Street Market Impressions

April 30, 2010

Thailand, 2010: This is one of the street markets in Bangkok where tourists can buy all kinds of clothes, souvenirs, furniture, art…basically everything! It’s a unique atmosphere, in dim light with stall after stall. It’s hot and humid and the people working here spend the whole day in a neon lit box, waiting for people to buy something. The atmosphere is rather peaceful though. Thais are not aggressive sellers and you can spend the whole day strolling through the market without being pulled inside all the time. In China I usually get claustrophobic after one hour.

I am surprised that it was possible to take images with my Hasselblad and a Fuji Provia400x slide film. Fortunately, neon light is a superb source of lighting for photography!

Here are the images:


This was actually supposed to become a book…

In January 2009 I started a new project that with the (draft) name “Singapore Ink”. The background was a friendship with an old dive buddy of my wife’s who is running a tattoo shop in Singapore’s “Far East Plaza Shopping Mall”. ‘Jaws’, as he is known, is one of the most original and nicest people I know in Singapore. At times he looks a bit like a character from a Hong Kong gangster movie. He is tattooed all over his body and with his long hair and kinky beard he definitely stands out in a place like Singapore. Moreover, apart from having been a professional diver, fish farm owner etc., he is an excellent tattoo artist with a special reputation in town. This is what I wanted to portrait in my project.

Well, the book never materialized. But I managed to produce a number of images that I am quite happy with. And despite the fact that it not (yet) going to be published on paper, at least I can show parts of it online and I hope some people will appreciate it.

Even though the project was about Jaws the artist, the series of pictures was neither supposed to be about tattoos nor about Jaws as a person. What I wanted to portrait was the workshop and the process involved when creating tattoos. Tattoo shops have a special atmosphere. People walk inside with a certain attitude that makes them different from retailers that sell fashion, or for example hair dressers. Tattoos are something permanent and you put a lost of trust in the person who is going to work on your skin and change it forever. So who are these people and what makes us feel comfortable in their place?
The series starts with a number of images that show the daily routine in the shop. These black and white pictures are more like an introduction and were shot on 35mm film.

After the introduction, i.e text plus black and white images for illustration purposes, the ‘book’ starts with the main series of color ‘plates’. These were taken on 120 film with a Hasselblad 500CM and a Pentax 67 camera. The tattoo room was very small which made taking pictures everything but easy. For many angles I could not use my tripod since I was climbing onto chairs, crawling on the floor, or squeezing behind tattoo equipment. The lighting also brought a number of challenges. I used ASA 400 slide film which made it possible to shoot without tripod, but also lead to a green cast due to the existing working lights. I learned to appreciate the mood and atmosphere that came with it, though!

Inge Morath: FIRST COLOR

It’ s been a while since I recommended a book. It’s a shame because I had made this a monthly habit and I was always proud of the quality of the books I had in my blog. However, I have become more and more bored with what’s in the market. Actually it might even be a certain frustration with photography in general. For me photography means images of people. I like to look at landscapes and architecture, too, but for my own work I am mostly focused on portraits. This is what I am most fascinated in: human characters, behavior, emotions etc. Once I read something like: “A good portrait is when you manage to get someone interested in the image of a person he/she does not know”. So that’s what I am after: real people, real characters, real emotions, real life!

Frustratingly (for me): Nowadays most photography is not about real people anymore but about certain prototypes, stereotypes, ideals of beauty, whatever. Sometimes I have the impression that fashion photography has taken over and it’s all about creating artificial arrangements, and the people photographed play a certain role, something which has very little or nothing to do what they really are. I am looking at hundreds of images every week. When you do this you start seeing patterns, trends, styles that start repeating themselves. So, after the 1000th half (or completely) naked girl standing at a window with a melancholic look on her face (or alternatively lying on a bed), you start getting really really bored! The same applies to certain photo shop techniques, over-saturation/desaturation, high contrast, whatever. In our world of fashion, advertising, and model culture, straight forward portrait photography that tries to actually ‘portrait’ the subject, showing the inner self, literally seems to be “out of fashion”.

So today when I was walking into my favorite photo art bookshop in Singapore, I was positively surprised to see a new edition of Inge Morath’s work, in color.

For people who don’t know: Inge Morath was one of the first members of MAGNUM photo agency and is mostly famous for her black and white portraits of actors and other celebrities in the 1950s and 1960s. She belongs to that ‘leica generation’ of photo journalists who shaped our view of that era. The fact that she was married to Arthur Miller makes her even more interesting. So while I used to know her mainly for her b/w portrait work, this volume is actually a collection of color photographs she took during travels to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and America. The images are mostly documentary and show people in their daily life, on the street, during festivals etc.

What attracted me to this book was

1. The colors. This book is A DREAM IN KODACHROME! Beautiful colors in the subtle tones that made this film so popular and typical for the 1950s – 1970s.

2. There s nothing pretentious about these images. They show real people in their real life. It’s like a window into an era that we only know in black and white and from old Hollywood movies.

I was amazed about the quality of the photographs, their sharpness and truthfulness of the colors. MAGNUM obviously did a good job in storing the negatives. There is no yellow or red touch to the pictures. They look as if they were taken yesterday which makes the experience even more fascinating and a joy to look at. And there is nothing “old” about the imaging, even though they are +50 years old. I am also not saying that back then was the “real” photography and today everything is fake. But apart from mainly Eastern European (especially Russian) photographers I find much of the new digital stuff very pretentious, commercial, more like action art than photography, and too much fashion orientated. Many portraits show stereotypes but not real characters I can identify myself with. Translating this into movies, I am afraid I am not the “Avatar” type but rather into character drama. Maybe I am getting older, too 😉

As so many books I have recommended, this is on sales and be purchased here! The volume is beautifully published by MAGNUMSteidl and printed on paper that does the images the justice they deserve.