(A week later…)
After Sri Lanka and some speaking engagements in Singapore and Hong Kong, I have a few days’ layover in Shanghai (still haven’t been back to London in two months), and then on to Myanmar, taking the daily China Eastern flight from Kunming. For nine days at the beginning of December, I’m running a photography workshop for thirteen people under the auspices of Country Holidays, a delightfully efficient high-end travel agency based in Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed, my little speaking tour the week before was for them, giving a talk about travel photography at their 20th anniversary gala dinner.
Doing it this way means that I can concentrate on teaching photography, leaving the logistics in the far more capable hands of the professionals. We’re trying to concentrate on street and people photography rather than get stuck on the usual monuments, and so once everyone has arrived from different countries, we start the next day, Saturday, well before dawn, at the Kyee Myint Taing fish market along the river. This makes quite a cultural contrast with the very high end Strand Hotel that Country Holidays has booked us into (this is a well-appointed tour, as the saying goes). In fact, it’s 30 years since I last stayed at the Strand, on my first ever trip to what was then called Burma. This nineteenth century small-but-grand hotel was part of a chain built by the Sarkie Brothers that included the Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore, the Galle Face in Colombo and the Eastern & Oriental in Penang. When they were built, they were the only high-class accommodation available, and the Strand has since returned to being hardly affordable, but back then, in the 1980s it had fallen into nostalgic decline. There were only a few bottles of warm Mandalay beer available, and cockroaches strolled leisurely across the dining room floor (every floor, actually).
Banter is constant in the early morning rush of getting the catch from boats to market. It’s a work hard play hard mentality here.
But the fish market takes me back to those old days. It’s awash, muddy too, and with slippery fallen fish sliding around underfoot. The aroma is pretty much what you would expect from a chaotic tropical fish market, and some of my workshop members feel the sensory assault as a shock. But it’s great for photography, because it’s the normal, natural Burmese world, full of life, energy, good humour. Not a tourist in sight (we rather patronisingly don’t include ourselves in that category), and these days in Myanmar that’s something to be thankful for. Bag of choice here is a neat Professional Shoulder Bag 10, as you don’t want anything bulky in a crowded place like this. It’s enough of a job dodging porters with baskets dodging and weaving through the crowds without contributing a large swinging bag to the chaos. Waterproofing gives a nice feeling of security, too, as this is a very slithery, watery scene. Then back for a sedate breakfast, which I’m pretty sure is not half as tasty as it would have been in the market.
We spend two days and nights in each of four places: Yangon, then Lake Inle, Bagan, and finally Mandalay. The preoccupation since the planning started back in he summer has been with tourist overcrowding, because Myanmar is now booming, not only in investment, real estate, corruption (naturally), but also in visitors, curious to see the last time-warped Asian country south of the DPRK since it opened up. This is the first time for many of the people on the workshop, so it’s hard to avoid, and would be unfair to miss, the Shwedagon Pagoda and the old temples of Bagan, but there’s a price to pay. Myanmar was almost pristine for photographers, but there’s now an urgent rush to get tourist dollars into the country. This is not the only place in the world where this is happening, but it has come as a sudden shock here. More and more, doing photography means trying to avoid the other visitors. The fish market made a great start for this reason, but the Shwedagon, huge though it is, is turning into more of a sightseeing spectacle than the extraordinary place of worship that it was.
Never mind, onward and upward, at least geographically, as we fly on Monday up to Heho, the small airport in Shan State close to Lake Inle. This kind of trip involves a fair amount of travelling and then unpacking, and my Professional Backpack 30 is where my core equipment goes. That’s especially useful in Myanmar, where the internal flights are all single class with a low weight limit, so we have to abandon the luxury of taking two camera bags as hand baggage in Business Class. I should practice travelling lighter like this more often (there are another two cases back in Shanghai with 40kg between them waiting for the flight back to London).
On the landing stage for Lake Inle, Shan State
As far as my two Manfrotto bags are concerned, I’ve now fallen into the regular habit of travelling with the backpack as hand baggage, on arrival transferring from that to the shoulder bag for street stuff and similar, or working directly out of the backpack in a stay-put situation. On Lake Inle, we’re spending a lot of the time in these longboats with large outboard engines, so working out of the backpack is ideal, zipping up between shots because of all the water splashing around.
Indeed, one of our party had firsthand experience of the lake’s water. Late on the first afternoon, we went out in three boats to photograph the leg-rowing fishermen with their bamboo cones. I’d better say right off that this is almost a complete nonsense because they don’t fish like that any more, just put on a show for tourists, and it’s ridiculous that publications like National Geographic, who should know better, perpetuate the myth with just the weakest of excuses. So why were we photographing them? Because I wanted to show the myth and reality by first doing this, and then photographing the real fishermen, who use line nets, which are less unusual but at least are realistic. Anyway, one of us, standing in the boat to shoot, took an unwise step backwards and did an unintentional backflip into the lake. Situations like this call for prioritisation, and the first thing I did was to shout for someone to grab his camera, then pulled our boat over and started drying it. He seemed to know how to swim, so he wasn’t the priority in this case. After a night in front of a hotel air dryer, the camera worked fine.
With the fishermen-turned-performers on Lake Inle.
Next stop Bagan, with slightly mixed feelings because of the predictability. It is, nevertheless, one of the world’s great spectacles, and as I said earlier it wouldn’t be fair to deny anyone their first experience of watching sunrise over the hundreds of brick pagodas scattered over the plain. I can see that this, though, is going to become a problem for the future. For many years now, the Archaeological Department have wisely limited the number of pagodas up which visitors may climb. That’s to control and limit the wear and tear, but from the visitors’ point of view it has the advantage that the pagodas in front of the camera are not crawling with people. Yes, I know that you can retouch anything out these days, but that wouldn’t actually be photography, would it? The downside of this is that you’re always shooting from a crowded camera platform. So much for the spiritual experience. But I can imagine that this state of affairs will get worse. There are a limited number of climbable temples, but there’s actually no limit to the number of visitors. In fact, Myanmar is working hard to attract more. Before long I foresee first-come-first-served for climbing a pagoda like Shwesandaw, or even tickets bought in advance, and in any case inevitably disappointed tourists who aren’t allowed to climb because it’s full. Not a good state of affairs, but it’s happened already at Angkor. As for the balloons…..well, once there was just one and I was even given a free ride on it when I did my guide to the monuments of Bagan. Now, the problem for tour agents and guides is that so many of their clients are frustrated that they can’t find a space (and it’s not cheap), despite the increasing numbers. Our first morning at sunrise and shortly after we counted sixteen balloons! They’re now a part of the scenery, so it helps if you like them in view!
Once this would have been an unusually well-caught moment. Now it’s not so rare, although a 500mm lens makes the most of it.
With one of our party, Karl-Heinz Hoefert, on the pagoda of North Guni. And he’s a Manfrotto user, too (oh, was that a plug, or just product placement?)
Then finally on to Mandalay, but as in typical Burmese fashion the flight has been cancelled, for reasons ungiven, we drive north by coach upriver to the town of Sagaing, and from there take our own chartered boat the rest of the way up to Mandalay. As we timed it for arriving at Mandalay just before sunset, this turns out to be much more useful than a boring flight to the airport that’s miles out of town. Our two top photography destinations in the country’s early capital and cultural centre are the waterfront and the street where marble Buddhas are carved. This is definitely the way to arrive in Mandalay, in your own boat cruising past the long waterfront, which has hardly changed in decades. It’s a scene like that of the fish market in Yangon, full of normal life, and a largely traditional way of doing things. There are no piers or quays, just the sandy banks, so boats put in as close as they can, and after that it’s a plank, whatever is being loaded or unloaded—people, vegetables, construction materials, or sand for cement. We come back here the following morning early, and it’s great.
Late afternoon on the Mandalay waterfront, one of the last of its kind in Southeast Asia.
Also the waterfront: an exposed and communal life.
And then, it’s the last day of September, and the summer really is coming to an end. One reason why I’ve been determinedly staying in England is that the autumn and winter travel is going to be long, and I want to get the most out of London while I can. Finally, it’s on the road again, with a flight to Zurich to connect with the Shanghai overnight, though it quickly turns into a farce, with departure time being pushed back every half hour until Swissair finally give up and cancel. Back to Frankfurt, and on to the Lufthansa flight, arriving eventually on the first day of China’s Golden Week, the national holiday.
I’m always finding new things I like about the backpack—here the easy grab of the camera by unzipping just the end, even when the backpack’s attached to my hard case at the airport. The second lonely looking bag selfie is at Frankfurt, an unconscionable seven hours later. So much for Swiss clockwork efficiency!
There’s a lot to do, and the main job is a large book on fine teas for Barclays Bank. An interesting concept, treating the very best of teas like wine, shooting and explaining terroir and connoisseurship. Barclays are a refreshing client, because they want something original, something that has never been done before. That’s a traditional editorial idea, and it brings back memories for me of working for the Smithsonian Magazine in the years when the budget was not the most important thing, and Time-Life Books, who had the same attitude. Nowadays, budgets in publishing are never sufficient, so corners get cut.
So what’s new about a book on tea? Well, funnily enough, although there are many excellent books on tea, when it comes to photography, they nearly all pull in the images free, from tea companies, and then throw in a few product shots. We want to be different, and do real documentary photography, exploring everything from the growing and production to tea culture, and include the personalities in this culturally deep activity. I have until the end of May to deliver, which is not at all as long as it might sound for producing an almost-300 page book.
It’s very much a tea trip this time, and a long one—two months and counting as I write this. Left to right: Wuyi Mountain in Fujian province; freshly picked broad leaf tea in the Sri Lankan highlands; a tea pack from a Taiwanese grower in the north; a 35-year old oolong from Taiwan; Dongding Mountain fields; my friend Zhou Lan’s selected Moonlight Pu’er tea, me on Dongding Mountain, and a container with, wait for it, 126-year old Rock Tea! That’s late Qing Dynasty.
I start in Suzhou, just half an hour by express train from Shanghai. Suzhou is the city famous for its Ming and Qing gardens, but it’s also home to a privately built museum where tea culture is central. The founder, Chen Hanxing, made a success of a chain of night clubs across China, and has invested much of the proceeds into the True Color Museum. For the first weekend of the national holiday, it plays host to what I can only describe as a tea spiritual event, and over a hundred guests have arrived for three days of a mixture of Buddhism, meditation, concerts….and tea. As you see, we’re all dressed in traditional Han style, and I’m the only foreigner, which is always a privilege.
I suppose you could call it a mass tea tasting, but that sounds a little like a production line, which it very much isn’t. Many tea masters all together at the True Colors Museum event in Suzhou. The girl walking down the middle holds a card that says ‘Don’t talk’. Fat chance—everyone’s having too good a time.
It doesn’t matter how many pictures people take for themselves (one industry report suggests three trillion this year!), photography still constantly engages. People always gather around images on a screen.
Then, a few days later, I have to make a break from shooting to do a ten-day speaking tour for my Chinese publisher. This looks like becoming a regular feature, and they have me speaking at universities and clubs across the country, beginning in Beijing, then back to Shanghai, on to Hangzhou where my blog more-or-less started back in the Spring, and finally to Chengdu before returning to Shanghai. It’s a busy schedule, but smoothly organised, and the first event is the opening talk at the Beijing International Photography Week. Then it’s the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, and as usual, audiences in China are wonderful, with lots of interesting questions. No-one here is blasé about this kind if event, because it’s relatively fresh, and everyone wants to find out, in photography as in so many other fields, what’s going on in the rest of the world. Two more talks in Beijing, then to Shanghai for Shanghai Normal University, and next, just like back in Spring, it’s the high-speed train to Hangzhou. Finally, a three-hour flight west to Chengdu. It may seem like overkill to use the backpack as a laptop carrier, but the MacBook slips in and out so easily from the well-protected pocket that it really works (I need to carry a camera, in any case!).
After that ten-day stint, it’s back to photography, and in the last week of October I head south from Shanghai with my coordinator Li Qian to Wuyishan (Wuyi Mountain), probably the heartland of Chinese tea culture. It’s been grown here for many centuries, and the name here is Rock Tea (Yan Cha). Back in Suzhou, Chen Hanxing served us some very good Rock Tea, and the essence of it is that the trees in Wuyishan grow on rocky soil that has weathered from ancient granite. Ancient means 500 million years – lower Palaeozoic, as my geology training kicks rustily back in. With a trained palate, and mine isn’t anywhere near up to scratch yet, you can detect the mineral, stony notes from the granite mountain. If that sounds a little like the way wine writers write, it’s because at a high level of connoisseurship, tea and wine have many similarities. If you’re good at wine, you can be good at discriminating tea also. And Chinese tea culture is complex, even spiritual. We start the trip by staying in a small old Zen temple, crumbling around the edges and in need of restoration, and spend afternoons with Huai Yi, a Zen priest on a three-month retreat in the little lodge built for that purpose around a spur of the hill, away from the monastery itself. Getting to grips with the spirituality of tea is the main priority right now for the book, which as you can see is not going to be entirely about picking leaves!
After some days in Wuyishan, back to Shanghai very briefly and then fly to Taipei for the next leg of shooting. Taiwan is famous for Oolong tea – semi-fermented and a complex variety of many kinds – but it got this from Wuyishan. In tea culture, Taiwan has a special place, because it kept the traditions that were swept away on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution. We base ourselves in the Wistaria Tea House, the most famous in Taipei, in an old Japanese house that became the meeting place for political activists during the period of martial law in the 1970s, and was where Ang Lee filmed part of the movie Eat Drink Man Woman. And there we are at the very table used in one particular scene; this is Chow Yu, whose family owned the building, showing me his super-refined way of tasting tea with a single leaf! I think my palate’s a long way from appreciating this level of subtlety, but I’m trying.
From Taipei we drive south to Nantou County and the central highlands, in the company of Zen Master Fa Zang, who takes us to stay in his ashram in Lugu (Deer Valley). Zen has a long historical relationship with tea, as monks centuries ago drank it to keep awake through long hours of Zen practice, and I’m keen to show that, so this is a perfect opportunity with the Master doing calligraphy (at which he’s very good) accompanied by tea. He’s also interested in photography (and indeed has my book The Photographer’s Eye in the Taiwanese edition, which is a nice coincidence), so we review the shooting immediately on the laptop. I’m pretty pleased with it, and so is he.
After a day and night at the ashram, mainly drinking tea, we move on to Dongding Mountain for the winter picking of its famous tea. It certainly doesn’t feel like winter, even in the hills. I seem to have struck it lucky ever since I arrived in China at the beginning of October, and I’ve had an Indian summer throughout. Today’s no exception, and the light is lovely, not too glaring but sharp enough to make the unusually colourful dress and hats of the women wickers pop. They leave hardly an inch of skin exposed—no East Asians like the idea of a suntan!
After ten days shooting in Taiwan, it’s on to Singapore for couple of days, and then Sri Lanka. More tea shooting, and while the habitat is pretty similar to what I’ve been seeing for the last month—lush hills, temperate weather—the tea culture is very different. In fact, the Sri Lankans freely admit that they don’t really have a tea culture, even though they like drinking it. The British introduced tea, and it’s always been on a commercial basis, for export. The estate managers I talk to are all very surprised at the high prices that people like our friends in Wuyishan are getting (about US$1,000 a kilo), but then find it hard to believe that the top Chinese growers are picking maybe once or twice a year. Here in Sri Lanka it’s three or four times a month! As we tour the highlands, the estate managers are all very solicitous, and usually apologise about the weather (sunny start, but by midday it’s clouded over, and the afternoons are often raining). I tell them not to worry at all—as far as I’m concerned, tea fields look their best in the rain. Like Japanese gardens. Green foliage is more saturated in colour in soft wet light than it is in sunshine.
Tasting tea at Laxapana Estate’s factory, and trying to look professional! Spitting elegantly, it turns out, is as much an acquired skill as being able to judge the tea itself (which is why I’m not showing that particular moment).
After Sri Lanka, it’s on to Singapore and Hong Kong, where I’m speaking at the 20th anniversary dinners of tour operator Country Holidays. A little later, in December, I’ll be leading a photography workshop for them in Myanmar, but more on that in the next episode…..
(Some time after my first article…) Considering that before shooting the book on colonial houses, I was last in Singapore two years ago, it seems strange to be back after spending only ten days home in London. But, with the Singapore flight landing at dawn at Changi airport, here I am again, this time for Barclays Bank. And a very interesting project it is, taking a dozen disadvantaged (in various ways) teenagers for a week on a city-wide photography expedition, with the goal of producing Barclays’ 2015 calendar.
Most of the dozen are under the supervision of Youth Guidance Outreach, an NGO that the bank charitably supports. We’re based in the bank’s offices overlooking Marina Bay, and after a talk and briefings, set out each afternoon to shoot. The first day we do the nearby Helix Bridge, designed on the theme of DNA, and this is followed by subjects as varied as Singapore’s oldest joss-stick maker and a pipat quartet (the pipat is a traditional Chinese mandolin-like instrument. Not much time for me to take photographs myself, but I need to make a video about this project, so that’s my shooting priority.
I take a pragmatic view of DSLR video. I enjoy it, but it’s never going to compete with my still shooting. If you’re going to take either seriously, there just isn’t enough time in life to do both. Mainly, I shoot video to support the photography in projects like this workshop or teaching DVDs. So, my basic approach is video-lite, and for that my Nikon D4 is more than adequate. There are some fundamentals that need to be attended to, namely either a shoulder rig for handheld walking and moving shots, or a stable tripod with a fluid head. Needless to say, Manfrotto have an exceptionally well-made and surprisingly inexpensive line of tripods and heads. But on an occasion like this, moving around and shooting different situations in this city, I need to be as mobile as possible, so I’m using the simplest shoulder rig I could put together, from different sources.
The other fundamental in DSLR video is audio, which for anything but low-volume ambient sound is inadequate from the camera itself. That’s not Nikon or Canon’s fault, but rather the physics of sound: there’s not enough room in the camera for what’s needed, which begins with a good microphone. Or rather, microphones, because different scenes and situations call for different mics. My all-purpose mic is a shotgun with a medium acceptance angle, attached to a recorder. In fact, for the first day on the bridge I decide to dispense with even that, just pick up ambient audio and rely on voice-over to be recorded later.
And finally, editing the video on the 13-hour flight home to London. Backpack as cabin baggage, naturally and it takes a 15-inch MacBook Pro perfectly in the padded, zipped compartment directly behind the straps.
Like most professionals nowadays, I’m having to get to grips with editing video as well as shooting it. If I were taking it all much more seriously than I am, I’d be using Final Cut Pro or possibly DaVinci Resolve, but in fact I’m very comfortable with Photoshop CC’s video-editing capabilities (though it’s slow). As with DSLRs, video is at the moment an add-on to Photoshop, but to the level I need it, that’s fine.
We just completed it, and you can see what happened here on this link to my website or simply on the video here:
And with that, I’m looking forward to a summer in England, and I’d better make the most of it, because the autumn and winter travelling schedules look really busy. At the end of my workshop stint in Singapore, at Barclays we started to discuss the next big project, which will be a large book on fine teas. It will be about terroir and connoisseurship, and nothing at all to do with Tetley’s tea bags! That is going to keep me very busy until next summer, and I’m planning to start shooting at the beginning of October. Destinations will include various tea mountains in China, then Taiwan, Japan Sri Lanka and India. The Manfrotto bags are going to see a lot of action. Then there are workshops in Myanmar, and I have to give talks in Singapore and Hong Kong, so there’ll be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.
Meanwhile, it may be a pleasant summer, but there’s not much time to be idle in the UK. I’m starting to shoot for two books for the same publisher. One of them is on craft breweries, the other on boutique distilleries. All in all, I have a very liquid set of assignments ahead! To begin with, I have a shoot at The Kernel, a small brewery in Bermondsey, under a couple of railway arches. I’m amazed to learn that there are now 45 breweries in London. Things are booming, and The Kernel is one of the best-rated. I work out of the backpack, with some sense of security that it’s waterproof. A lot of water is used in brewing, and it’s sluicing all over the place. In this kind of shooting, I’m varying lenses according to what’s happening, from wide-angle to standard to close-up, and the backpack design works well for me. lay it down, unzip and flip open the back. The reinforcement means that it holds its shape, so basically everything stays put while I pull lenses out, put others back, and so on.
I continue at another brewery, the Beavertown, up in Hackney in north London. One of the issues with doing a book on something that has similar processes is trying to avoid the images looking the same. Modern breweries have a lot that looks alike (so do distilleries, for that matter, as we’ll see in a minute), the same stainless steel equipment, so I need to search out the idiosyncrasies. In one way, these two breweries are poles apart—in the packaging, labelling and marketing. The Kernel has the plainest possible, brown-paper style, deliberately playing down the appearance of the bottles. By contrast the Beavertown Brewery has the funkiest, comic-book style of labelling and can design you could imagine. By the way, it was founded and is run by the son of Led Zeppelin rock singer Robert Plant.
Shooting at Beavertown, the backpack off the floor with all that water and beer swilling around on the floor
More of those 1950s science-fiction cans
Then on to the hard stuff, meaning gin and vodka at a couple of boutique distilleries. I start with one not too far from where I live, Sipsmith, famous not only for its quality but for having the first new copper still in London for 200 years. When I arrive I find she’s been sent back to Germany to be overhauled, together with her sister. Yes, copper stills are female, and also have names, and while these two are being tarted up back where they was built, there’s a new girl just installed in the new premises, called Constance, and I can’t resist having my picture taken with her—the Manfrotto backpack insists on being in the shot as well.
We’ve been having a lovely summer in London, confounding our unfair reputation for bad English weather, and as the end of August approaches, the area around where I live, Notting Hill, is gearing up for the Notting Hill Carnival, as usual on the last weekend of the month, which is our last British Bank Holiday. This is when the streets turn Caribbean, even a little bit Brazilian, with the costumed parade and a million visitors pouring in. And wouldn’t you know it, the other thing pouring in is a huge weather system from the Atlantic, and it gives us a month of rain in one day. And it’s exactly the main Carnival Monday. Ordinarily I’d have given up with any old excuse to avoid getting wet, but unfortunately I’ve agreed to take a Chinese video crew there, with my photographer friend Wei Wei (who’s also writing for Manfrotto about taking her backpack around Mount Kailash in western Tibet earlier this year). So 9 am sees me standing in the rain waiting for their coach, and off we go. Ordinarily (I do this every year), the good time to shoot the Carnival is before it starts, when the samba groups are forming up in the back streets. There are no crowds, and you can shoot to your heart’s content. This is what it normally looks like (from another year):
Not this year. No-one wants their feathers and costumes drenched and sodden before they need to be. We end up hanging around in a Lebanese café in Golbourne Road, chatting to the police about when it’s going to start (answer: who knows but probably later than usual, which is always late anyway). And the rain just keeps on getting heavier!
A sort of drenched forlornness over many of the streets
But is it rained out? It is not! Finally, close to noon, the head of the parade arrives, and they’re Brazilians, smiling, laughing. No-one cares about the water sluicing down, and in fact the girls in their tangas are as well dressed as you could be for this weather. And my shoulder bag, which I never put to the test before, is truly waterproof.
On my Spring workshop in Yunnan, China
Don’t try and have a conversation about camera bags. The reason it’s unrewarding is that a bag is at once passive—it doesn’t take photographs—and at the same time very personal. It’s a receptacle, after all, and doesn’t actually do anything. On the other hand, and this is major, it’s always around. If you shoot full-time, you have to live with one, hence highly personal. And personally speaking, I’ve had serial relationships with bags. None of them actually fell apart, but needs changed and materials improved. And capacity. I used to carry much more on my shoulder, but a Japanese masseur convinced me that was plain foolish.
I spend more than six months of the year on the road, so the bag is never far away. It’s right across the table from me now in Hangzhou, China. In fact, more than one bag for me, because I have three very different needs. The first is travelling, usually a long flight, with as much as possible densely packed. The second is a lighter, smaller shoulder bag for shooting—for me that’s mainly documentary reportage. The third is trekking, which I’ll be doing in a couple of weeks in the mountains of Yunnan, and that means a backpack.
On this trip, which started in the Virgin lounge at Heathrow, I’m using two bags to do the work of these three. I’m using the backpack first for travelling, on the Virgin overnight flight to Shanghai, and it’s going to be another month in China before returning and then straight off again to Winnipeg for the Canadian Imaging Conference. Packing for travel means dense, and I like to have everything important in my hands all the time. This is the Professional Backpack 30, and I can get my key equipment into it. More on this later when I’m using it on a job, but basically a Nikon D4 with four lenses, charger, spare battery and so on. That’s 10 kilos without the laptop, which also fits in.
Now, I may have appropriated the title from Graham Greene (Travels With My Aunt), but the real spirit is in the book I’m re-reading, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. This was the most important book ever for several of us when we were schoolchildren, and it had a big influence on what I do now. This is the original scroll, the unexpurgated, real-life journey before the five years of editing, and it reminds me of why I’m on the road once again, infected by Kerouac’s enthusiasm for experience.
Then several days later it’s the high-speed train from Shanghai’s Hongqiao station to the lake-and-tea city of Hangzhou, an hour away. Rail travel in China is now sparklingly efficient and comfortable, a world away from the British equivalent, sad to say. I’m picked up at the station by friends from the Zhejiang University of Technology, off to lunch at the faculty, and then I give a lecture to the Art Department on Composition in Photography.
After that, it’s Hangzhou’s justly famous West Lake, and this is the week when the blossoms are suddenly in full bloom. Lines from old Chinese poetry:
A light boat with short oars – West Lake is good
Fine mist on distant water,
One white egret flying from the Immortal Isle
In the shade of the green willows
Spring in Hangzhou isn’t just about West Lake and cherry blossoms. It’s also the start of tea-picking on Longjing Mountain (the name means Dragon Well), and this is nothing less than China’s most famous tea. Ever since my Tea Horse Road book (see www.michaelfreemanphoto.com/reportage), following the trails from the Burmese border to Tibet, I’ve become fascinated by tea, and I’m now slowly shooting for a worldwide book on tea. Longjing is green tea, best drunk freshly picked, which we can never do in the West, and absolutely best drunk right now, during the first picking, which started just five days ago.
Fresh season’s longjing tea: simple and local, just leaves in a glass and add hot water.
I’m walking around the mountain (not a very high one), and so keeping the equipment simple in a small shoulder bag, which I prefer. This is the Professional Shoulder Bag 10, and has room for my Nikon D4 with 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses. That’s my basic street-photography and general walking-about selection; I usually need nothing else, though in this case I’ve squeezed an 85mm ƒ1.4 Zeiss into the side pocket in case I want a shallow depth of field shot or a close-up (I use an extension ring for that).
Incidentally, for more on Longjing tea, so as not to clog up the Manfrotto page, look at my recent post.
Showing me around Hangzhou are my friends Wei Wei, photographer, and Tun Xiaojun (Tutu), graphic designer, who together organised the lecture. Wei Wei amazingly combines photography of Tibetan Buddhism with rock photography; she’s often on the road with Xu Wei, one of China’s biggest rock stars. I mention this because next month, Wei Wei and Tutu are going to Mount Kailash in the far west of Tibet to do the arduous kora, or sacred circuit, and Wei Wei has agreed to take one of Manfrotto’s larger backpacks, so you’ll be hearing more from her soon. I did that trip a number of years ago, walking from northwest Nepal for two weeks, and it’s beautiful but no joke, rising to nearly 6,000 metres. Tutu is slightly crazy (in the nicest way), as he’s going to drive there. That’s about 4,000 kilometres. He’s also a fan of Kerouac, needless to say.
Then back to Shanghai, and spend three days troubleshooting at Pearl Lam Fine Art. Pearl’s an old friend, and has galleries here, in Hong Kong and in Singapore. There were some problems with shooting the works of two the artists who Pearl represents, both to do with three-dimensionality. Getting the appearance of the volume and shape had been difficult. So here I am at the studio of Su Xiaobai trying to work out a lighting system that solves this.
And in this huge, well-lit studio, a convenient moment to show what’s in the backpack for a shoot like this. Although it’s not what you’d do for trekking, which happens in a couple of weeks, a real convenience is the space for the laptop. I’m shooting tethered, so that we can check the shots as they happen.
After this, I catch the flight to Ljiang in Yunnan to begin the Spring workshop, based in The Bivou, which I can best describe as a boutique adventure lodge (sounds a bit pretentious like that, but the place is anything but), created my architect friend Shin I-Chow in an old courtyard farmhouse. I leave Shanghai on a rare, remarkably clear day—the pollution isn’t up to Beijing’s standards, but it’s usually not good—then a brief stop in Changsha—pouring down—and land in Lijiang in the late afternoon. You remember the Leatherman and Swiss Army knife in the picture above, packed neatly into the backpack when I was shooting in the artist’s studio? Well, I didn’t. To my embarrassment at my own stupidity, they still were there when the bag passed through the x-ray at Hongqiao airport. Ouch. However, this is China, increasingly reasonable and efficient, and there’s no desire to punish forgetful passengers. They politely give me a slip of paper and will hold the knives for a month. I can pick them up on my way back. Try asking that at Heathrow or JFK and wait for the withering look!
As we fly into Lijiang airport, I can see that the weather is going to be lovely—warmer than usual for the Spring, and sunny. The highlight of the week’s workshop is a six-hour drive to an almost-secret, hardly visited stretch of the Yangtse River, and the 700-year old exquisite stone village of Baoshan, its original buildings perched on what looks like a volcanic plug overlooking the river.
No-one here uses cars, just horses, and these clatter up and down the narrow lanes on their way to and from the terraced fields. We need a couple to carry our bags down to the town, so I spare them the extra weight of the backpack and carry it myself. I’ll be doing more carrying during this week in the mountains. Of course, it’s a very different way of working from a bag, as the whole thing has to come off my back and be opened for shooting, so it’s hardly spontaneous. There’s no disadvantage to this, however, because trekking gives you plenty of time to size up the possibilities of a shot as you walk, and almost all the shots are landscapes of one kind or another. Actually, I was last here six months ago, in the autumn, and one great surprise is our first view of the Yangtse far below. Last year it was muddy, about the color of chicken soup, but now, in Spring, with meltwater feeding it from the high snows, it’s almost turquoise. I kind of wish I were shooting film, and then I wouldn’t have to plead the case that this really is the unmanipulated color. Scout’s honor, no tweaking of the Saturation or Hue slider!
More China travels after Lijiang and the surrounding mountains, but sad to say without any real duties for my camera bags. I have a week’s publicity tour for my Chinese publisher in Beijing, which involves talking at venues like the Central Academy of Fine Arts and, bizarrely you might think, presenting prizes to various actors and supermodels at the annual Trends Group Fashion Awards. No shooting, however. And none either on the next trip, two days after returning to London from Shanghai, to speak at the Imaging Conference in Winnipeg.
A few days after that, however, I’m back out to the Far East, this time on a Finnair flight through Helsinki to Singapore. Here, for three weeks, I change my documentary reportage hat for an interiors one. The job is a book to be titled Singapore Colonial Style, which pretty much says it all. A cultural world apart from the contemporary architecture of Asia’s smart, wealthy technopolis, are the grand old houses, known as black-and-whites, surrounded by acres of lawns and forest, that were built for the British Empire’s administrators. Leased by the Singaporean government at a considerable rent, they’re now home to a new international elite.
This is highly organized shooting, with several people in the team, and here my Professional Backpack 30 has a very different role from in the mountains of Yunnan. Moving from shot to shot, I’m constantly switching lenses, adding a filter, changing and charging batteries, so the backpack is the equipment bag that we work from.
Every day is full-on, and we move quickly from one viewpoint to another as I frame up the shots and the client and stylist prep the scene and move furniture in and out. The backpack is the equipment base and is constantly being dragged—no, I didn’t mean that, I meant lifted— from one place to another, usually by my excellent assistant photographer Yayi Widosari, who has flown over from Jakarta for the shoot.