Tuesday, 27 October 2020

The Spirit Medium And The Model

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

It's been 4 years -almost to the day- when I was traveling to Hanoi on my Hau Dong: Spirit Mediums of Vietnam photo book tour, and memories of these wonderful two weeks are unexpectedly flooding in. 

Perhaps it's because of the imminent US Presidential Election that reignited these memories, since I was there in 2016 when the current White House occupant was elected. I recall having breakfast at the Golden Silk hotel that morning when CNN  announced the news much to the stunned shock of all those present. 

However, setting aside politics, I think it's the passage of 4 years compounded by the current travel impossibility due to COVID19 that is the cause for this nostalgia.

So as an antidote, I write this post about Linh Trần (whom I often call Lotus); one of the very best Hầu Đồng spirit mediums in Vietnam and who added to her popularity by being featured in Morgan Freeman's The Story of God Netflix series. She also figures prominently in my photo book, in which she was interviewed at length as to her path within the Đạo Mẫu religious faith and practices.

Extremely photogenic and with considerable presence, Linh Trần's incarnations as the various deities that populate the Đạo Mẫu religion during her ceremonies were always charismatic and understandably very popular, which led to her having many faithful and loyal followers. I recall her willingness in being photographed following our one-on-one interviews in a studio near her home, and my telling her -despite her scoffing- she ought to have a parallel career as an urban fashion model. 


We naturally kept in contact throughout the intervening years, and it's only recently that I saw photographs of her modeling her own colorful and idiosyncratic clothes in various parts of Hanoi. I am certain she isn't doing it professionally, but I'm glad she possibly heeded my (and others?) advice, even though it took her much of these 4 years to get there. In the above photograph by Nguyen Tra Mi, Lotus is holding her Tây Bắc jacket; indigenous to the region in the north of Vietnam.

Perhaps her next step would be to become an influencer on the youth-oriented social platforms such as Tik-Tok and Instagram? Her being schooled as a graphic designer certainly gives her an edge, and she should pursue that path if it appeals to her.


Sunday, 25 October 2020

Color Grading With ON1

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

Over the past few months, I've steadily become a fan of ON1, the image editor that combines photo organizing, editing and effects all in one program, and which includes 3 of ON1’s most popular standalone products: HDR, Effects and Resize, as well as Layers, Pano, Focus Stacking, Print, and many other features (which for most parts I have yet to work with).

Truth be told, I never was fan of Adobe Photoshop nor of Lightroom, and for photo processing/editing relied on Iridient Developer, the image-conversion application designed specifically for OS X, especially as I'm a Fuji X and GFX user. I also used Color Efex Pro to refine what Iridient could not provide. For black and white work, I used Silver Efex Pro2 which -in my view- is superlative in monochromatic conversion.

While I never retouch my travel and street photographs, preferring to apply a photo journalistic ethic to these two types of photography, I have progressively come to the realization that the third type of my photography; namely fashion story-telling, does require a different way of post processing...hence ON1. 

I am also a relatively recent aficionado of color-grading, getting inspiration from Japanese photographers who seem to favor this look...hence ON1 (again). 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. One can add blue hues to make a picture appear cold, or yellow and orange to make it look warm. The Japanese color-grading "look" is generally cinematic blue-green such as the one in the top photograph of Lise Liu. 


The ease by which ON1 -with its presets- can achieve this color grading look, as well as others means that I am able to process the photographs by choosing one or more of the presets in a few moments...and manually refine the final results should I choose to.

ON1 also offers a program ON1 Portrait AI 2021 which easily allows the user to apply what I call "plastic surgery" to the faces of one's subjects. However, I am more used to another program called Portrait Pro that essentially has the same functions.

I am not linking to any of these programs since this post is just to record what I use insofar as the fashion-storytelling work that I do, and is not an advertisement.

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Sung Kwan Ma | Hanoi Portraits

Photo © Sung Kwan Ma | All Rights Reserved

It's always a genuine pleasure to view the work of a photographer who shares many of one's own aesthetic, as well as geographic affinities. Through a mutual Facebook contact, I discovered the lovely work of Sung Kwan Ma, a photographer born in Seoul and now based in New York City. He has a number of galleries on his website, that include work from various cities in India, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Viet Nam. His work includes portraits and street photography, as well as wedding photography...both in color and monochrome.

It's his Viet Nam photographs that I loved the most, especially those of his street portrait sessions of Thu Thuy, a Hanoi-based model. He has chosen to photograph her amongst the bustle of the old quarter in Hanoi, known as Pho Co; one of my favorite areas for street photography because of its ambiance and exotic back walls that are often inscribed with mobile telephone numbers as adverts...and where the beauty of the Vietnamese model in her traditional red and white ao dai is amply displayed.

Interestingly, he has also used the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio in his framing for a selection of his portraiture work, such as in Shanghai and in NYC. He preceded me in that style, as I am preparing to do the same in a forthcoming project with Lise Liu (see my previous post).

As per his website, Sung's extensive spiritual journeys in India and humanitarian activities throughout Asia over the past two decades have been the soul and defining framework of his work. He specifically mentions his affinity to the various cultural diversities of India and the Indian people. His images seek to capture the emotional depth of traditional sentiments and the joys of festivity.

A photographer to follow.

Saturday, 19 September 2020


As per my earlier blog post, I had arranged with Lise Liu to wear a qi pao/cheongsam to take on the role of an imaginary woman looking for traces of her long deceased grandmother in the narrow alleys of Chinatown at a time when the area was controlled by gangsters. The photo-film is titled "Looking For Mei Wu".

Readers can either view the photo film on Vimeo (above) or alternatively on YouTube.

Friday, 4 September 2020

A Photo Session in NYC's Chinatown

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved

After the long 'drought' brought about by COVID-19 which essentially grounded me since the beginning of 2020, I received a well needed boost of endorphins when I met with Lise Liu in Chinatown's Pell Street on a Sunday morning for a photo session.

I had arranged with her to wear one of her qi pao/cheongsam as she was to take on the role of the imaginary Lily Wu looking for traces of her long deceased grandmother in the narrow alleys of Chinatown at a time when the area was controlled by gangsters. The photo-film is tentatively titled "Looking For Mei Wu".

My favorite Chinatown streets are Pell and Doyers streets, and this is where Lise and I made many of the photos. Doyers -in particular- is special since within its curve was hidden secret gambling and opium dens and even prostitution caves. Pell Street is also interesting as it used to be where the headquarters for gangs and their criminal activities.
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
It was my first time to photograph a model in New York City, and I was apprehensive as to whether the busy streets and gawking pedestrians would be impediments...but none of that happened. We had thought that it being a Sunday, the streets would be less crowded...but that turned out not to be the case. Chinese shoppers prefer their produce as fresh as possible, so shopping doesn't stop on Sundays...it's a daily event. Pedestrians were mindful not to intrude and avoided crossing in front of me when I was photographing. Overall, it was an amazing experience with Lise supplying a lot of energy and enthusiasm.

There were only two "annoyances": we encountered a noisy removal/haulage truck parked in front of a building that is to be featured in the forthcoming photo-film, and the disappearance of a wooden chair next to the incredibly glorious red wall on Mosco Street. I had hoped the chair would be a prop for a scene, but it had been whisked away by its owner or someone else.

Overall I would've preferred a cloudier sky, but the sun perfectly illuminated certain photo spots such as dark stairwells on Mott Street.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I had provided Lise with a black qi pao to wear for the photo session, but the size was not right so she wore a flowery one. It turned to be a salutary choice because a black one would not have contrasted well against the red backgrounds that I favored. She also brought a silken scarf which was useful on certain poses.

I used the fabulous Fuji GFX50R and the equally impressive Fujinon GF 45mm f2.8 all through the session, and while I had the X-Pro2/18mm for transitional takes, I didn't use it.


Wednesday, 29 July 2020

POV: NYC's Chinatown As The Antidote

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | Click for larger view | GFX50R 16:9 aspect ratio
I've been asked a few times as to why I seem to favor Manhattan's Chinatown for street photography...and the answer is simple but is also multi-layered.

When Covid-19 spread in New York City, many assumed it arrived from China but that was subsequently disproven. It was not Chinese travelers who brought it but travelers from Europe, and most probably those flying in from Italy. I had been told in late February by restauranteurs in Chinatown that business was slow due to the drop in tourists, but it was thought that it would pick up after a few weeks. It didn't, and it was quite the opposite. Seeing a Chinatown that was initially deserted, but very slowly coming back to a fraction of its activity over the following months inspired me to produce a number of galleries with photographs made on its streets; some of which can be found on this blog and also grouped in a YouTube video.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | Click for larger view | GFX50R 16:9 aspect ratio
Chinatown -as other areas in New York City- is a magnet for street photography, as it offers constantly changing and evolving streetscapes, colorful signage, pungent smells and most importantly interesting physiognomies. Pedestrians, shoppers and shopkeepers are so engrossed in their daily lives that they mostly ignore -or tolerate (not all of them)- photographers.

However for me, it goes beyond all of these attributes. Covid-19 has removed any international travel plans off my calendar. In January 2020, I had been set to travel for two weeks to Japan, then after news trickled in about the virus in Tokyo, I switched over to Taipei where I had arranged for a number of photo sessions. Naturally, this didn't happen and I had to cancel my flights in early March.

Especially during these unusual times, Chinatown in Manhattan has been a godsend to me; a travel junkie whose photography comes alive in Asian environments. I am fortunate to live just a 20 minutes walk from Chinatown and its streets. My frequent walks on its streets provide me with an Asian-fix, a rush similar to caffeine to a coffee-lover...and goes some way in papering over the emotional fissures arising from being unable to travel to Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong and my other favorite destinations.

I've become so comfortable photographing in Chinatown that I'm planning a photo session with a New York-based model to produce fashion-storytelling photo films. This will happen once New York City gets even safer than what it currently is...fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

In Praise of the Qi Pao/Cheongsam

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | Shanghai
I fault Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-Wai's magnificent "In The Mood For Love" movie for my qi pao/cheongsam fascination, which birthed my interest in producing 'photo films' featuring friends and/or semi-professional models wearing these quintessential Chinese dresses. While I'm also interested in Chinese opera costumes and to a certain extent, 'hanfu' (meaning clothes of the Han people) dress, it's the qi pao/cheongsam that is top of the list.

However, it's really my interest in Shanghai of the 1920-1930s historical era that introduced me to the dress.

The qi pao (旗袍) is pronounced as chi pao in Mandarin Chinese, but due to Hong Kong's influence, most of us call it cheongsam. The dress was popularized during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). The word "qi pao" means "banner dress", a sort of baggy robe similar to the French robe-sac fashion of the 1960s. 

It was a long one-piece loose fitting meant to cover the whole body from neck to feet, and was only worn by the Manchu class. It was meant to be 
very conservative and unrevealing, and was only after 1900 that the Han Chinese adopted the style, but in so doing made some modifications to the original design.

When Shanghai -competing with Paris- became the epicenter of high fashion and the Chinese capital of haute couture in the 1920s, the qi pao shed its conservative ancestry, and became de rigueur for the fashionistas of the time.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | Shanghai
I read there are actually two main traditional qi pao styles. Northern China favors the Beijing style which is called "Jing pai", and is more angular with a more conservative full-length loose form. The south prefers the Shanghai style called "hai pai", which is more form hugging and can be of various lengths. 

The modern qi pao has a zipper stitched into the side and a fake fastening on the front. Traditionally, the front was fastened by pankou (button) knots, but these are now only used for decoration. I've seen some that still have the original pankou knots though.

In the view of couturiers, the qi pao is a garment that embodies traditional Chinese etiquette and culture. With collars that stick upwards rather than folding, the qi pao causes the wearers to raise their heads and push out their chests. It also discourages glancing right and left. This explains Maggie Cheung's famous scene in which she walked up the staircase without looking at Tony Leung!

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

The 65:24 Aspect Ratio | Street Photography


Chinatown 65:24 by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure

I recently decided to experiment with the 65:24 aspect ratio option in my GFX50R (and for that matter, the GFX50S). As I often do street photography in NYC's Chinatown, it was natural I start this experiment on its crowded streets. After just a morning of doing just so, I realized that its long, thin panoramic "letterbox format" style gets quite addictive...so I returned a few times since, and tried to improve the technique.

This aspect ratio option replicates a wide panoramic 65x24mm negative, which is approximately equal to the width of two standard 35mm frames side by side. The well known Hasselblad XPan's 65x24mm film negative size is one the better known examples. It is quite challenging especially in street scenes of Chinatown, and it pushed me to see differently; almost peripherally.

Although better suited to landscapes (and frequently to cinematic projects), I found the 65x24mm aspect ratio to be visually quite appealing in certain scenes. Parked cars often shielded the crowds of pedestrians going about their shopping, so interesting scenes were not as plentiful as I hoped. It's certainly a different type of street photography...if it can be called that. 

Perhaps streetscapes is a better description.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

The Qi Pao, Pill Box Hats & Shanghai Fashion 1930s

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
One of my photographic interests is visual stories "photo-films" (see an example The Girl of Nanjing) that endeavor to recreate Shanghai in the 1930s by using fashion elements popular during its heyday era. The most popular fashion statement of the time was the qi pao (aka the cheongsam in Cantonese) which evolved to its present form over the years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1922).

During that dynastic period, women of Han descent wore two piece outfits while the Manchu women wore a long robe. With the advent of unity in China, women all over the country began to wear the qipaoEarly on in the 1900s, the qipao was loose-fitting, generally long-sleeved, and worn with unadorned, plain hairstyles. The modern version of the dress, now recognized as the ‘standard’ qipao, was developed in Shanghai in the 1920s, and became more form-fitting and with a high cut, and frequently worn with hairdos known as "finger waves".

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Evolving from its original appearance as a plain and sober Chinese robe to a more exciting style, the qi pao eschewed more traditional silks embellished with embroidery for cheaper contemporary textiles, with a greater variety of designs such as florals, dragons and geometrical patterns.

Society women in China knew that wearing their qi pao with its high collar, side slits and hour-glass body-conscious shape was being equated with an Eastern mystique. They added fur stole in winters, and pill box hats with veils to add more mystery to their appearance. The latter were invented by milliners and hat-makers in the 1930s, and were hugely popular for their simplicity and elegance. 

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the qi pao was seen as a feudal dress of the ancient times, and abandoned as daily clothing. However, in 1984, the qi pao/cheongsam was specified as the formal attire of female diplomatic agents by the People's Republic of China.

Uncredited Photo. Source Pinterest

Friday, 3 July 2020

GFX50R Firmware | New Film Simulations

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I was glad to learn of Fujifilm's upgrade firmware for both the GFX50R and the GFX50S -both of which I own- and quickly installed it. 

The firmware includes many technical improvements which I have yet to test or experience, but for the time being I tried one of its new film simulations; the Classic Neg mode which simulates the color negative film traditionally chosen for "snapshots". I also quickly tried its “Eterna" mode, which replicates the colors and tonality of Fujifilm’s motion picture film...but I need to spend more time to determine if it's useful to my style of photography.

The other addition is the “Smooth Skin Effect” which is supposed to smooth the appearance of human skin, ideal for portraiture. Naturally, all these film simulations and additions are for JPEGs only.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy. [crop of above photo + vignetting]
During a walk in NYC's Chinatown, I used the Classic Ng simulation, and from the initial images that it'll be one that I use quite often. I don't often change film simulations, but it does look it's one I will mostly keep using. Some photographers compare it to the old Fuji analog film Superia. I've never used Superia, but I can believe it. 

The next one to experiment with is the "Eterna" simulation. It's aimed at movie-making, but it might be useful in still photography too.

 To be continued...

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

My Work : Expecting Godot?

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
My favorite neighborhood for street photography is -and has always been- Manhattan's Chinatown which, by now, I almost know like the back of my hand. Walking its streets transports me to Asia; to Hong Kong, to Shanghai or to Beijing. Although it's virtually impossible to photograph facial expressions due to the face coverings, there are some whose body language and/or dangling masks make for interesting images.

I noticed this man leaning against a half painted plywood board on Mott Street; pursed lips, hands in his pocket, and waiting for something or someone. I hadn't noticed that his belt was well used...possibly either not his or he had lost a lot of weight. 

What I did notice was the sun gleam reflected on the plywood board that looked like a dancer...it was as if the man was hypnotized by her movements.

For post-processing, I used the ON1 editing software and chose one of its new vintage wet-type presets, and added some contrast and saturation. 



Tuesday, 23 June 2020

The Plywood Art of SoHo



I headed to SoHo a few Sundays ago to photograph the artwork on some of the plywood boards erected to protect SoHo's luxury stores and boutiques on Broome and Greene streets. Some of those were completed while others were still work-in-progress.

The plywood boards first went up across SoHo in March, as Covid19 prompted storefronts to close, and after the protests over the death of George Floyd more plywood boards were placed to protect (or repair) windows from damage. American ingenuity quickly kicked in, and artists of all stripes (some from the neighborhood itself) descended on SoHo's cobblestoned streets to beautify the bland plywood boards with fanciful art, slogans, poetry and graffiti.

My second visit was on June 22 when New York City's Phase 2 was starting, which meant there was a good chance that many of the plywood boards would come down.

Readers of this blog can either follow these links or scroll down for the photographs on this blog. And I just added an audio slideshow:



Part I: SoHo's Street Art is here (in full resolution).
Part II: The Plywood Art of SoHo is here (in full resolution)

Part I (June 7, 2020):
























Part II (June 22, 2020):













Thursday, 18 June 2020

Flower Photography | Still Lifes


Taking a breather (a metaphor for not having to wear a face mask) from New York City to Long Island for a few days, and having the indulgence of a mature garden with colorful flora, gave me the opportunity to flex a visual muscle that was never used. After all, this is an eclectic blog showcasing many different styles and disciplines.

Still life photography is a genre of photography used for the depiction of inanimate subject matter, typically a small group of objects. It is the application of photography to the still life artistic style. 

So here are some of my floral photograph; made with minimal preparations. I used the ON1 2020 software to post process the images.