Every few weeks I take a look back at what I’ve been doing and try to figure out what’s working, what doesn’t, and why. In looking back, one thing I’ve realized is I’ve spent a lot of time in the past two years hanging out in Chinatown.
And yet, with few exceptions, the pictures I take there tend to be flat, uninteresting. It’s completely disproportionate. Much time spent, for little visible benefit, but I’ve learned a lot there.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably more interested in photographing people than doing what everyone else does; taking pictures of smoked ducks hanging in windows, paper lanterns, dragon dances, funeral marches, firecrackers and stacks of dead pigs. All are Chinatown’s version of kittens, babies and flowers.
Aside from the boring stock stuff, there’s a lot of great action at street level – and Chinatown’s the perfect spot to try new things, ask questions of yourself as a photographer, and establish sound working methods.
Arnold Genthe‘s photos of San Francisco’s Chinatown resurfaced in museum shows this year because of the 1906 earthquake centennial. I recall reading that Genthe used some kind of spy-camera with a right angle finder, and generally cropped things in such a way to minimize background signage or anything else that would read as 20th century.
A lot’s changed in Chinatown in the last 100 years, but the consistency of experience there makes it a rewarding place to observe photographically:
* Density. On a weekend morning, the streets are jammed with shoppers, church goers, workers and families. As a challenge, I sometimes enjoy trying to cram as many people as possible into a frame (without using a telephoto) while still maintaining some kind of purposed composition; this kind of exercise is possible in Chinatown.
* Privacy. Not everyone in Chinatown appreciates the fact that you’ve come to their neighborhood with your camera. Because of this private/public tension, Chinatown’s a great place to practice three things; when to say no, when to say yes, and when to take a picture in the quickest manner possible so as not to disturb the scene (if that’s your goal).
* Subject. The lure of boring stock stuff (see above) is strong in Chinatown, but if you go there with consistency, the foreign becomes the familiar, and you can begin to look for the kind of things that are more global in scope; perfect moments, insightful portraits, caught candids. People being people, essentially.
* Difficulty. I’ve come home from Chinatown with my shoes covered in someone else’s spit. I’ve learned to love the rotten smell of particular alleys on a hot day, and enjoy the crowd-surfing element of being shoulder to shoulder with pushy shoppers. The smell of ginseng, ginger, stinky tofu and shiitakes. To not enjoy these things is to wish you were at home.
* Light. In San Francisco, Chinatown’s orientation on the grid makes it a perfect place to practice walking with the light to your back on an early spring or summer morning. This is nice for dumbed-down film cameras, because you can preset things and roll with the consistent light. Try getting up early and cruising down the west side of Stockton, from the tunnel to Columbus. Most tourists head to Grant St., but the local action is on Stockton, and the morning light is fantastic.
After a few weeks/months/years, it becomes clear that the real Chinatown is completely inaccessible, but within arm’s reach (especially if you know Mandarin), and that the best pictures are probably not even on the street; they’re up above in the twisting apartments overlooking quiet alleys. You realize that the real focus of the place has nothing to do with your camera — that ultimately, you’re the subject in Chinatown, no matter how inconspicuous, comfortable, or aware you try to be.