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 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 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. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Stolen Lives | Photo Film

Here's a "photo-film" of the two protest marches I joined which occurred in Washington Square Park; the locally-beloved, world-famous heart of Greenwich Village. As accompanying sound track, I added the unforgettable words by Martin Luther King Jr during his "I Have A Dream" speech delivered August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial.

"And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

POV: The Gothamist And The Lack of Civility

This tale of incivility will not appear to be unusual to many of the freelancers who submit their work to publications in the hope of getting published, but I thought I'd tell it for those who still harbor aspirations that all editors, publications staff et al are people who do -or try to do- the right thing. They don't.

1. On Sunday June 7th, I photographed the artwork on some of the wooden 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 gallery of my photographs was uploaded on the morning of June 9th and can be viewed here.

2. A few hours later on June 9th, I emailed the link to The Gothamist, asking the on-line publication, if they were interested in the photographs.

3. Having had no response or acknowledgment to my email the following day, I checked The Gothamist's website and found it had dispatched a photographer to SoHo on June 10th, and published an article with his images at 2:30 pm.

Now, I don't fault The Gothamist for wanting their own photographer's work on its pages, but what I do fault them with is their inability or unwillingness to acknowledge my email and the gallery of images I had sent them. It's the incivility that irks me. 

A two-line email saying "Thank you for the submission/suggestion/heads up...nice work...but we prefer to have our own photographer cover this..." or even better, include a link to my gallery in its article.

That's what a nice decent civil person would have done. 

End of rant.

PS. The New Yorker published an article on the Plywood Art of SoHo.

Monday, 8 June 2020

Stolen Lives

On June 6, 2020, I learned - through Twitter - of a march that would start in Union Square and end in Washington Square Park. Naturally, history was being made in close proximity so grabbing my cameras, two masks on top of each other and a bottle of water, off I went to wait for it to arrive at the arch.

So here are the photographs that I made during the event. Higher resolution/size can be viewed here.

The emotions during this protest were so electric, so intense and so personal to the protesters that I felt the air vibrating. I had to steady my hands to photograph the above image.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” 
― Martin Luther King Jr