My Photography Journey (1995)
As a child growing up in Taiwan during the materially-deprived 1950s, cameras were both novelties and rarities. Photography was the domain of journalists and commercial portraitists. For my three-generation-under-one-roof family, a New Year or birthday celebration would not be complete without a trip downtown to a photo studio. Those were memorable occasions. I was invariably posed sitting on the laps of my grandparents (my father was away studying in the United States at the time). My mother was such a stunning beauty that her portraits graced the photographer's display windows year in and year out. Photographs of these bygone periods exhibit a quality unmatched today. Monochromatic images or ones hand-painted with colors radiate a certain charm and dignity beyond description. Photographers then had elegant manners and taste. In Chinese society, however, they were not highly regarded; they were simply "craftsmen."
Arriving in New York City in 1962 and reunited with my father, I suddenly came face-to-face with photography. And a formidable presence it was. My father owned and operated a news service in conjunction with a photo studio in Chinatown. It was a full-service establishment which handled photofinishing, supplies, framing, portraiture and all-weather on-site assignments, just to name a few. In effect, willingly or unwillingly, I became an apprentice to my father. My mother and two elder sisters also had their roles carved out. After school, while all my high school classmates would take on part-time jobs as waiters or waitresses, I would man the studio until dinnertime. After dinner, my sisters and I would disappear into the darkroom to process film and make prints until well past midnight. On weekends, fully equipped, I would roam around Chinatown and the outlying boroughs to fulfill contract assignments, ranging from wedding ceremonies to funeral processions. As it turned out, I was a standard fixture at all the activities in my school (I was the school photographer) and in the community.
As the only one of its kind at that time in that area, the studio was constantly crowded with camera buffs and photo nuts. Ordinarily they worked diligently in their respective fields. But in our studio, they competed to outspend each other on the limited edition cameras or latest model lenses. They were eager supporters of every promotional fanfare. They were also hearty participants of every salon competition and took turns to be awarded with fancy honorary titles, the true worth of which only they did not know. I picked up the craft quickly and became indispensable in all facets of my father's business. He entrusted me with most business decisions, except in one category: beauty pageants. In such events, for fear of my inexperience in dealing with the awesome feminine mystique, he would take personal charge and demonstrate his superior professionalism. What fatherly consideration!
For four years, I learned and mastered all types of large and small format cameras in our studio. I was exposed thoroughly to all kinds of film and prints, lighting equipment and accessorial gadgets. Still, I felt utterly uneducated and limited. I felt something was amiss but could not identify the problem. Father did not exactly pass on his knowledge or experience. He just let me know what needed to be done and allowed me to carry it out at my own initiative and pace. These chores seemed repetitive and endless. The routine got to me. The darkroom became a torture chamber. I resented being a reluctant observer to other people's lives and celebrations. I wanted out. Luckily, because of my father's other commitments, the studio was closed for good.
Then, an unexpected twist of fate took place. During the first year of my architectural studies, I enrolled in a color slide course with a prominent photographer-teacher. He was an imposing presence, at once serious and casual, demanding and laissez faire. I learned, for the first time, that the camera should be at the service of a vision; that every square millimeter on the film should be devoid of unwanted elements; and that light qualities come as varied as your perception permitted or your sensitivity dictated. It was truly an eye opener. I tackled each assignment with renewed vigor. I was inspired and my very first romance with photography blossomed. Of course, all were built upon earlier foundations that gave me tremendous advantages. Since then, every ten years or so, I have shown my latest works for my teacher's critical feedback. Interestingly, he has always preferred my freehand sketches and calligraphic writings over my photographs.
My affection for photography took a sharp dive after graduation. Instead of clicking shutters which I considered a much easier task than drawing, I picked up sketching. I was determined to coordinate my hands, my eyes and my mind, once and for all. I yearned for the freedom of going to places with only a pen and a sketch pad. Cumbersome photographic equipment had their disadvantages. For architects, both skills are highly desirable. For me, I employed photography and sketching to complement my design process and as warm-up exercises before attempting major projects. Looking back at my sketches from European trips and a Japanese sojourn from the early 1970s, I find them awfully inadequate. But those drawings at least reflected a certain degree of sincerity and naivete that I need not be ashamed of.
For 1977 to 1979, I taught design and photography to first and second year architectural students at Tunghai University in Taiwan. Many of the students had art backgrounds and were highly motivated. I gave them abstract topics and encouraged them to explore different possibilities. My photographic itch flared up again. I gave myself equally challenging tasks to keep up the competitive spirit. I traveled all over the island and experimented with colors and forms. I was never satisfied to merely record a scene or a person; I wanted to transform an image into a personal statement complete with all the essential visual vocabularies. I tried to do it in a way in which simplicity and strength were the ultimate goal. Prototypical concepts for Hong Kong: A Micro Vision had vaguely taken shape during this period.
Professionally speaking, my Taiwan stay was quite productive and fruitful. I enjoyed teaching immensely. My research for the Lukang Preservation Project yielded tons of documents drawings and photographs. My residential designs, although considered too avant-garde for the developers, were studies which led to realization elsewhere in more enriched forms.
After moving back to my New York City home base in mid-1979, my architectural practice took a decisive turn: from experimental and theoretical to practical and commercial. The adjustment was not easy but the painful process made me a full-fledged design architect. Meanwhile, the audio, visual and photographic industries were undergoing revolutionary evolutions. Video cameras, CD players, personal computers and digital this and that made appearances in rapid succession and helped fuel the perception of a quicksand phenomenon in technology. Instead of keeping up with the trend, my wife and I decided to raise our family. Two boys came three years apart and that kept us very busy. I undertook a singularly long and continuous project: photographing my children. A 55 mm micro lens was employed to capture the close-ups and intimacies, and 400 degrees ASA color films were used to freeze the movements. So many shots were taken under every imaginable circumstance that the project qualified as a serious photographic dissertation. My elder son is possibly the most scrutinized person through a micro lens. This fervor began to taper off around early 1991 as the obligation of my practice displaced all other activities.
It was very much an incidental decision to show up in Hong Kong at this juncture. To be teaching and settling down here would have been a scenario inconceivable prior to 1993. The closest I had come to making an acquaintance with Hong Kong had been impromptu visits or in transit to elsewhere. Short stays as they were, sight-seeing around Central Business District left me with the most vivid of impressions: the daring and provocative signage, the ubiquitous eating outlets, the gravity-defying sliver towers and the acrobatic vehicular flyovers and pedestrian bridges. Fashion conscious, no-nonsense citizens shuttled between destinations aboard refurbished trams and ferries or air-conditioned buses and the MTR, all in choreographed unison or drilled regimentation. It bewildered me to witness so surrealistic a society that seemed to have long enjoyed freedom, stability and prosperity. The display of self-discipline and confidence was evident everywhere. Hong Kong as shopper's paradise, dreamer's cradle, opportunist's incubator or nouveau riche's showcase struck no sympathetic chord in me. The "Pearl of the Orient" or "Asia's Lesser Economic Dragon" sounded too abstract to grasp. I rather treasure the memory flashbacks from my brief encounters with Hong Kong – a story without a script, logic without persuasion, jumpy frames and fractured synopsis direct from an MTV pilot – a success story in a multimedia sense.
Amazingly, these observations still hold true two years into my stay here. During this period, I have wanted and managed, in whatever time remained after intensive teaching, to stroll all over town. I have walked from Sandy Bay to Shau Kei Wan, and from Tsim Sha Tsui to Tsuen Wan, covering every avenue, street and alleyway on several occasions. Cheung Chau, Tai O, Lei Yue Mun and Pokfulam Village are my favorite community settlements for studying the living architecture and arcadian existence. Central, Sheung Wan, Sai Ying Pun, Kennedy Town, Aberdeen and Stanley form a continuous chain of events that retell stories of the bygone era. The decaying arcades, the rundown tenements, the thriving market places, and the fragrant street vendors are scenes and props straight out of my childhood. Back alleys and laddered paths double as performing stages where children relish their playful imagination and dramatic instincts.
Within very short order, through unspoken communion, an illusion of homecoming set in. I developed an affinity for everything in sight. I began to feel bonded and rooted. I felt that I belonged here. Meanwhile, I had this burning desire to spill out my heart's content about this newfound love affair with Hong Kong. I needed to render in colors and lines my newly conceived forms and surfaces. I wanted to comprehend the depth of my emotions as well as the state of my mind. I resorted to photography and sketching. I picked up where I had left off and focused on my subjects with recharged intensity. This time, I poured everything I had learned into this exhibition, a production which hopefully will be the basis for further creative endeavors.
Over the years, through much practice, a roving micro-lens-adjusted vision with auto-zoom capability became part of my second nature. Zooming out, the mind's eye turns into a wide angle and a scanner. Zooming in, a target composition is snapped up and a potential photograph is born. I feel very much like an animal stalking its prey. In a way, I have become the camera, and the camera myself. We switch roles so fast and so often that in the heat of the action, the two are virtually indistinguishable. However, the "seeing" usually happens ahead of the "view-finding," and before the shutter release is pressed, a photograph has already been taken. The rest is just technicality.
I am currently going through a calligraphic phase in my life. I tend to perceive everything in terms of calligraphic forms - lines, spaces and the rest. I associate calligraphy with life's pulse and vitality. Through calligraphy, I can trace life's flux and unpredictability. I gradually came to the realization that everything – organic or inorganic, micro or macro, visible or invisible, audible or inaudible, absolute or relative – is arranged either in harmony or in discordance (the other harmony?). In my consciousness, everything is graphically, architectonically, spatially and temporally in relationship with everything else. The norm is phenomenal; the accidental is beautiful.
For many years, I have been searching for and experimenting with expressive modes that would best speak my mind and convey my feelings. Architecture is certainly one. Writing is another. Sketching, calligraphy and painting are additional time-honored means to achieve the same end. I have found, however, that photography most closely captures the chance encounters which are essential ingredients of reality. This coincides with my conviction about life. I realize that I am finally embarking on a journey in photography which I was supposed to have commenced more than thirty years ago. For me, photography no longer means just a personal quest or an exotic adventure, an artistic pursuit or a faithful mission, social commentary or technical advances, but all of the above, and more.