookout, the blonde girl caressing the blue-haired one, who played indifferent to her advances. The whole performance was being documented by a half-dozen men dressed in jeans and t-shirts, their hands clutching professional-grade Nikons mounted with flashes and reflectors.


December 18th, 2013

The Last Days of 5 Pointz

5 ptz, Long Island City, New York, 2013.

Even if you don’t follow street art or hip hop, you might have heard the news: 5 Pointz is dead. Technically, the old warehouse in Long Island City is still standing — though it is slated for redevelopment — but its essence as an art space was stripped away in the early hours of November 19, when 20 years worth of graffiti was covered with white paint. Since 1993, 5 Pointz has been a mecca for artists and graffiti writers from around the world. Inside, 200 artists worked in subsidized studios, while the exterior of the building became an enormous canvas for just about every kind of street art you can imagine, from throw ups to paste ups to elaborate murals.

The building was sold to property developer David Wolkoff, and in August, the New York City Planning Commission approved its demolition. Though the new development will include low-cost housing and a “curated” space for graffiti — along with 1,000 condominiums — the 5 Pointz community has been vigorously fighting against it. The whitewashing was the developer’s attempt to make a point: we own this space now, not you, so fuck off. When I first heard what had happened, I was reminded of the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, and while that might seem like an extreme comparison, the two actions come from the same wellspring of contempt for cultural difference.

Not long after the whitewashing, I was emailed by Eric Lau, a New York-based designer and photographer. He wanted to share with me some photos he had taken at the last hip hop battle that occurred at 5 Pointz. The photos were taken on black and white film. Here’s a lightly edited version of what he told me about his experience.


November 21st, 2012

The Road to Shangri-La

Pilgrims en route to Lhasa

It takes a lot of work to capture a good photo. Last month, Michael Yamashita was sitting in a Hong Kong bookstore, clicking through slides of pictures from his new book, Shangri-La: Along the Tea Road to Lhasa, a five-year project that documents the incomparable beauty and changing face of Tibet.

He arrived at a photo of several young men dressed in leather aprons, heavy mittens, plastic covers on their shoes, making their way down an empty road high on the Tibetan plateau. One of them was lying prostrate on the ground, another rising to his feet, others walking forward. They were pilgrims making an arduous month-long journey to Lhasa.

“To get this frame that’s perfect, with one guy on the ground, another rising, other standing, I must have had to walk half a mile backward,” said Yamashita. “And it was raining.”

Later, I asked him how far he has gone to get a single shot. “I wouldn’t risk my life, but it’s all about getting the picture,” he said. “You’ll do what you have to do.”

Yamashita is no stranger to legwork. In 30 years of taking photos for National Geographic, the American-born photographer has retraced the footsteps of Marco Polo, Ming Dynasty explorer Zheng He and the Japanese poet Basho. His travels have taken him to nearly every corner of Asia; his photos have spanned the gulf from film to digital.

Now he is one of the last remaining photojournalists from an era when photographers commanded big budgets for ambitious assignments. “I’m the last of a breed,” he says.


October 28th, 2011

Visualizing Globalization 2.0

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, United States by Christopher Szabla

Top: Istanbul airlifted to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro;
Bottom: São Paulo set in Cappadocia

Imagine this: you’re walking down a side street in Midtown Manhattan and turn onto Fifth Avenue, facing uptown. But there, instead of the void of sky that usually greets the vista north toward Central Park, a massive mountain blocks the view, crowned with an uncharacteristic religious symbol. Then it strikes you: you’ve seen this rocky mass before. It looks every bit like Rio de Janeiro’s Corcorvado peak, topped with its famous statue of Christ the Redeemer. And that’s because it is Rio’s Corcorvado mountain — moved right into the heart of New York.

Welcome to the world of Ciro Miguel. The São Paulo architect spends his spare time dreaming up landscapes in which familiar urban landmarks from around the world collide. The images he’s kitbashed together are his own; most involve elements from his home country, Brazil, or New York, where he was a graduate student. Others encompass his world travels. It’s in the way Miguel’s collages represent the places and ways many travel now, in fact — reflecting trends in trade and politics driven by globalization — that they can be seen as more than mere dreamscapes, representing connections and evoking experiences that have become very real.


April 18th, 2011

Europe Through the Eyes of Others

Posted in Europe by Daniel Corbeil





November 29th, 2010

Ghosts of Occupied Amsterdam

Posted in Art and Design, Europe, History by Christopher Szabla

Amsterdam civilians were machine-gunned by soon-to-be-retreating German soldiers when they formed a large crowd to await the city’s liberation in 1945. Here the dead and injured haunt modern Dam Square.

Amsterdam’s Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse lives history. The company for which she works as a historical consultant, Historisch Adviesbureau 30-45, specializes in digging up archival material for clients pertaining to “daily life in the years 1900-1950”. In addition, Jo confesses in her Flickr profile, she has “a 1930s lifestyle,” donning clothing from the era and “attending 1930s theme parties”. Even her house has been carefully decorated to look not a day older than 1943.

But Jo is more than just a professional researcher and history buff. Beyond her archival sleuthing, she’s engaged in a number of reconstructive and interpretive projects that bring to life historical material in the present day. One is an effort to recreate 1920s Berlin as an environment for the virtual world of Second Life, allowing users to immerse themselves in the German capital’s long-gone prewar heyday.

In 2007, Jo embarked on what might have seemed like a more conventional project — she took her camera around Amsterdam, capturing street scenes from the same vantage points as old photos she’d found of the city under Nazi occupation during the Second World War — in addition to the archives, she’d located many of the shots in flea markets or on other Flickr members’ accounts. What she did next was less conventional: Jo fused the then-and-now shots into singular collages, juxtaposing ghostly remnants (and residents) of the occupied city with representations of the present day.


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.


November 21st, 2010

Time Travel With Nick DeWolf

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, Europe, History, United States by Christopher DeWolf

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Penn Station, New York, 1958

Three years ago, people were still complaining that photo-sharing websites like Flickr were home mostly to “thousands of pieces of shit” — few good photos, endless amounts of clichéd snapshots that nobody really wants to see.

Since then, of course, Flickr has proven its worth by attracting plenty of good, serious photographers, and inspiring many more to improve their work and learn more about photography. It has also become something unexpected: a window into the past. Recently, a number of organizations, including Library of Congress, NASA and the Ville de Montréal, have put portions of their photo archives on the website, taking advantage of its user-friendly format and ready-made connection to social networks.

Private individuals have followed their lead, giving old film photos new life. One such photographer is Nick DeWolf, a American engineer who lived in Philadelphia, Boston and later Colorado, and who never left home without a camera. For decades, starting in the 1950s, he documented almost everywhere he went. After DeWolf’s death in 2006, his son-in-law began putting his photos online.

There are now more than 43,000 images in DeWolf’s Flickr photostream, with 20 more added each day. Among these are scenes of everyday 1950s, 60s and 70s life in cities like New York, Boston and Hong Kong, shot with the passion, curiosity and loose focus of an amateur.


June 19th, 2010

Gentrification: Y2K to Today



Change is a constant in most cities, and it’s no surprise that a decade can yield dramatic alterations to a specific street or even storefront. Take this slice of San Francisco’s Mission Street, photographed by Eric Fischer, creator of the locals v. tourists photography maps, which he captured in 2000 and again just last year.

In 2000, the block was showing evidence of prosperity. The millennium bug hadn’t shut down “Y2K Furnishings”, despite its ominous name. And the space next door is decorated in retro-50s futurism, reflecting a latent desire to resurrect that decade’s optimistic streak. But what Y2K didn’t do to San Francisco, the dot-com bubble’s burst ultimately did. In 2000, Y2K Furnishings was already having a going out of business sale. Today, save for one floor of the building it formerly occupied, the entire block looks mothballed.

The story of Y2K’s block is fairly rare, but it’s not wholly unique. It demonstrates one way in which cities have defied the narrative arc of unremitting, sometimes totalizing gentrification that U.S. cities have been said to confront throughout much of the 2000s. At worst, the last ten years of gentrification have been more mild, and less sweeping, than many critics have assumed.


June 10th, 2010

Locals vs. Tourists


We’ve always known there is a gulf between the city as experienced by tourists and the city lived in by locals. Now we have a fun visual representation of that divide. Using various types of data from Flickr, one user of the photo-sharing website, Eric Fisher, has created maps that indicate the spots photographed by tourists and those shot by locals. Local photographs are blue, tourist photos red and undetermined photos yellow.

There are some problems in the methodology. Whether a Flickr user is a local or a tourist is determined by whether they photograph a given location over a long period of time (like a local would) or in just a few days (like a tourist would). That seems fair enough, but not everyone geotags their photos, which could possibly skew the results one way or another. One person who obsessive geotags all of his or her photos could have a disproportionately large representation on the map. You can see this in Vancouver, where one person’s geotagged cycle routes are prominently displayed.

Still, just by looking at the maps you get a strong intuitive sense that they are close to reality. In the Montreal map, tourists overwhelmingly stick to Old Montreal, St. Joseph’s Oratory and the Olympic Stadium while locals take photos throughout downtown and the Plateau, with an especially notable cluster of local shots around Lafontaine Park, Maisonneuve Park and the Botanical Gardens (which, interestingly enough, are right across the street from the Olympic tourist hub).


May 11th, 2010

Going, Going, Gone?

Hong Kong isn’t a very graceful city, but that’s the word I would use to describe its corner buildings, which meet a junction with smooth lines and subtle verve. Buildings with rounded corners are friendly and sensitive to their surroundings, like a courteous houseguest, and they bring to mind the beautiful corner buildings that define the landscapes of many Spanish cities.

The German photographer Michael Wolf has documented many of Hong Kong’s corner buildings in a series inspired by the relentless cycle of urban destruction and construction — most of will soon be redeveloped into tall, inelegant buildings with crude architecture and contempt for their surroundings.


March 18th, 2010

The Artist’s Subject Goes Wandering

Posted in Art and Design, Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

We’re in an age when every other person is a wannabe Walker Evans, and every single object and person in the city is a potential subject for self-reflective urban photography. (You know, the kind you sometimes see here.) Washington, DC artist Alexa Meade takes that situation to its logical extreme by turning her photo subjects into living, breathing acrylic paintings.

In one of her works, she paints a man and sends him into the buses and metro stations of DC, where he stands out like, well, the subject of a painting that somehow jumped out of the frame and began walking around. Though I’m not sure Meade meant to comment on street photography, this particular work delivers a giant wink to the genre by turning her subject into the romantic, photogenic everyman that he was destined to become.


March 8th, 2010

Public Sex and Peeping Toms

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Kohei Yoshiyuki

Kohei Yoshiyuki

Kohei Yoshiyuki was walking through a Tokyo park one night in the early 1970s when he noticed people having sex in the bushes. Then he noticed people spying on the people having sex. That must have been when he decided to get his camera. Using infrared film and flash, Yoshiyuki followed and surreptitiously photographed the voyeurs who were peeping on copulating couples.

“My intention was to capture what happened in the parks, so I was not a real ‘voyeur’ like them,” he said recently. “But I think, in a way, the act of taking photographs itself is voyeuristic somehow. So I may be a voyeur, because I am a photographer.”

Yoshiyuki’s photos were first exhibited at a Tokyo gallery in 1979, and published in a book the following year, but only now have they been collected in a new English book, The Park. The photos been getting quite a lot of attention because, as Philip Gefter notes in the New York Times, they raise questions not only of voyeurism but of surveillance, which is of particular concern in this age of omnipresent CCTV and Great Firewalls.


January 4th, 2010

Empty L.A.

Posted in Art and Design, Books, United States by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Matthew Logue

The density of urban slums once drove city planners and social workers mad — and, in some cases, still does today. But perhaps because of the vicious crime that followed mass abandonment of cities like Detroit, or the specter, for the first time, of an entire city’s virtual erasure in the wake of Hiroshima, the empty, depopulated city has inspired more horror in the last sixty years.

In the original (1953) film version of The War of the Worlds, Los Angeles is almost completely evacuated to await its doom. The philosophical 2001 film Vanilla Sky opens with a nightmare sequence in which the main character wakes up to an empty Manhattan. Alan Weisman’s recent book The World Without Us detailed precisely what would happen to the built environment over time if people really did disappear from cities.

Limited disappearance has even been used as a tool to stress the catastrophic consequences of a particular category of person vanishing, as in the 1922 Austrian novel and subsequent film The City Without Jews (a shocking anticipation of Nazi anti-Semitism), or the 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican.

These apocalyptic precedents are what first came to mind upon first encountering photographer Matthew Logue’s new collection, Empty L.A.