I’ve floated this image elsewhere before but, I want to come back to it again.
This shot has just been “reworked” using the latest version of Capture One – Capture One 20. In looking over this image again, there’s everything wrong with this picture. And yet, there’s everything right with it. Let’s look at the parts.
No sane photographer would have taken this picture in the way in which this picture was taken. But, the moment was there – a matter of “now or never”. The likelihood of me ever coming back here or ever seeing something like this again are perhaps less than nil. In all the years I have been in and out of Shanghai, I have missed many a “great picture” moments and this was one I wasn’t going to miss.
So, what’s wrong with this picture? Well, for a start it may have been better in say, black and white. Then, at least, the focus would have been on the group of people playing mahjong. But, that too, would have been wrong – the black and white part that is.
In converting this image to monochrome, I would have deprived you, dear reader, of certain nuances. You would have been deprived of the glare of the sodium street lamp flooding the scene with its garish yellow cast.
Before, using filters on colour transparency, had little if any effect on countering that particular and peculiar glow and, it seems that digital isn’t going to be doing much better. But, all in all and as ugly as in maybe, that strong yellow cast is an essential part of this image.
On another score, had I converted or shot this image in black and white, the details and the colours of that building in the background would have been “lost” to you. It would have been a fairly nondescript backdrop to the people playing mahjong in the foreground.
Shooting this shot as I did, this is what I wanted. I was looking for this juxtaposition of something so traditional against something that is almost bizarre and quite gauche.
On its own, a picture of people playing mahjong under the light of a street lamp and shot or converted to black and white would have been great. That building in the background, on its own, would have made an interesting it not great shot. Great subject. Or, should I say, great subjects on their own.
In fact, this where I had just been – doing some night shots of that particular building. I was on my way out when I came across this scene of the people playing mahjong on the street.
In trying to reconcile the two subjects, situations or whatever, did this work? Yes and no. This picture is actually pig-shit ugly – no disrespect to the people what so ever. Just in what I was trying to do and accomplish. Did I succeed? No, not really.
Technically, the picture is flawed. I was shooting at ISO 800. I could have pushed the ISO to 1600 perhaps. I was also shooting at 1/15th of second at f/ 4.5 using a Canon EF 24-105 mm f/4 IS USM lens. This might be a great ad for image stabilisation. But, shooting on a Canon EOS 5D MkII – not a good idea. Great camera for studio and architecture – while the camera is on a tripod. Absolute crap for street photographer. Not a case of blaming tools but, the shutter slap [or bounce] on these cameras was well renowned. The limitations thereof and all that
If I ever had the opportunity to reshoot this image all over again, I would have done exactly the same thing but using a different camera. At the time I had a Fujifilm X-E1 with me but, on this occasion, left it in my hotel room. See below.
So, what’s right with this picture? Well, just about everything. I wouldn’t have shot it if I wasn’t aware of its significance and impute. This picture is about Shanghai and only Shanghai. It’s not likely that one will ever find anything like this happening elsewhere in the world. The people in the picture, they are of a certain generation, they are urbane and they are certainly comfortable in their environment, enough not to pay me any attention and more so, playing mahjong on the streets and under a street lamp. This scene, situation or picture is not for show. This is life – as in the lives they live.
This picture is also about Shanghai [and only Shanghai] in transition – the old and the new. The traditional together with sublime.
Technically, I shot this picture in colour because, that’s where it was at – under the glare of the sodium street light. That yellow glare was both muffling and stifling offering no place to hide. It also served a purpose, a social service as it were, in providing lighting, free lighting at that, that may have not been available in any of these people’s home nearby. The same can be said for any form of air conditioning, be it ceiling fans or cooling units. A matter of saving all around.
Back to my reference of these people being of a “certain generation”. They are of a post-war, post-revolution generation and, at a time, this was when and where people learned to be thrifty. Here, this is an extension and something of reminder of times past.
As for the building in the background, a juxtaposition and complete contrast to anything that comes close to being thrifty – what, with all the illuminated panels, the coloured strip lighting, the strange floating illuminated objects not to mention the strobes used to light up the building. Two different worlds or, so it seems.
The other thing here is community. The people in this picture are from a community. In fact, had I taken the picture from the other side, we would have seen their houses in the background. All in all, that would have made for a good black and white image. But, that wasn’t to be. The arrangement of people here and the compositions offered preclude that. And, no – I wasn’t going to ask anyone to move or to do this or do that – that’s not my way nor my style. If I leave people alone, they leave me alone. Just the way it works.
Their house are typically two storey terraced houses that are fairly common to Shanghai. Built several generations ago, many of these districts are now a little “down at the heel” let’s just say. Many have been marked for redevelopment. While replacing these terraced houses is one thing, displacing these people maybe another. Not so much the people, but moments like this. This is community – as best as it may be defined. It is quite improbable that one will ever find scenes like this in a high-rise public housing estate. Perhaps in the public spaces in such estates but not likely on the streets.
Thus, this picture and the series it came from, remains special. I write thus, as these are thoughts that came to mind as I write this now. None of this came to me or was ever apparent at the time I took the picture. It was there, the moment was there and I responded accordingly.
Above, I eluded to something – about camera technologies. Below is a similar image. Again, the sentiments expressed above kind of apply here. Yes, this picture could have looked good in black and white but, the colour here also makes it necessary to convey the full impact of the story here – these 3 people playing cards by candle light. In many ways, this picture is my “Caravaggio” moment. Can you imagine any of Caravaggio’s work in black and white? I can’t.
From a technical point of view this picture was taken hand held with a Fujifilm X-E1 digital capture device. I was using an XF 18-55 mm F/2.8-4 R LM OIS lens shooting ISO 3200 at 1/15th of a second at f/3.2. No shutter bounce here.
So, there we are. Like they say, “Don’t shoot the messenger”. I just take pictures. Enjoy…
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