Yosemite Villas

"Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to an area of turbulence" announced the hostess, just a few seconds after the Air China 777 had lurched and shuddered, prompting gasps and exclamations from around the plane. Enroute from Shanghai to Beijing, sitting next to a 40-something woman in ocelot-patterned tights, her eyes closed as she was lost in the synthpop from her MP3 player, the hostess's sentiment seemed perfectly apt.

China's scale is hard to grasp — thinking of it in terms of statistics reminds me of those diagrams showing how many earths can fit inside the planet Jupiter. We're coming up on the Chinese National Holidays, conveniently coincident with the time of the Autumn Moon Festival. While in Bejing, I was astounded by one of our hosts' assertions that during the 2003 holidays, China Telcom has transmitted over six billion SMS messages between pagers and celphones. This in a country where 70% of the population is still rural, and (three decades after the Cultural Revolution) the top 5% of citizens own over half the wealth. 6 billion in an urban population of 350+ million... 18 messages each? Busy!

Beijing and Shanghai have both seen massive surges in population over the past decade — as much as 30% of the population has arrived in those years, mostly imported from the countryside. Most of them work in low-level jobs. A friend in Shanghai commented that she didn't feel confident speaking Shanghainese dialect to most staff at restaurants any more — all they ever seemed to understand was the nationalized putonghua Mandarin. I couldn't help but think that this language difference could spell a durable class distinction within the city, just as the French and English concession areas once defined language-based barriers of their own, many decades ago.

Yosemite Villas is the name of a new luxury housing project in the Beijing suburbs, an "American-style gated community." Hard to imagine anything on those flat plains gaining the name of "Yosemite," but then again there's no shortage around here in Santa Clara of just as unlikely street names.

Posted September 30, 2004 | Comments (0)


So it's gone, bubbled-wrapped and brown papered, stamped and mailed on its way back to Canon. As ever with mechanical widgets, it's the cheapest parts that break — 2-cent battery clips and a 5-cent button cap. Just the same it's under warranty, and off it goes. No DSLR. So at least for a while it's no CF cards, no chargers, no PCMCIA slots, no USB or burning CDs or connector cables — at least not when it comes to making pictures. I put them all away in a big bag at the back of the cabinet.

The Contax 35mm as ever is solid and quick and surprisingly light after carrying around the 300D for a while (probably 1/3 the weight of the Canon w/lens). What have I been doing with this bulky digicam? Heck, I can carry the G and all three lenses, ten rolls of film, toss-in the RTS for good measure and the bag still feels shockingly light. What was I thinking, dragging around that digital brick?

Then I go to a sports meet.

Bang bang whiirrrrrrr ga! it's time to reload already, bang bang, over here, bang bang whiirrrrr time to reload again,... I've burned through three rolls of Tri-X in fifteen minutes and now it'll be an hour and a half of fiddling with chemicals, 7 hours of drying, three and a half hours of scanning. Oh yeah, now I remember why I put up with a 2kg camera.

Yesterday Zeiss revived yet another of its old brand names, introducing (err, re-introducing) the Zeiss Ikon, yet another Cosina-built Leica-M mount vanity camera. Unlike the Rollei 35 RF, this one isn't just a rebadged Voigtlander Bessa. But it's still clearly a vanity item, albeit one with some swell lenses (most of which, incidentally, will work fine on any other M camera). The ZI may have a special place in history — could it be the last-ever new line of 35mm cameras?

I don't see myself giving up on film any time soon — sure, I replaced part of my camera cabinet with digital, but film shooting retains its own character, and digi just doesn't ever seem to get there — it has a character of its own. Where they completely overlap, well, the digital wins on points for convenience and run costs. Sure wish I could find a small, affordable digital camera with quick responses and a decent viewfinder, though.

Posted September 28, 2004 | Comments (1)

My China?

This morning, while randomly surfing I came across Vincent Laforet's Website. Laforet is an excellent well-known shooter with the New York Times.

Looking into his "Projects" area, I saw "China - Past and Future Intertwined ...shot in Beijing and Shanghai, China over a period of eight days." Figured I should take a gander, having just returned from a similar trip (though not for the purpose of making photos, but to attend developer events and meetings — photography simply gives an excuse and structure to my compulsive flanerie, squeezed in for an hour or two in bits during the week).

What surprised me was just how much the photos Laforet had made, and my own photos, overlapped — at least in terms of very particular locations, situations, and in one or two cases, I think we may have even photographed the same people (in a country with a billion population).

Now I'm not going to be bent out of shape over how miserable I might feel when I saw his striking shots, nor indignantly defend my own. They're different takes, for different purposes. What surprised me was the many coincidences between our photographic itineraries, chosen in my case to bypass obvious tourist spots for the most part (we even seem to have visited the Great Wall in similar, tourist-free and dilapidated sections). But clearly both were still being made with the foreigner's eye, albeit one that thought it was so doggoned journalistic and clever.

Not that there's any shortage of homebrew photographers in China — I've just been working through Red-Color News Soldier by Li Zhensheng, a news shooter in Northest China throughout the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's. Unlike most, Mr. Li kept his thousands of negatives from those days (by hiding them under the floor), and they paint a picture of a China already so different from today's — I found myself exclaiming "wow" with most every turn of the page. Li's photos remind me how so many of the people I met there must have been the very same brutal young revolutionaries of Li's pictures. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone wearing a Mao suit though — I only saw one old green jacket being used by a farmer to carry chestnuts, and one doddering pensioner, probably a domestic tourist to Tiananmen, wearing a faded gray version. I wonder how much he missed thronging there as a Red Guard.

Posted September 25, 2004 | Comments (0)

Distant Relations

It's only natural to make a lot of photos when travelling. This past trip has seen me chewing through two to four hundred shots a day. More on some days. Let's see, that's something like 3000 shots or around 85 rolls, about six or seven rolls per day. Surprising to me, it's not a lot more than I might have shot without the digital camera (the Contax only got used for about four rolls, total — though it's a joy to handle compared to the lunking Canon).

When the trip is rushed it's especially true that you're likely to see the things most typical, or most different from those at home. They stand out as obvious. The stone tanukis, the tricycle cabs, the massive portraits of Mao. And on occasion the things surprisingly transplanted or morphed where you'd least expect them: the subtitled Korn tracks in the Karaoke machine, the Cadillac Fleetwoods negotiating slowly through the streets of Shinjuku, the Beijing DQ store. There's simply not a lot of time for contemplation. Bang off the shot and move, you've got other places to go.

A resolution I'd made some months ago had been to try approaching Santa Clara with the same eye that I usually bear when travelling. It's tough — Santa Clara is suburban and automobile-dominated, as opposed to cities like London (or San Francisco, just an hour away) which still have a large amount of pedestrian traffic and businesses. And this past summer has been demanding with a lot of non-photo activities and time demands.

An interesting effect, however, and one I've experienced before, is that on my return America seems almost as alien and distant as the places I've just been. The attributes of American character are suddenly in sharper outline than they had been before. The places and the people, strange or familiar, are vivid and mysteriously new, as if they'd somehow been replaced by more colorful doppelgangers while I was gone.

Posted September 23, 2004 | Comments (0)

#2 Tries Harder

With three hours to kill between afternoon presentations at Kogakuin University, I took a three-block walk, first across the street to the Mitsui Building, where I failed to find either the the Pentax Forum Gallery or Epson's epSite. Then around the corner past Subaru to the Nikon Salon and Salon 21bis, tucked-away on the 28th floor of the Shinjuku L Tower.

As expected, the galleries were tucked behind a bright and shiny general product showroom and the service departments. I was somewhat leery, expecting to see the sorts of pix that photo marketeers know amateurs want to make with their gear: bright balloons, clowns and children, sunsets and vividly exotic birds. I was very happy to discover that I was totally wrong, and the the galleries at Nikon were full of good photos. The 21bis show was particularly good, [LANDSCAPER] by Shunsuke Tamura.

Better yet, the shows changed rapidly — I could come back the next evening to see two completely new sets.

Thus both discouraged by my poor navigation and yet encouraged by what I'd found at Nikon, I set off the next morning to visit the concentration of photo-industry-sponsored galleries in Ginza: Canon, Contax, another Nikon gallery, Leica, Fuji, and Kodak, where I knew the 50 Years of Tri-X Show contained, among many others, a couple of Moriyama and Araki prints.

This time, for the most part, I got exactly what I had been expecting in the first place. Canon was full of big colorfully empty travel photos, though two tall prints at the back of the gallery, depicting ice and stones, were strikingly different and evoked old-style Chinese painting. The show at Nikon Ginza was of wildlife and wild landscapes, big and colorful and again predictable. Contax: "Rock," containing big prints of Mount Zion sunsets and sunrises. Fuji also had a show of mountainscapes, big and colorful and apparently all shot by a camera club (many members present, too). Leica, poised next to the new Ginza Apple Store (essentially a very straight copy of the American ones — just like Apple stores I've seen in Korea and China — even down to the English-language signage), stuck to the knitting as well, with a collection of black-and-white Tyrolian farmers by Georg Mayr (made, one assumes, with a Leica M). At least the Kodak show was worth the long walk in a circle through Ginza's tony shopping districts.

After this walk I went on to see Dirk and Kurt at lunch in Akasaka, and post-noodles we visited Hit-On rental darkrooms before heading on for more wandering and my return to the hotel around 5PM. Now apprehensive, I decided against finding the new Konica Minolta space or searching again for Pentax and Epson.

If I hurried, I could still catch the new shows at Nikon Shinjuku and even walk over to Photographer's Gallery, which I knew regularly exhibited Japanese street photography. I was not disappointed by the show "SM Tabloid," and managed to pick up a couple of new books too before wandering off into the evening rain.

The Nikon galleries? On one side, Yoko Oyama's Silver Moon — stylish, thoughtful. In bis21, an in-depth documentary collection on Japanese rural retirees (the photographer's parents?), a much better rendition of emotional B&W journalism than the safe stuff found over at Leica.

Posted September 17, 2004 | Comments (0)

Motion Blur

Four airports in the past five days — a busy trip. Currently Sunday morning (I think) in Tokyo.

My Canon 300D seems to be falling apart! First a battery clip broke a couple of months ago, and rather than lose the camera for weeks I just got an external clip. Now the lens-release button has fallen off. I'm holding it in place with tape now — seems to still work so far. My AF performance seems to have fallen off a cliff too. Glad I have the old Contax G2 and a dozen rolls of Tri-X to fall back on, just in case... only one 28mm lens with the G2 though.

Walked through Yodobashi camera last night, about three blocks from my hotel in Shinjuku. I was hoping they'd have one of the new Canon 20D's in stock — no such luck. Did see a lot of black-bodied 300D's, though, along with the famed 18-55mm EF-S USM (yes, it does exist). And lots of interesting I've-never-seen-that-before compacts and groovy keitai celphones.

At Yodobashi you can handle just about any model of anything, so I did get a quick crack at an EOS 1D Mk II. It's heavy as a brick, and had obviously been handled a lot by many people, but it still handled magnificently. Ah, if only I had a spare 600,000 yen lying around...

Posted September 04, 2004 | Comments (2)


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