Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Mar 26 2012

Photography worlds

Since my exhibit at the Dihua gallery, I’ve been trying to be a more active participant in Taipei’s photography circles.  As most of the local contests are more or less rigged to favor various institutes’ students and/or Important People, and “photowalks”, while fun, are little more than social occasions where everyone is wearing a camera of some kind, i.e. a normal social occasion these days, I’ve been looking up other events and activities that will give me a better view of what’s really going on.

One of these was a two-part lecture series at the new Taipei Photography Center in Beitou entitled “City Life Under the Lens -A Century of Taipei”. The symposiums were held on the second floor of the space, above the high-ceilinged gallery on the first floor. It was a beautiful February day, unfortunately a work make-up day, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed at my urge to be outside exploring the light in various alleyways instead of sitting in a meeting room. But I told myself that this was a rare chance to hear individuals from the old guard, the so-called “masters of photography” from Taiwan’s “golden age” talk on the subject.

The event was MC’d by Zhuang Ling, a thin older man whom I’d met at a photo award ceremony in the Xinyi District a while ago. He told us how, back in the day, only journalists and the very rich could afford to buy a camera, which back then cost more than a house, totally unlike the cameras of today, Leica’s incredibly expensive M9 notwithstanding.

The speakers included Huang Bo-ji, Jian Yong-bin and Huang Zi-ming of the China Times. The latter was operating a notebook computer displaying slides on a projector screen to accompany the various speakers with their works.

In my limited experience, this kind of thing, if not done well, frequently turns into a “Here are my wonderful photos, and here’s when we went to Disneyland” kind of thing, and while there was a bit of that, there was some really lovely work on display. One shot in particular by Huang Bo-ji is one of my all-time favorites. I asked him how he came to take it, and he said he was crossing a bridge in Sanchong and saw the two boys playing in front of a theater, whereupon he noted the “Blind Swordsman” poster and took a shot when the boys doubled the pose on the poster. I can’t deny part of the appeal of the shot for me is the fact that I love those (Zatoichi) movies.

All of the speakers were enthusiastic and friendly, though they skirted my questions about candid photography. The action peaked during the Q&A session afterwards when a middle-aged man stood up and pointed at the row of speakers: “All you old guys have had an iron grip on photography circles in Taiwan for decades! You control the contests and who gets seen! How can anyone else get anywhere?” he charged. I had been about to bail, but I stayed to hear the answers to this.

All of the participants took the time to answer and made useful suggestions and reports on the progress they’ve made with the photography center and other spaces, while avoiding any appearance of conflict without admitting the fact that the upper echelon of the photographic circles is actually quite small and not all that productive these days. The man had I point, I felt, though he didn’t make in the most graceful fashion. I’ve often wondered why Taiwan doesn’t really have any representative photographers, and he hit on at least part of the answer.

The second part of the talks was held in early March, again on a work make-up day requiring me to take another day off work, and also featuring nice weather. The speakers were Wang Zhi-hong, Du Zhi-gang, Qi Bo-lin and Chen Bo-yi. I knew Chen Bo-yi from an exhibit at the 1839 Gallery last year, when he was featuring a student’s Trees At Night photography.  A similar discussion ensued, this time focusing a bit more on the artistic aspects of photography thanks to Chen Bo-yi, who often promotes art students whom he feels have potential. I asked Du Zhi-gang, who was in the middle of a project photographing new army recruits, if things had changed much since he himself was in the army. This prompted an inordinate amount of laughter, surprising me. Du then told me that he hadn’t actually served; apparently the others knew this, thus the laughter. A rotund older man with an original Olympus Pen hanging around his neck raised his hand, but instead of asking any questions, he began listing all the famous photographers he’d hung out with over the years, concluding with his opinion that only film cameras were any good in inclement weather, though he peered at my GF1 with great interest.

Not long after that, I went over to the Chi-wen Gallery, formerly MOMA Taipei, off of Dunhua Road to see Chang Chien-chi’s recent work on Burma. It’s a tiny space, actually, on the second floor across a classy bridge, but still tiny, with only a handful of small prints on the walls. Chang, Magnum’s only Taiwanese member, was sitting restlessly in the corner amid trays of finger food and cheap wine.  He spends most of his time abroad, it seems, and said he feels like he lives on airplanes more often than not these days. He seemed irritated, not just at his assistant’s schedule reminders, but just at being there at all. “I don’t like this kind of thing,” he said.

“I know, I far prefer just wandering and shooting whatever I come upon, myself,” I said, and he nodded vigorously. More people showed up, and the tiny space was becoming quite crowded. Sean Scanlon and Dave Frasier arrived, both acquaintances of Chang’s, but while I got a greeting out of Sean, Dave ignored me completely, no mean feat as nobody was more than two feet apart. Then again, I’m used to being invisible, especially at parties. After talking with Shen Zhao-liang’s printer about various types of ink, binding, paper, etc., I decided not to go to the accompanying Gongguan exhibit where Chang was being reluctantly ushered, telling Dave to grab his tripod on the way out the door. I wondered if that was some kind of code.

I plan to continue to attend these kinds of events, though they have ranged from snobbishly arty parties to one “lecture” that really was just a guy with a slideshow of fairly boring landscape shots listing various vantage points. However, it seems that within all of this there is lately a genuine effort to add some direction to the photographic community here, even if most of it is either drippy HDR waterfall tutorials or such abstract, over-processed art that is only tangentially related to photography. I do hope that a way of allowing more insightful and meaningful work to float to the surface can be found and implemented, but until that time, places like flickr will remain my main window on the various worlds of photography.

posted by Poagao at 4:32 pm  
Oct 26 2008

Double Ten Day and an opera monkey

I’ve just now gotten around to uploading pictures from Double Ten Day. That’s how far behind I am, photography-wise.

CKS Hall and cloudsOn that day, I took the MRT up to CKS Hall Station, where I was going to meet some friends to go watch the parade near the Presidential Office. The morning light was nice, shining through the clouds over the hall, so I found some nice puddles to get the scene with its reflections, and sat down to take some shots with my 20D. After I took a couple of shots, I noticed the sound of approaching footsteps. A middle-aged woman draped with two cameras, including a Canon 5D and a 1DmkIII as well as numerous top-grade L-class lenses and bags, ran over and sat beside me to take some shots of her own. I commented on her camera collection, but she just shook her head. “These cameras just don’t last!” she said. “I’ve had to take them in for shutter repair twice in the past few years!” Then she aimed the 5D at the hall with the reflection and promptly fired off what I would conservatively estimate as approximately 663 rapid-fire shots of the basically static scene. Then she changed composition slightly and fired off another few hundred shots, effectively explaining just how her shutter wore out so frequently.

I joined my friends, but we weren’t able to get through the police cordon by the East Gate. Disappointed, my friends decided to go elsewhere, but I stuck around with the aim of getting some breakfast in a nearby alley. Afterwards, I found that Chongqing South Road was easily accessed, so I made my way through the crowd taking pictures of the floats and people. At one point I ran into our movie fight choreographer Eddie Tsai, who was part of the parade as well. The day was perfect for a parade, and the scene was lively, with policemen chatting with aborigine kids, giant balloons and people in furry costumes sweating on top of floats as they waited for their turn in the parade.

A few days after that we went up to Neihu to the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts. The students range from elementary-school students all the way to university-level. We watched some of the younger children performing flawless backflips and other acrobatics during classes. “About two thirds will end up dropping out,” our guide said. I couldn’t blame them; the training is very rigorous; students in the US would sue the hell out of any school that asked them to anything like that. One can’t deny that the results of the training are impressive, though. Most of the old Kung-fu theater stars of decades past came from this school and others like it, she told us. Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung underwent the same training. It made me wonder what kind of a future these kids have, in this age of computer-generated stuntmen and flashy editing. There’s some serious talent there, and it would be a shame to see it go to waste.

We went backstage at the campus theater to get our faces painted by two guys who specialize in the art. I, of course, chose Monkey. Out on stage, students were performing acrobatics involving tables, flowerpots and dishes for a handful of Japanese tourists in the otherwise empty theater. “The last administration wasn’t very keen on funding what it sees as a ‘Chinese’ art,” we were told, “even though many of the operas are conducted in Minnan.”

On each side of the stage were printed slogans: “The stage is your classroom,” and “The audience is your teacher.” The staff provided me with the whole Monkey get-up, including a staff! Maybe it was something in the regalia, but suddenly I felt like jumping around on the stage and put on a little show.

That next show was the “Flooding the Golden Mountain Temple” scene from the White Snake opera, and it was brilliant. The two guys who had painted our faces were part of the production, water devils twirling through complicated flight paths in the air above the wooden floor of the stage. It was an amazing show, full of action, sound and color. We clapped as hard as we could to try to make up for the silent, empty seats.

posted by Poagao at 11:14 pm  
Oct 11 2008

A day in Central Taiwan

Last weekend the Muddy Basin Ramblers played at the opening of the new Mary Jane Pizza in Gongguan. It was a good time, though I didn’t get to eat as much pizza as I would have liked. Afterwords we went over to the NTU campus track stands to jam and chat until the wee hours of the morning. It was after 2am before I got to bed.

A mere three hours later I got up in order to catch the first subway train to Taipei Main Station, where I caught the first bullet train to Taichung at 6:30am. I was so sleep-addled that I forgot my change from the ticket vending machine. Hopefully some desperate individual got the extra NT$300 they needed for some reason. The ride was silky smooth as usual, but I didn’t dare nod off on the train for fear of ending up in Kaohsiung.

In Taichung I had some breakfast at the sleek, modern station’s Starbucks and then caught a free bus to the front gate of Tunghai University, where I met some friends. We then took a cab north along the ridge of the hills, which are covered with old military bunkers and tunnels, past the park and a couple of desolate military bases. Our objective was the Chio-tian Folk Drums & Arts Troupe headquarters, which turned out to be comprised of a small temple adorned with the trappings of a crude campus in the middle of a large, empty field. The students’ dormitories, cargo containers with windows carved in them, surround the small structure.

The head of the troupe, director Hsu Cheng-rong, started taking in children from underprivileged and troubled households in 1995, training them in various temple ceremonial rites and roles and giving them an outlet for their energies. He does all of this out of his own pocket.

We talked with Hsu and met some of the students, who go through rigorous training. Hsu said that if a student screws up, they have a choice: either leave the troupe forever or accept punishment, which is a “spanking,” but after Hsu had one of this students lie down in front of the temple alter to demonstrate, it looked more like preparations for a real beating. “That’s for serious mistakes,” he said, “Like stealing or fighting.”

Hsu thinks that the transition of temple-related activities to more mainstream entertainment venues is gradually gaining acceptance within society. “The Japanese didn’t like them because they were channels for civic unrest,” he said. “The old KMT didn’t like them for the same reason. But now things are looking up. People are becoming more confident in their culture, and they can appreciate the art within it.” The focus of the activities does seem to be moving in that direction. The group sees more shows for entertainment than actual temple ceremonies these days.

thingsThe most senior disciple there, a man of 30 with long, faintly reddish hair, painted our faces and dressed us up in various Eight Generals “Ba Jia Jiang” regalia, then taught us some of the moves, dances and poses, as well as some of the weapons the students have to wield. It’s much harder than it looks, I have to say. The regalia is heavy and thick, and the movements require a certain degree of agility and stamina. I was so impressed with the job the student had done on painting my face, I left it on after we left the center that afternoon.

Our next stop was the Taiwan Folk Village in Zhanghua, which was downright depressing after the hopeful nature of the dance troupe. The amusement park has gone the furthest it can towards closing down without actually closing down: Half of the attractions are closed, the buildings falling apart and covered in weeds. The once-impressive water park, featuring a water slide and a pirate ship affixed to the side of the building, is clogged with algae and overgrown. The only things left in operation are a few old-style structures selling trinkets and the second-rate theater where a magician saws women in half and allegedly Outer Mongolian wrestlers throw heavy objects at each other in front of a crowd of a dozen or so people. Apparently the park started making its money more from film crews than actual visitors at one point, and things just went downhill from there.

Since we were in Zhanghua, we stopped by the famous giant Buddha there for some pictures as dusk deepened, and then back to Taichung for dinner at a restaurant made to look like a kind of grotto. The sinks and urinals in the bathroom were so similar that men were using them interchangeably, I noticed as I finally removed the multicolored paint from my face before dinner. The kitchen was working fine, however; the food was excellent.

I was bushed, though, and caught a cab back out to the HSR station, where I took a direct train which saw me back in Taipei in less than an hour.It was an interesting day; it’s good to get out of town for a bit.

posted by Poagao at 6:06 am  
Jul 06 2007

WLT magazine

World Literature TodayI made a trip to the post office today, something I do more rarely these days as email takes care of 99% of my communications. My great-aunt Eva is the only person I know who doesn’t use email, so we correspond the old-fashioned way, her in crazy handwritten notes and me with extra-large fonts. In addition to the multitude of letters from my alma mater asking for money, I found a copy of the July/August issue of World Literature Today. They’d asked me if they could use my photos a while ago, and I said ok as long as I got credit. I then forgot all about it.

My photography is on the front cover, on the inside flap, and sprinkled liberally throughout the rest of the magazine. They got my name and website correct on the first instance, but somehow changed it to “T.J.” and cited my film site in later references. I’m curious why so many people skip from TC to TJ so readily. It happens all the time, but I’m at a complete loss as to why.

In other news, I got together with Chalaw and Andrew at David’s last night for some extra rehearsal before Hohaiyan on Sunday. It’s going to be a long day; they’re picking me up at 6:15am so we can make it to Fulong for the sound check. We should be on stage a little after 6pm, until 7 something.

Andrew, whose slight figure makes me doubt that Dunkin’ Donuts paid his firm in actual donuts for its design of their website, turned me on to a brass-themed band called Beirut, which is headed up by a young trumpeter named Zach who was inspired by his travels throughout Europe. The music has a gypsy air to it, if Yann Tiersen were a gypsy. In any case, how could I not love this kind of music, especially with a line of trumpets playing with especially disconcerting vibrato?

posted by Poagao at 4:55 am  
Apr 10 2007


I was recently interviewed via email by a racy local art/design magazine called “X-CUP” (no, I don’t know what the name means). For some reason, they were interested in my High Speed Rail photography. It seems to me that I am involved in far more interesting things than HSR pictures, but that was what they were interested in. The topic was part of a series of interviews with foreign artists in Taiwan. I pointed out to them that, technically, I wasn’t actually a foreigner, but that didn’t seem to bother them. I think they found it quaint.

In any case, I was happy that among 16 individuals they only found me worthy of the much-coveted black background. Also, I managed to work in the Muddy Basin Ramblers as well as a reference to “The Age of Crap.” If you want to read the interview and my inane, random answers, you can download the .pdf of the interview here.

Actually, I’m glad I did the interview, because I am interested in getting to know more artists, even though I don’t think train photos are exactly the apex of my artistic abilities (or maybe they are. Lord what a depressing thought). The weekend after next I’ll be attending a film festival that will be showing Clay Soldiers. Hopefully other people will attend as well.

We had a four-day holiday last weekend, three and a half days I spent at home editing. It’s good weather for it, in any case: more-or-less constant rain. On Saturday I went up to a teahouse in the mountains above New Garden City where my friend Ray lives, along with Sandman and his relatives who are visiting from Scotland. We had a nice meal, took a lot of macro photographs of wet plants, and watched in horror as Sandman’s nephew took a nasty spill down the wet steps. Actually, I didn’t see it, but I did listen in horror to the thud as he hit the ground. He was ok, though. One of the benefits of being 17.

Mark has recently stirred a hornet’s nest by daring to express his preference for content quality over deliberately massaging a site’s code to garner the most hits. I can see where he’s coming from; obviously this site, which hasn’t really updated its design since 2001 and doesn’t have any of the traffic-gathering features that are de rigueur in these days of Google searches, is a testament to the low priority I place on getting millions of people to read my site. My trackbacks don’t work, I don’t know what pingbacks are, and I can’t even figure out how to get post titles to appear.

Still, I can see the benefit in getting a larger audience for your content, as long as such actions don’t supersede the content itself. For example, on flickr.com, submitting your photo to six million voting groups comes across as a bit desperate, but at least the content hasn’t been adversely affected by the effort, unlike, say, deliberately taking photos of nothing but scantily clad young women for photo hits. Of course, I respect most those who produce good content in an elegant fashion without feeling the need to compromise it in the name of making it popular. This, of course, is why I’ve made exactly $9.18 from my experiment with Google’s adsense over the past several years.

Ok, so the site needs a makeover. I’ll meet up with Mark sometime and we’ll see what we can do. I’m surprised the design has held up this long, actually.

posted by Poagao at 4:10 pm