Monday, 20 January 2020

China Dolls | Nathalie Daoust | Dodho Magazine

Photo © Nathalie Daoust - All Rights Reserved
Nathalie Daoust's Wikipedia page tells us that her China Dolls project is a study of contemporary Chinese women, the role(s) they have in society and the consequences of the country's one child policy. Most of her compelling portraits can best be viewed on Dodho magazine's website.

These portraits were individually made in a darkened room, to spotlight the subjects who have “remained in shadows.”  Using a specially constructed human-sized box, so they could sit in the dark, alone with their thoughts, they were photographed with light painting.

Each black and white print is hand colored and printed on ceramic tile, reinforcing the notion of the ‘China Doll’ and reflecting the fragile situation of the modern Chinese woman.

Ms Daoust travelled to China in 2006 for an artist residency with the Red Gate Gallery and fell in love with the culture. Since then, she has looked for any excuse to return to China and has spent many months exploring the country.

Nathalie Daoust is a Canadian photographer and contemporary artist. Using space and light as avenues through which to examine the creation of self, she constructs worlds that lay bare the conflicting impulses that drive us. She created several conceptual projects that have taken her all over the world, from the love hotels of Tokyo, to a brothel in Brazil, to a darkroom in Sydney, to the dreamy landscape of the snow-capped Swiss Alps.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Bamboo Theaters | Hong Kong

Readers of this blog are well aware of my recent fascination with Chinese opera which culminated in the production of my sixth photo book "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora". My photographic work documenting this ancient art form took over two years, and had me travel many times to Hong Kong, amongst other countries and cities.

However, it was in Hong Kong that became familiar with the term "bamboo theaters". Having spent time at the venues where performances were to be held, I witnessed the rapid erection of these makeshift structures a few days (or even hours) before the various festivals and deities' anniversaries. In other countries, wooden poles rather than bamboo are used for such street theaters.

Bamboo is the traditional material to build these theaters in Hong Kong, but some still fear that bamboo scaffolding be replaced by metal or wood structures used elsewhere, but others do not believe think bamboo theaters will be replaced.
Film director director Cheuk Cheung has recently work on his third documentary on Chinese opera titled Bamboo Theatre. His first two were My Way and My Next Step.

Bamboo Theater deals with the architecture of these structures, and features villages around Hong Kong, such as Sai Kung, Po Toi, High Island and Peng Chau, that regularly build bamboo theaters to celebrate the birth of Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. The construction of these traditional bamboo theaters requires no nails, no glue and no tools of any kind. The bamboo poles are just latched together with bindings.

The majority of these operas are produced by small local troupes and staged by residents’ associations.

The documentary's Facebook page tells us that it followed the ritual practices in various villages and remote islands of Hong Kong for two years. It documents this traditional cultural space, its way of building and dismantling, as well as the collaborative work of troupes’ performers, stage managers and wardrobe.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Portraits of China

PORTRAITS OF CHINA by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

I read that Picasso had a number of 'phases' for his art. He went through his Blue Period which depicted gaunt people in gloomy settings, and then circus and harlequin subjects. The predominant color of that phase was a melancholy blue. It was followed by a Rose Period which depicted romantic, delicately treated subjects in pale pink.

I am going through a 'greenish' phase, probably influenced by Japanese photographers who seem to favor color grading of green, grey and taupe for their work.  

From the photographs made in Shanghai and Beijing over the past couple of years, I chose about two dozen that lent themselves well to a green color grading that emulates a cinematic 'feel'. These are part portraits and street photographs...some are posed while others were made on the fly.

These can be viewed either on my website or on my YouTube channel (accompanied by the lovely voice of Zhou Xuan).

To achieve the color grading* I liked and depending on the original color of the images, I used a combination of post processing software such as Alien Skin Exposure, ON1 and Color Efex. 

*Color grading is the process of enhancing the color, saturation, and contrast of an image. Photographers use it to create specific moods in their photos.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Apple's Chinese New Year's "Daughter"

Apple has marked the Chinese New Year* with its latest "Shot on iPhone" video, a short film recorded on the iPhone 11 Pro featuring three generations of Chinese women gathering together for the annual event. 

The short movie features the generational differences between a mother and daughter about the life that she and her child lead. It’s a film about pride, acceptance, and family. Theodore Melfi, the director of the film, is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who received his nominations after co-writing, directing and producing Hidden Figures, a film about the role that black female mathematicians played during the space race. Hidden Figures received nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Lawrence Sher, the film’s cinematographer, is best known for this work on Garden State and The Hangover series. Most recently, he served as Director of Cinematography for Todd Phillip’s ‘Joker’ film which just won Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture for Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of the villain at the Gloden Globe awards.

The film stars Zhou Xun, China’s leading actress, known for her performances in ‘The Equation of Love and Death’, ‘The Banquet’, and ‘Perhaps Love’. The last film earned her a Best Actress award in the Hong Kong Film Awards.

A behind the scenes trailer has also been featured on YouTube which demonstrates the versatility of the iPhone 11 as a film-making the hands of an expert cinematographer and his crew.

*According to the Chinese zodiac, it'll be the year of the Rat. According to a folktale, the Jade Emperor decided that the order of the animals would be determined according to the order by which they arrived at his party by crossing a river. The rat cleverly convinced the ox to give him a ride. Just as the ox waded the river, it jumped off its back and was the first to arrive.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Chinese Opera of the Diaspora | Photo Book

After a 2-year journey that took me in the world of Chinese opera, my latest 166 pages hard cover photo book Chinese Opera of the Diaspora was published by Blurb. Due to contractual terms agreed with its sponsor, it's not currently available for sale, however I produced a short video with samples of its pages/photos.

The genesis for the book is multi-faceted. Following my equally long photo book project documenting the spirit mediums of Vietnam, I developed an "appetite" for visual and cultural traditions that fused fashion, history, art, music and storytelling, and I found it on one of my innumerable walks in New York City’s Chinatown. A poster announcing a Cantonese opera on Mott Street was plastered on a few walls, and it triggered my interest in documenting the opera of the Chinese diaspora.

Little did I know then that there are more than 300 different regional opera styles in China. I initially had no grasp as to the extent of the project I had embarked on, but it had what I was looking for. 

Coincidentally, I was about to travel to Kuala Lumpur where I was to teach a multimedia workshop, to give a lecture on travel photography and to curate a photo exhibition. It is there that I realized Malaysia’s Chinese communities held annual festivals such as the Hungry Ghost festival (or Yulan Festival) and the Nine Emperor Gods Festival. I also got to know that Hong Kong held the same festivals, during which Chinese opera troupes from China’s southern provinces performed in various locations.

The die was cast, and I planned a photo book documenting the Chinese opera styles in Malaysia, Hong Kong and New York City. I resolved to focus on the unsophisticated -also known as street operas- troupes rather than on the high-end troupes featured in well known theaters. 

After a number of trips to Hong Kong, Penang and Kuala Lumpur as well as periodic visits to the Mott Street location for the New York City's Cantonese opera events, I edited and culled the resulting thousands of images into a 166 pages photo book.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Tengku Azari | The Princess of Huế

Photo © Tengku Azari | All Rights Reserved

Continuing the featuring of creative work by impressive photographers who specialize in ethnic fashion-portraiture, I bring to the pages of The Travel Photographer blog the artistry of Tengku Azari, a well known Malaysian photographer.

I was amazed by his work which he describes as the "tram anh thế oligarchy"; which I suppose involves a model dressed up in the most stunning costume against the magical backdrop of Huế architectural wonder of its imperial citadel.  Huế is a city in central Vietnam that was the capital of Đàng Trong Kingdom from 1738 to 1775 and of the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945. The 19th-century citadel encompasses the Imperial City, with palaces and shrines; the Forbidden Purple City, once the Emperor's home; and a replica of the Royal Theater.

He produced a "behind the scene"  video (below) which shows him and his team at work in the photo shoot which resulted in the Huế images. 

Tengku Azri is a portrait and wedding photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. He is a founder and art director of the Dloven Group. He was recognized with multiple awards from different international competitions such as Wedding Portrait Photography International (WPPI) & Professional Photographer Asia Community (PPAC). He also conducted a number of photography workshops Malaysia & Singapore. He is a Malaysia Fuji X-photographer.

Monday, 6 January 2020

To Live To Sing | Huo Zhe Chang Zhe

I was referred to a movie on Sichuan opera which, by all accounts, showcases the type of opera troupes I've been photographing over the course of the past 30 months. For my "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora" photo book, I eschewed documenting the glamorous well-funded troupes in Shanghai and Beijing in favor of the small impoverished 'hand-to-mouth' troupes that perform in Hong Kong, Penang, Kuala Lumpur and New York City's Chinatown.

The movie 'To Live To Sing' (活着唱着 Huo Zhe Chang Zhe) is directed by Johnny Ma, and is about Zhao Li, the manager of a small Sichuan Opera troupe, who lives and performs along her troupe in a rundown theatre located in the outskirts of Chengdu, China. When she receives the notice of demolition for the theatre, she hides the news from everyone, fearing that it would spell the end of her opera troupe, and the life of her “family”. As she struggles to find a new theatre for them to both sing and live in, the characters start to realize that soemthing is amiss.

The backdrop of the movie involves the Chinese push for modernization which hits the town of Chengdu, and it paints a stark picture of a country wresting with itself over its past and future. The cast includes members of a real-life Sichuan Opera troupe, whose real existence is threatened by urban redevelopment and dwindling audiences, as well as the easy money performers can make by reducing their art to magic stunts for the entertainment of tourists in cheap hot-pot restaurants.

It’s not really necessary to know anything about Sichuan Opera to appreciate an archetypal story about a troupe of traditional artists in the twilight years of their profession.

The story synopsis is as follows: the colorful troupe, seen initially touting for customers in full costume in the back of a motorbike pickup truck, lives and performs in a ramshackle, warehouse-like space in a run-down part of a Chinese city that is in the throes of modernization. Bulldozers have already begun smashing through surrounding houses and properties, and the theatre itself has been served with a demolition order which stern troupe owner and matriarch Zhao Li  is determined to fight. It doesn’t help that the company’s young star, Zhao Li’s strong-willed niece Dan Dan, is secretly moonlighting as a sexy nightclub torch singer, nor that the audiences who shuffle in dutifully to see the troupe’s nightly performances are all well past retirement age.

The director and camera shower love on the costumes, make-up, traditional wooden instruments, rough signage and makeshift props of this shoestring-budget world on the verge of extinction – and along with that stirring finale, this tender analogue devotion goes some way to making up for a story that is as thin as a stage curtain versions of themselves.*

* Edited and redacted from various movie reviews.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Awamu Moja | China 2018

Here's another stunning video of a string of fashion shoots in southeastern Fujian (China) led by Awamu Moja (more details on him later in this post). During these photo shoots, the photographer wisely -from an aesthetic standpoint- chose to feature Chinese models, in contrast to Sails Chong's Chengdu Shining Blossoms which I wrote about in my last post.

All of the photo shoots were located in the mountainous region of Fujian, using the incredible backdrop of a number of different tulou (福建土樓) structures, or Fujian earthen buildings. These are Chinese rural dwellings unique to the Hakka of the areas, and were mostly built between the 12th and the 20th centuries. Other locations were Xichan temple, a Buddhist temple on the slope of Mount Yi, and West Lake. 

A tulou is a large, enclosed and fortified earth building, most commonly rectangular or circular in configuration, with thick load-bearing earth walls between three and five stories high and housing up to 800 people. Smaller interior buildings are often enclosed by these huge peripheral walls which can contain halls, storehouses, wells and living areas, the whole structure resembling a small fortified city.

These photo shoots must've been logistically demanding, since they included 9 shooting sites, and required 142 pages of mood boards, 133 boxes of props. The total duration of the photo shoots was 84 hours, involved 16 staff members, 6 models, 3 fashion designers and 38 outfits. 

Photo © Awamu Moja | All Rights Reserved

Based in Luxembourg, Awamy Moja is a fashion photographer who gathered a team of professionals passionate about aesthetics, fashion, performing arts, graphic design and plastic arts, architecture and decoration. In 2018, Moja writes on his blog that he came to China with his team and was deeply intrigued by Chinese history, culture and architecture. He tells us he had never before encountered such a vast and colorful country which, especially for  photographers, is a huge treasure house. The artistic culture of China impressed him to such an extent that he plans to spend more time there for work.

To ensure the picture quality, he only uses the Phase One medium format camera at 100 MP and 150 MP, together with the German Schneider Blue Ring lenses. His favorite is the 80mm LS f/2.8 lens, and often uses the 45mm LS f/3.5 and the 150mm LS f/2.8 IF lenses. He almost always shoot between f/11 and f/22, most often at f/16.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Sails Chong | Chengdu Shinning Blossoms

The artistic genius of Sails Chong's photography is clearly evident in the many projects he and his team have produced.  The exquisite attention to aesthetic details, the undeniable complex logistics and the sheer imagination in producing this video (and others like it) are just stunning.

While the protagonist in Chengdu Shinning (sic) Blossoms is a Western model who appears in this pictorial project, she seems totally out of place despite the ethnic costume and makeup. I don't know the reasons for including her, and I wish she hadn't been. I am loathe to nit-pick such lovely work, but I'm of the opinion whether fashion-related or otherwise, inserting a non-Chinese person is rather jarring and has no significance. It dawned on me that she might have been chosen to advertise Sails Chong wedding photography to Western audiences. Since I'm nit-picking, I'd also mention the sound track (mostly drum beating is pretty awful. I would have used a piece of classical Chinese music which would have added an aural authenticity to the project. That said, Sails Chong's artistry and imagination are breathtaking and barring these two personal peeves of mine, the project is a must-see over and over again. Choosing an authentic teahouse as setting for the initial photo shoot is spot on, and having a Sichuan face-changing artist alongside the model is ingenious.

In fairness, the movie's aim is not to tell a story as's only a highly stylized photo shoot using gorgeous models, wonderfully tailored costumery and a stunning atmosphere, ambiance and carefully chosen locations/backgrounds. 

Sails Chong (his website doesn't seem to work) is China’s top photographer and a Hasselblad Ambassador. Coming from an academic background of Japanese Studies and Fine Arts, he is well known for his photography in which he creates surrealistic imagery against a backdrop of visually stunning Chinese aesthetics and breathtaking landscape. 

As a footnote: The Chinese wedding total industry is worth an estimated $170-billion per year (according to many local and international news sources) and wedding (and pre-wedding) photo packages range from $400 to $18,000. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

New Website | New Galleries

To start 2020, I put together a freshly baked website using my domain name of I've used the services of based on my previous experience with it, and because of the diversity of its templates. 

The website is dedicated to my photographic work of China which include recent projects which, for now, consist of Chinoiseries and Chinese Opera. While the latter is self-explanatory, Chinoiserie is defined as a "style of ornamentation current chiefly in the 18th century in Europe, characterized by intricate patterns and an extensive use of motifs identified as Chinese". I used the term to showcase my fashion-historical storytelling work involving cheongsam or qi pao clad models. The overriding theme in the Chinoiserie gallery is that of a "Shanghai-1930" atmosphere which I seek to recreate.

Each photograph in the Chinoiseries section carries the title of a fashion-historical story; some of which are 'photo-films' and are found on my other website and on my Vimeo site.  The website also features a number of Chinese opera related galleries and street photography in Hong Kong, Taipei, Tokyo and naturally New York City.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

La Dame de Soie | Madame Wellington Koo

I end the year with a wonderful -albeit too short- video entitled La Dame de Soie (or The Lady of Silk) which was produced for Nowness, in collaboration with Cartier. It's directed by Robin & Cako, and stars Li Meng. 

The video (feeding my interest in Chinese culture, aesthetics, historical fashion) is based on the character of Madame Wellington Koo, also known as Oei Hui-lan, a well-known Chinese-Indonesian international socialite and style icon, who from late 1926 until 1927, was the First Lady of the Republic of China. After a failed first marriage, she married the pre-communist Chinese statesman Wellington Koo, and was a daughter and heiress of the colonial Indonesian tycoon Oei Tiong Ham.

Both her parents were from the "establishment". Her father was the descendant of one of the wealthiest families in Java, while her mother came from the aristocracy as a descendant of the highest branch of the traditional Chinese establishment of colonial Indonesia.

Despite her family's great wealth, however, as a Chinese – albeit with Dutch nationality – Hui-lan and her family were treated as second-class citizens by the Dutch administration, and had to carefully navigate their way past the difficulties they often faced in their dealings with government officials.

Oei Hui-lan married Wellington Koo in Brussels in 1921 and lived in Geneva then moved to Beijing where he served as Acting Premier in the evolving republican Chinese state. Between October 1926—June 1927, Wellington Koo also acted as President of the Republic of China for a brief period, making Oei Hui-lan the First Lady of China. The couple then spent time in Shanghai, Paris and London where Oei Hui-lan became a celebrated hostess. In 1941, she moved to New York. She had divorced Wellington Koo in the fifties, and remained single until her death in New York 1992 at the age of ninety-three. (Source: Neehao.Co.UK)

She is remembered for writing two autobiographies and for her contributions to fashion, especially her adaptations of traditional Chinese dress. She was voted best- dressed Chinese woman of 1920 – 40s by Vogue magazine, and was renowned for wearing long black or deep blue qipao or cheongsam.

Naturally, I plan to produce a slideshow of images based on her life when I'm next in Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong.

Oei Hui-lan. 1921

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Ye Hong Qi | The Miao

Photo © Ye Hong Qi | All Rights Reserved
The Miao is an ethnic group belonging to South China, and is recognized by the government of China as one of it 56 official ethnic groups. It is estimated that the Miao population is just over 9.5 million; larger than most minority groups in China. 

The Miao live mainly in southern China's mountains, in the provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan, Hubei, Hainan provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Prefecture. Some sub-groups of the Miao, most notably the Hmong people, have migrated out of China into Southeast Asia (Burma (Myanmar), northern Vietnam, Laos and Thailand).

I feature the work of Ye Hong Qi, a Shanghai-based photographer, who focused most of his photography on documenting the Miao minority in his native China. Describing himself as an "amateur" photographer, I met Qi at the well-known IG Photography Art Gallery in Shanghai to introduce him to its director. 

He graciously gifted me a copy of his book The Miao Family of China; a lovely monograph of his 70 images selected from more than 100,000. This project was started in 2014 and was completed four years later. All of Qi's images are made using ambient lighting, and no artificial lights were used. The images were made in 5 provinces, and in more than 90 Miao’s villages in China.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

The Travel Photographer's 2019 Selection

As the year comes to a close, I look back at 20 photographs; a selection which remind me the most of the moments when i pressed the shutter. I certainly do not claim these are the best amongst my work, but they exemplify -to me- what I enjoy to do as a photographer.

The 20 photographs are listed in no preferential sequence. They combine street photography, fashion and cultural images.

The first is of Ren Li Fung; a friend in Shanghai, who appeared in many of my fashion-cultural multimedia galleries. Here she's wearing regular clothes, rather than a quintessential Chinese qi pao. We had scheduled a photo shoot in Qi Bao, the famed water town near Shanghai, one of my favorite locations.

From the ensuing photo shoot, I produced The Butterfly And The Teahouse; the story of Hu Die, a legendary Chinese actress in the 1920-1930s. 

The second photograph is of two Hokkien opera performers exchanging what appeared to be high-intensity gossip. This image was made during the Hungry Ghost festival in Kowloon. The backstages of Chinese operas are a trove of impromptu and candid scenes which I delighted in documenting over the course of the past two years. This image and many more appear in my soon-to-be- published "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora" photo book. 

In the meantime, I produced a photo gallery titled "The Hungry Ghost festival" which showcases the vibrancy of this annual religious event.

The blissful facial expression on her face on having her first cup of hot tea of the morning was infectious, and I enjoyed mine almost as much. We were in Zhujiajiao, a delightful water town established about 1,700 years ago and a magnet for photographers for its 36 bridges. We had traveled early from Shanghai to avoid the later crush of local tourists but the rain dampened our hopes for any sustained photo shoots on the banks of its river.

I spent a couple of days in Shanghai's Marriage Market at the People's Square. This was purely a photojournalistic endeavor with street photography overtones. Every Saturday and Sunday since 1996, this popular gathering provides parents (and grandparents) the opportunity to advertise their unmarried children by posting their vital statistics such age, height, educational qualifications and work history. One of the most striking image is that of a marriage broker who presumably received the news that the match she had arranged was successful, and she would get her commission. 

I chose to post process the resulting photographs in monochrome to give them a documentary feel, and more of them can be viewed at The Marriage Market.

In the main touristic spots in different cities across China, pre-wedding photoshoots can very frequently be seen, since they've become the must-have for every Chinese couple before their marriage. However, Chinese people often have day-long photo sessions much before their actual weddings. Sometimes it can be half a year or even a year in advance of the ceremony. It's predicted that the value of the pre-wedding photo shoot industry may reach millions of US dollars by the end of 2019. 

No longer content with black and white pictures, this bride -as many others- dressed in a magnificent red dress (in all likelihood rented for the day) was posing near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Most probably, she and her husband to be could've traveled from one of China's provinces especially for this photo shoot.

A Hokkien opera actress breaking into laughter on seeing me in the backstage is one of my favorite candid photographs, and has earned its place amongst the many others in my  in my soon-to-be- published "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora" photo book. I am still unsure what provoked her to laugh. Her partner seems puzzled as well. The majority of the Chinese opera actors I photographed were exceedingly welcoming and hospitable, however few were as amused as she was by my presence. The show was during the Hungry Ghost festival in Kowloon. 

Another gallery of Chinese opera is The Unseen; a collection of monochromatic images of a Hokkien opera troupe in Malaysia.

This is the only image in the selection that doesn't have any humans in it. It's of  Xinchang Ancient Town viewed through a restaurant's round window. 

Xinchang is an ancient water town with about 100 folk houses of different sizes that were built during the Ming (1368 - 1644 AD) and Qing (1644 - 1911 AD) dynasties. The old streets, the rivers that pass through the town, the stone arch bridges, and folk houses form a typical picture in China’s Yangtze River Delta. The glass diffraction added another layer to the timeless feel of the town.

The eighth image of the selection is of Ren Li Fung, who posed for my camera at the water town of Zhuijiajiao. Although we had photo shoots all over the small town, this one was indoors in its tiny museum. We were nervous because we were not supposed to use any of its rooms as backgrounds (though there were no signs posted prohibiting photography). I used the side opening of a typical Chinese canopy bed to frame her in the ambient light.

For more of Ren Li Fung, I've produced a multimedia slideshow titled "The Legend of Hua", which tells the story of a Hua, a women wronged by an unfaithful lover, who returns as a ghost to seek revenge.

Another of my favorite images was made in the old teahouse in Qi Bao. The Qi Bao teahouse consists of a large tea room with about six or seven square tables, an outdoor courtyard whose walls are covered with posters of handwritten calligraphy, and an inner large hall where traditional pinghua/pingtan singing-story telling shows are performed between12:30 and 2:00 pm.

This dapper gentleman is a regular patron, and tried to discourage me from photographing him. He had a small transistor radio on the table next to him, and would furiously scribble in a notebook. I took him to be a journalist; retired like most of the other patrons, who couldn't shake the habit of writing. He might have been anything at all of course, but my image of him pleased me. When I returned to the teahouse a few months later, he was at the same table and cracked a very thin smile when I gave him a few prints of his photographs. He even managed to whisper a "xie xie".

I produced a monochromatic photo gallery of The Old Qi Bao Teahouse, and produced a large landscape image wrap photo book by the same name.

I spent a day at Beijing's famous Panjiyuan market, photographing mostly from the hip and jostling against the crowds that come to find a deal or a rare artifact. It dates back to the late days of the declining Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) when many destitute members of the aristocracy and officials brought their antiques to the street in the cover of night to sell. To avoid gossip, they lit up a lantern to sell their antiques at night. 

I was particularly drawn to the indoor section of the market where the booksellers had their lockers, and spread their offerings. Second hand books, including Mao's Litle Red Book and posters of his likeness, as well as books of poetry and old photographs were there to be sold.

I put together a photo gallery of images made during my time at this unique market titled Panjiyuan

Deng Li is a fashionista, an artist and has a small store in Beijing's Dashanzi Art District which is also known as Art Zone 798. Although I mistook her for being Tibetan, she's Han Chinese from Chongqing. She has a lot of presence which is what interested me in photographing her. She uses old embroidery on the tunics and on the dresses she sells; all of which are one-of-a-kind. We had difficulty communicating and I found her to be rather enigmatic. All of the images I made of her were in her tiny store which was crowded with her clothing inventory, her artwork of large oil paintings and sculptures...interspersed with vases, plants  and Buddhas.

The twelfth photograph in this selection is of three cast members of a Hokkien opera troupe preparing themselves before appearing in a show to celebrate the Hungry Ghost festival in Hong Kong's Kowloon. It's reminiscent of an oil painting because of the penumbra and the dim light reflected on their white tunics. The opera troupes live in close proximity of each other during the months they spend performing at various venues, and they bond together as members of a single family. There's a lot of camaraderie between them, and the spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance is very high. Life would be very difficult for them if that spirit was not present and engendered.

I produced a photo gallery titled Entertaining The Gods which includes images made during the Hungry Ghost festival in Hong Kong.

The tattoo'ed man walking with his companion on Mott street during the feast of San Gennaro is the only non-China photograph in this selection.  Every September since 1926, in honor of the San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, the Little Italy section of Lower Manhattan becomes alive with people, enjoying the sounds and food of Italy. Now in it's 93rd year, the festival attracts more than a million people annually to the streets of Little Italy. Mainly tourists come to witness the festivities, eat Italian food and while the carnival games are usually rigged, it doesn't stop them from being fun.

The monochromatic photo gallery is titled "The Feast of San Gennaro".

An extremely enjoyable photo shoot took place at the Shanghai Film Park in Chendun that had sets of urban 1930 Shanghai. A day of work with Tian Yiyi and with the help of Yimu, I produced a short multimedia slideshow based on the life of Ruan Ling-Yu, a silent film star of the 1930s in her native China. She was known for a charismatic on-screen presence and a tragic off-screen life. One of the most prominent Chinese film stars of the 1930s, her exceptional acting ability and suicide at the age of 24 led her to become an icon of Chinese cinema. Moreover, her life story was portrayed by the sublime Maggie Cheung in the 1991 movie Centre Stage.

Along a gallery of images of Tian Yiyi titled "The Ingenue", there's also the monochromatic multimedia slideshow "The Immortal".

Another 'behind-the-scenes' image of the close ties that bond the cast members of Chinese -in this case, Hokkien- operas. I was struck by the 'sisterhood' exhibited by these two female actors and by their obvious affection for each other. In a conversation before the show, they were sitting very close to one another, and on seeing me photographing them, the one on the right hugged her sister or companion. I felt they wanted me to record their friendship, and unfortunately I neglected to ask for their WeChat handles to send it to them.

This image is featured in my soon to be published photo book "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora".

More of my photographs of Chinese opera can be viewed at "Behind The Curtain."

Another image from Shanghai's Marriage Market made the selection. Here, what drew me to these two women was their earnest expressions. The one on the right had an anxious expression -almost like a supplicant- while the other was more relaxed. I felt it was an ongoing negotiation; perhaps over the amount of a dowry should the marriage be agreed to. Most of the unmarried offsprings are in the dark about their parents' activities, and would be utterly mortified at the meddling in their love affairs.

More of these images are at "The Marriage Market".

Melody (aka Xin) and Agnes were at Beijing's Forbidden Palace being photographed by their friend Eddy Leung, and after obtaining their permission, I gladly joined in the opportunity. They are from Guangzhou, the capital and most populous city of the province of Guangdong in southern China and were visiting the nation's capital during the long holiday. They are wearing Qing dynasty dresses which they presumably had rented for the occasion. Melody spoke perfect English, and told me that she is proud of the nation's heritage. She often dresses up in historical costumes/dresses in her home town.

A collection of my photographs of people in Chinese costumes can be viewed at "Chinoiseries of Beijing".

From my photo gallery titled "The One-Yuan Teahouse" is one of the portrait of Pan Pingfu, the owner of the teahouse. I had traveled from Shanghai to the thousand-year-old Digang Village (荻港村); a small village near the Grand Canal; the watery artery that runs which runs 1200 miles from Beijing to Hangzhou. This modest and sleepy village with black-tile-roofed houses is home to Juhuayuan (聚华园) teahouse which has been here for more than a century, a relic from the past.

It is where customers can sit for the entire day from as early as 3 am, spending only 1 yuan ( about $0.15) for the cost of black tea, boiled water, a table and a chair.

The final selected image is of a cast member of a Hokkien opera troupe applying makeup foundation to his face. I was surprised to see him in August this year, after having seen and photographed him during last year's Hungry Ghost festival at a different Kowloon venue. The makeup sessions take an inordinate amount of time especially as the actors have to self-apply it. They have to learn it as they learn to act, move, sing and speak.

For more on the Hokkien opera during Hungry Ghost festivals, drop by "The Hungry Ghost festival" photo gallery.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Cố Du | Essence from the Past

Here's an exceptionally well done short movie from Luan Nguyễn , a Vietnamese videographer, which through a recreation, depicts daily life scenes of the aristocracy in Vietnam under Nguyễn dynasty (1802-1945). It shows us a young woman being dressed and made up by an attendant girl to meet (presumably) a suitor. Using ambient light and slow deliberate movements, it captures very well what I imagine was the demeanor and appearance of such aristocrats. 

History tells us that the Nguyễn dynasty was the last imperial family of Vietnam. Although its ancestral line can be traced back millennia,  it was only by the mid-sixteenth century that its most ambitious family branch, rose to conquer, control and establish feudal rule over a large territory.

The Empire of Vietnam under its 13th and final Emperor was a nominally independent Japanese puppet state during the last months of World War II. It ended with his abdication following the surrender of Japan and the communist revolution by the anti-colonial Việt Minh in August 1945. This ended the 143 year rule of the Nguyễn dynasty.

Nguyễn is the most common Vietnamese family name. By some estimates forty percent of Vietnamese people bear this surname. The Nguyễn Dynasty awarded many people the surname Nguyễn during their rule, and many criminals also changed their surname to Nguyễn to avoid prosecution. As with other common surnames, people having this surname are not necessarily related.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

My Work | The Ingénue

the ingenue by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

I've recently been following a number of Japanese photographers on my Twitter feed; some specialize in fashion, others in landscape photography...and I was struck by how many are fond of color-grading their work.

Wikipedia tells us that "color grading is the process of improving the appearance of an image for presentation in different environments on different devices. Various attributes of an image such as contrast, color, saturation, detail, black level, and white point may be enhanced whether for motion pictures, videos, or still images. Color grading and color correction are often used synonymously as terms for this process and can include the generation of artistic color effects through creative blending and compositing of different images."

While color grading is generally used in movie-making, it's also used in still images, and I decided to dip a toe in the process. I chose a sort of greenish tone to photographs I had made of Tian Yiyi at Film Park in Chendun that has movie sets of urban 1930 of Shanghai.

The ingénue is a stock character in literature, film and a role type in the theater; a term that has long been used to describe both a young, beautiful, bright-eyed starlet who's relatively new on the scene, and the kind of character for which such a woman might predictably be cast. The word comes from the feminine form of the French adjective ingénu meaning "ingenuous", or someone exhibiting naïveté.

There's no story in The Ingénue. It's just a gallery of photographs of Tian Yiyi. She had modeled for me for the production of The Immortal, the story of Ruan Ling-Yu who was known as the goddess of the Chinese silver screen. 

Monday, 28 October 2019

Back Story | Bian Lian aka Face Changing Art Form

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Beijing's Lao She Teahouse was established in 1988, and it was named after the well-known Chinese novelist Lao She and his drama “Teahouse”. While established relatively recently, it retains the charm and aesthetic of old Beijing teahouses; wooden windows, Chinese hardwood furniture, and overall decor.
It is here that visitors - mostly Chinese, although it welcomed Western notables-may also enjoy opera, acrobatics, dance, calligraphy, guzheng performances and other traditional art forms including Bian Lian.

According to Wikipedia, Bian Lian (變臉) is an ancient Chinese dramatic art that is part of the more general Sichuan opera. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They also wear vividly colored masks, typically depicting well known characters from the opera, which they change from one face to another almost instantaneously with the swipe of a fan, a movement of the head, or wave of the hand.

Legend has it that people in Sichuan put on colorful masks to scare predators away in ancient times. Gradually, those masks became a tool of entertainment. They are designed to represent different emotions of characters on stage.

As much as 8 masks can be changed seamlessly by top performers, all in the blink of an eye. Much of the intrigue lies in how performers are able to switch masks so rapidly and with such accuracy.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
There are four different techniques in swapping the "faces". The first is Blowing Dust where the performer blows black dust hidden in his palm or close to his eyes, nose or mouth, so that it obscures his face. The second is Beard Manipulation, where the beard's color is changed while the beard is being manipulated, from black to grey and finally to white, expressing anger or excitement. The third is Pulling-down Masks -which is the one performed at the Lao She Teahouse- where the actor (in this female) pulls down a mask which has previously been hidden on top of his/her head, changing the face to red, green, blue or black to express happiness, hate, anger or sadness, respectively. The fourth is Face-dragging where the actor drags greasepaint hidden in his sideburns or eyebrows across his face to change his appearance.

Revealing her face. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It is assumed the mechanism of the face swap itself isn’t very complicated, with the masks pulled upwards over the head by some form of wire mechanism controlled by the movements of the head. As with magicians, hands are almost purely misdirection. However, it's impossible to detect the sleight of hand, and the technique is kept well secret by its practitioners.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Luis Alarcón | The Last Dragons

Photo © Luis Alarcón - All Rights Reserved
I've become much more selective in terms of what appears of The Travel Photographer blog, and only post photography work that I personally would've loved to do myself, or have done (or doing). The work of Luis Alarcón falls very neatly in the first category, and I nod in appreciation to Photography of China for having brought his work to my eyes.

Alarcón's calls his latest work "Yellow", Last Chinese in Cuba, or perhaps more poetically, The Last Dragons (a title I much prefer). This excellent work is part of a larger visual anthropological project about the four main races that constitute the Cuban people's identity by documenting their current lifestyle and culture. 

Cubans largely originate from American Indians (which 
Alarcón labels as Red), Spanish conquistadores (White), Africans (Black) and Chinese immigrants (Yellow).

Having visited Havana in the late nineties, I had totally forgotten it had a Chinese presence, and was reminded of the fact when in Hong Kong last month and the subject was brought up by a fellow photographer who had recently been to Cuba.

The Last Dragons project focuses on the reduced Chinese community still existent in Cuba today, and documents some of their memories, surroundings and the few places they congregate in. Alarcón tells us this is a long term project in which he seeks to find and photograph all the China-born Chinese who live in Cuba, as part of the diaspora of the Chinese people.

Luis Alarcon is a documentary photographer, writer and travel designer based in Havana. He is an expert on the history of Cuba, and specialized in anthropology, genetics, migrations and miscegenation among the different ethnic groups that populate the island.

Monday, 16 September 2019

The Feast of San Gennaro (NYC's Little Italy)

san gennaro by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

Here's a gallery of two dozen monochromatic photographs made at the start of the San Gennaro festival in the Little Italy section of Manhattan.

Every September since 1926, in honor of the San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, the Little Italy section of Lower Manhattan comes alive with people, enjoying the sounds and food of Italy. Now in it's 93rd year, it is estimated the festival attracts more than a million people annually to the streets of Little Italy. The Feast celebrates the life of San Gennaro of Naples who was Bishop of Benevento, Italy and was martyred in 305 AD. His formal name is Januarius I of Benevento. He was Bishop of Benevento and is a martyr and saint of the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The 11 day festival -which started on September 12, features an endless selection of Italian food along with nightly live entertainment, parades, eating competitions, carnival rides, games of skill, and various vendors. The most visually interesting aspect of the festival is the non stop parade of people, local New Yorkers and out of towners, as well as foreign tourists and sightseers.

Although the Feast of San Gennaro is nominally a celebration of faith in the patron saint of Naples, the festive atmosphere and food and are what visitors come for.

Taking my Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fujinon 18-135mm as well as the 12mm Zeiss Touit lenses, I walked (in some places, shuffled due to the number of people) along the whole length of Mulberry Street, and Grand Street. I chose the lunch hours when the pedestrian traffic would at its highest, and when hemmed in by people, I used the wide angle Zeiss.  

The festival had almost nothing to with faith or religiosity, although that will happen to a certain extent when the statue of San Gennaro leads a procession for a mass at Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood.

It's really all about the food. From sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, cheesy and meat-filled Italian egg rolls, eggplant, chicken and meatball parms, cannolis, cheesecake cones and zeppoles. It's also how many in the United States need to be more careful with their diet and sugar intake.

And these photographs have been made into a audio slideshow with the unmistakable voice of Louis Prima singing "Buena Sera".

Saturday, 7 September 2019

The One-Yuan Teahouse | Fujifilm GFX50R

One Yuan by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

Having heard of the "One Yuan" teahouse on earlier trips to Shanghai, I resolved to visit it and arranged for a car to drive me to Digang on an early morning. The thousand-year-old Digang Village (荻港村, literally “reed harbor village”) is in the Nanxun District, about 2-1/2 hours west of Shanghai. I had read this humble village, with a population of just a bit over 4,000, once used to be a prosperous trading hub with no less than 13 teahouses; which at the time were the most popular hangouts among locals.

My objective was the only teahouse still left standing. Juhuayuan (聚华园) has been around for more than a century, and is also known as the "One Yuan Teahouse". Customers can sit in this teahouse the entire day from as early as 3 am, spending only 1 yuan ( $0.16) for the cost of boiled water, a table and a chair.

It was easy to find the teahouse. Digang is a sleepy small town where everybody knows each other, and there were few people milling about at this time of day....where the heat and humidity were very high. Pan Pingfu, the owner of the One Yuan Teahouse, and also a veteran barber who based his barbershop inside the teahouse, was having his tea, and on being told the purpose of my journey, welcomed me with a glass of freshly brewed black tea.

I sat with Pan, and asked him to tell me his life story. His teahouse receives about 20 to 30 guests per day, compared to the previous 70 to 80 back in its heyday, and has now become a simple gathering point for local elderly people. It is for that reason that Pan refuses -despite entreaties from his wife- to raise his prices.

Pan showing off a large photo of his teahouse. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

Pan's wife singing a local song. Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved