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.