In order to keep the street dust and dirt out of the house, the Chinese people take their shoes off and leave them by the door. Although so many traditions have changed in the last 25 years or so, this is one that hasn’t changed… at least on the Mainland. Hong Kong people don’t do this. At least, not that I’ve ever seen.
My mind is still in Shanghai, where this image was made. I’m a great walker. I think that’s really the only way to make “street pictures.” I was walking down another of Shanghai’s old lanes when I spotted this guy. He didn’t mind so I made his picture.
Here’s the thing about him. In 1989, almost all the people of a certain age still wore the old Mao-styled clothing and hats. The clothes all matched — shirt, pants and hat. They were either dark blue or sort of a dark olive drab-green color. Sometimes both faded to a sort of gray color after repeated washings. That’s a good metafore for China at the time. Sort of gray. Unless you wandered pretty far into the country, you would never see people dressed this way today. But at the time, when you saw most people dressed in this uniform you were instantly reminded that you were in The People’s Republic of China. Not that you could ever forget.
Today? Not so much.
Once you get into a big city like Shanghai, you know that you are in some place different then you are used to. But, there isn’t such a foreignness to it. How can there be? There is a Starbucks on every other corner and a McDonald’s on alternating corners. This raises a tiny point of trivia. The largest McDonald’s in the world is located on Nanjing Lu, the main shopping and walking street in Shanghai.
This is another image from my time in Shanghai. While bikes are still a very popular way to get around, the coming of the car, the new subways and more modern means of transportation have made scenes like this one harder to find.
You might ask yourself, did they not have cars in 1989? Of course they did. But, they weren’t affordable and generally they were limited to those more well connected people, usually those who had Communist Cadre connections.
Today, everybody wants a car. And, if you can’t afford a car today well there is still a very modern and well thought out subway system which can take you to locations that peddling a bike never could.
Am I anti-bike? Oh no. I like the old days. But, I like to keep my options open. On the other hand, bike accidents in 1989 were one of the leading causes of accidental death.
Old Shanghai usually means pre-World War II, but in the last 25 years or so China — and Shanghai in particular — has emerged from the darkness that began in 1949 after the initial stages of the Communist Revolution. So a picture like this one, made in 1989, is a remnant of another kind of old Shanghai.
It is a bustling, modern city today. It is probably as urbane as any city in the world. But in 1989, when I first went there, it was crowded and very, very backward if backward means stuck in the past. Maybe trapped is a better word then stuck. Most of that wasn’t so good. But, some was good.
This picture shows a very quiet lane that ran through one of the former Western Concessions. It also shows a very popular method of transportation and the arrival of somebody’s television which probably only was used to see CCTV. This is an example of what was good about Shanghai in 1989.
I’m guessing that today, this quiet little lane has been replaced by towering apartment or commercial buildings.
So, for the rest of this week I hope to publish images that I made in Shanghai in 1989. China has been a big part of my life since then and my conversation with you should reflect that.
From a technical perspective, the pictures I publish this week were produced in the normal way. I used Nikon F3 cameras, Tri-x film and the usual assortments of photo papers. But, there is one big difference. In those days, Chinese Customs and Immigration wanted to see what you photographed. So, I had to develop every roll of film that I produced using a university darkroom. The water was uncontrolled and the way I learned to develop film — time and temperature — migrated to by guess and by golly. Usually, I came close. But, often times there was a huge amount of contrast build up. The printed images reflect that. The fact that this image, and the images that I’ll publish in the next few days are reasonably well printed, is a reflection on today’s digital technology.
So, now we skip forward to 1989 when I found myself in China for a while. At that time, China was not quite as developed as it is today. Shanghai was still a dark city. In fact, Nanjing Lu — the main and very busy shopping street today — was a small road that closed after dark because there was no light, phone service was spotty and most people rode around on bicycles.
In those days, There were no international businesses, no internet, no Facebook, no blogging and no tweeting. If you wanted to use the phone system to call anywhere in the world, you had to call the operator and speak a smattering of Mandarin and even then it might have just been quicker to write and post a letter.
At any rate, I traveled around a bit. That, in itself, was an adventure. Sheesh. Just buying a ticket for a train trip was an adventure. And, the hotels? Oh my. They were fine by Chinese standards. They had hall monitors. They had hot water bottles for tea. (Most still do). The heat worked for about an hour. There probably was no air conditioning. There was no television. And the beds were made from… well, I don’t know what.
That’s all changed.
This picture was made in Shaoshan, where Mao Zedong was born. It is a small town about 90 kilometers southwest of Changsha in Hunan Province. If you read about Mao’s home, you’ll find that he was born in 1893 and lived in a modest 13 room house. Hmmmm… usually the author quickly adds that his parents were well off peasants. I’ll leave you to sort out the irony of both statements.
Back to the picture. After a long drive in which the driver showed off his skills so well that I fell asleep, we came to the old section of the town. It should be noted here that when I’m in a situation that scares me and I can’t do anything to control it, I go to sleep. We got out of the car to stretch our legs and have lunch in some dank dumpling house. I saw this man. I held my camera up and mimed “Can I take your picture?” He agreed. This is the result. Later, I was told that I was the first Westerner that he had ever seen. I’m not sure I believe that because even though this was relatively early in the resumed China-Wetsern relations, tourists have been coming to this town for years.
I made this portrait during my last few weeks in North Carolina. This man was supposedly the last blacksmith in the state. He was one of those craftsman who could pretty much make anything out of metal. He worked in the most old school of ways. He used no machines, preferring to do almost everything by hand using simple tools and a forge. Not only was this American craftsmanship at its best, but his working methods were hundreds of years old.
Although, I’ve read stories about a few craftsman who are starting to make certain products — shoes, for instance — by hand, I seriously doubt that there is a blacksmith left in The United States. I wish somebody would prove me wrong. Photographing an old fashioned blacksmith would make a great story and a lot of good pictures.
When I left The New River Valley, I moved about 105 miles away to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That put my in a position to stay near Virginia but work in a metro environment. Unfortunately, at that time the newspaper was not known for its great use of pictures. We covered a lot of sports, a lot of social events and seemed to live and die on stand alone wild art. Fortunately, my experience at The River Newspapers gave me a lot of experience in how to find and photograph stand alone features.
I made this picture on a Sunday when there were no assignments at all, That meant that all three Sunday photographers were out cruising and looking for something… anything to publish in the newspaper.
I was shooting with a pool (a piece of equipment shared by the entire photo staff) lens. I called this lens the “Magic 400.” It was a 400 mm f 3.5 lens that was heavy and hard to hand hold. I never used it to shoot from long distances and hide. I used it to compress images and give them some sort of graphic design element. I worked close enough so that the subject would make no mistake about who I was photographing. I don’t believe in bushwhack photography. However, that sort of compression and design made the resulting images magical. At least they were magical for me.
This is a picture of a young men’s choral group on their way to their performance. This image ended up on the front page. It was a very slow news day. But, to me the amazing thing was that I made four other publishable pictures on that day. That’s a lot. I pretty much filled the paper and left a couple of pictures of the evening paper as well. My two colleagues did not do as well. But, that’s how it goes. Sometimes when you are cruising around aimlessly — which really is a waste of resources — you get very lucky. Sometimes, you just waste resources.
Later, I started doing something that I do until this day. I researched and read a lot about the place in which I found myself. I began to make very targeted self-assignments of subjects that interest me. In my newspaper days, I would just file that information away for slow days like that Sunday.
Sometime toward the end of my time in The New River Valley, the newspaper group’s management decided to publish a tab-configured supplement that was really designed to sell ads. I don’t remember its name. I think it was something like “Get The Picture.”I think the only real story was the one that I produced that actually was part of the cover package. The rest of the stories were paid stories written by advertisers.
For me, this was just one more stand alone picture that I had to find somewhere before the design, make up and printing deadline. I was driving around aimlessly and I stumbled upon this guy who was welding some pipe. He allowed me to photograph him and I had the new publication’s first cover.
Nobody said anything positively or negatively as the cover and inside pages made their way through production. The tab was inserted into all three regional newspapers and out on the street it went.
A day or so later, I had the advertising director complaining to me as I sat at my desk. Was there a problem with the subject, himself? No. Did the subject call to complain? No. So what was the problem? “I expected some kind of pretty picture like a girl running across a field, not this hard bitten, mean looking guy, ” said the advertising director. “Oh,” I replied. “The managing editor told me this would be a good place for solid photojournalism.”
This kind of discussion went on for weeks as I continued to do my thing and the ad department tried to do theirs, which was sell ads. Finally, I capitulated and shot some pretty picture. The first reader who called me about the cover wanted to know what happened to the “good” pictures.
There you have it.
I appear to be back on track and writing about The New River Newspapers. With three small newspapers and Virginia Tech being in the region, the one thing that we did cover a lot was sports, especially football and basketball.
I’m not a particularly great sports photographer. But like anything, a lot of practice makes you better.
Boy, did I practice. Sometimes I shot four football games over the course of a weekend. And, during basketbal season it wasn’t unusual to shoot a game or two every day that I worked.
Like anything that requires a lot of hand – eye coordination, you have to keep doing it. In other words; practice, practice, practice.
I’m very rusty today. It would take a long time to get back to even the low level of competence that it took to make this picture. Oh well.