Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Apr 10 2019

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posted by Poagao at 12:18 pm  
Mar 21 2019

The nature of the conversation

I recently had the chance to pick up Alec Soth’s I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating at the Moom Bookshop off Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei. They were having a small show based on color photographers such as Shore, Gruyaert and Eggleston, so naturally I had to go. I spent hours just looking through the books on display there, especially my favorite from Shore, Uncommon Places. This time around I particularly noticed the apparent care shown in the editing and sequencing of the book. Shore’s later works haven’t resonated with me as much, a phenomenon I’ve observed with many well-known photographers.

As for Soth’s latest book, whose title comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem Gray Room, the work conveys connection and empathy in a way I haven’t felt since his first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which I’ve always loved. There is one portrait in his new book that doesn’t have the same power as the rest. It is of a woman seen in the gap between bookshelves. All of the other photos in the book resonate and inspire a wealth of stories, but this one feels…out of place. After I’d finished looking at the photographs, I read the text, and this turned out to include a fascinating interview with Soth on how the book came to be. The interview was conducted by Hanya Yanagihara, whom I recognized as being the woman in the incongruous photo.

Interested, I asked Alec about it on IG, trying to be as diplomatic as possible: “The photo of Hanya didn’t seem to belong, and then I realized she was the one you talked with.” I wondered if  there was connection between the two. “Am I imagining things?”

“Not at all,” he wrote back. We then went on to discuss the content of the book, specifically the part about connection. Soth, who is about my age, approaching 50, had a moment of clarity a few years ago in Finland, a sudden realization that “everything is connected” and subsequently reevaluated his approach not just to photography, but to dealing with people. He has said that one of the main challenges he faced as he began to engage in photography was his innate shyness, effectively equalizing or even giving more power to those he was photographing than he felt he had in the exchange. Over the years, as his fame grew, the nature of the relationship with his subjects changed; he was an internationally renowned artist, successful author and exhibitionist, a member of Magnum, the world’s most prestigious photography agency. But as his status was changing, so did the work he was doing. His “Ah-ha!” moment redefined his connection with people, his respect for his subjects, and it has seemingly made a real difference.

I’ve long wondered how so many famous photographers start out strong, with real, emotive work, and then lose that in the latter stages of their careers. The prevailing wisdom has simply been that people lose the creative spark as they get older, but reading about Soth’s experience and seeing the resulting work following his revelation makes me think something else is at play, mainly, the nature of the connection between the photographer and the subject. Soth compares it to that of two people on a seesaw.

In some circles, such as street photography, many -too many- photographers seem to assume a posture of domination and even objectification of their subjects, eagerly grabbing as much power in the relationship as they can. The reason for this might lie in the toxic mixture of social media and gadget worship that has infected the genre, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and might go a long way to explaining the spiritual paucity of much of this kind of photography. Ego, it seems, is the enemy of sensitivity, of pathos, of connection. It places blinkers on us, blinding us to all of the potential of being open to the world on an equal basis, substituting our vanity instead.

The photographers I most admire, however, tend to take a more respectful and curious approach to the subjects of their work, at least in making the work that brought them to my attention. Respect for the subjects of one’s work is also something I try to instill in my own students.

These changes in the nature of the connection with the subject might be why some photographers’ work changes as they gain fame and influence. The very nature of the relationship with subjects changes, the balance shifts, and the connection is fundamentally altered. Take an open-minded, curious photographer and stick them in a famous agency, give them interviews and assignments and minders and entourages and fans dogging their every step, looking to see what wondrous magical composition they’re going to create next, and that connection become all the more tenuous. Be they a failed art student wandering the streets of Paris, or shy man in his 30’s following the path of the river that flows through his country, the lifeblood of their work is intense observation free of the pollution of ego that so often comes to obscures our vision. Judgement threatens observation, and the whole thing can break down. For some, the only way to deal with such developments may be to abandon photography in favor of another art form. Others may move to more abstract work. And some may be hit, perhaps while on a flight to Helsinki, by the realization that they cannot relinquish the very essence of their work…the knowledge that everyone is connected.

“Your thoughts have made me see things in a different light, thank you,” I wrote Soth following our exchange.

He responded: “You’ve also given me something to reflect on. Thank you.”

posted by Poagao at 11:51 am  
Jan 28 2019

E-scooter questions

I talked to the people at the Kymo Ionex electric scooter display at Taipei 101 today, and….I have questions.

It would seem that when you run out of juice, you have to wait around for an hour or so while your battery charges before you can be on your way? I know there’s a little backup battery inside that will let you ride around for a little bit in the area, but you still have to return to get your original battery, so the whole plan seems…ill advised. Why not just switch out the batteries like Gogoro does and be on your way?

But when I asked them, they said, “Well, you might get an uncharged battery.”

“But surely the machine can tell you which batteries are full?”

They looked at me as if nobody had ever thought of this. Then: “Ok, but you might get a bad battery.”

Good lord, I thought, is that how you stand by your products? I can see the pitch now: “Oh sure, our batteries are fine…mostly fine…ok, there’s a good change you’ll get a bad one.”

As with the Gogoro, the Ionex also lets you charge the batteries at home. This might seem convenient, but only if you have a short way to lug your batteries inside, and also if you don’t mind boosting your electricity bill each month.

So I really don’t get which part of this is appealing. At all. Which is fine, as I don’t really need a scooter of any variety; I take the MRT and/or buses everywhere I need to go, or, once in a blue moon, a taxi. But I also have an inherent distrust of scooter companies that have been ripping off the Taiwanese people (and not doing any favors for the air quality either) over the last several decades.

posted by Poagao at 10:05 pm  
Jul 14 2018

Bangkok, part 6

I still felt tired this morning, even though I was kind of able to actually sleep in after several days of getting up early. Perhaps there is something to this “Early to Rise” thing after all. After a lackluster breakfast in the alley, we walked in a random direction and after a search for coffee came across the Green Bakery, lured there by the smell of freshly baked cake cooling on the counter. The cake was delicious and yes, we paid for it and the coffee. The owner was a young woman who was holding her six-month-old son as she worked. We also had some delicious banana bread muffins, and she sent us off with our ice coffee cups full of water for the walk. Very considerate. If you’re in Bangkok, I highly suggest stopping by for some of that delicious cake.

The weather was threatening to turn nasty, clouds rolling in as Chenbl did some more bag shopping at the riverside mall and I stewed at being stuck in a bag store while the whole city lay at my feet. We then we set out along another unfamiliar road and were sent the wrong way by a woman of questionable sanity before finding the metro stop we sought. We caught a series of trains to “Terminal 21”, a mall where people pretend they’re traveling, with signs and airport schedules and the like, and the place just put me off…I’m usually just fine with pretension, but something about this concept rankled me, and I was grumpy all through our fake Mexican lunch.

Chenbl bought out the entire Happy Happy Fun Fun Squid Treat shop, and, laden with packs of this delectable dish, we took another series of extremely full elevated trains though the city canyons to the workshop space, which is located in in the penthouse suite of a hotel, swimming pool and all. Fancy. The students assembled as Barry meditated on stage, and we started out with introductions. The class went well…we’ll see how and what they shoot tomorrow.

posted by Poagao at 2:22 am  
May 31 2018

San Francisco, part 1

Even though I’ve known about this trip for ages, it was the usual mad rush to get ready to go. Why do I do this to myself? Chenbl saw me to the airport MRT, and some of my anxiety began to dissolve at the sight of the lovely rice fields passing by, glinting in the afternoon sun. The airport was similarly lit, but by the time I’d made a request for a seat that wasn’t a middle seat on the long flight over the Pacific, the sun had set and the place seemed dark and forbidding.

I felt a bit more at ease when I’d gotten through the security check and to the gate, where I learned I’d been reassigned to a security row seat. So, plenty of legroom but no actual window. No matter because it would be dark most of the way. The people in the row behind us seemed to be either new to flying or just completely DGAF, or both. One of the men conducted stretching exercises on the bar that would release the emergency door until a stewardess suggested that he stop endangering all of our lives. I watched Black Panther again as well as Black Lightning, ignoring the screaming baby a few seats away, and then slept a little before we arrived in San Francisco.

Customs and immigration was smooth with the exception of three older white people, two men and a woman, who decided to cut half the line. When someone called them on it, saying “Hey, you can’t just cut through half the line!” one of the men said, belligerently, “Why?” Western History in a nutshell, folks. There were a few mutterings, including a few curses in Chinese from other other, mostly brown passengers in the immigration line, but nobody dared make a fuss. I guess the merry trio blanche knew that.

Once free of immigration-related worries, I sat in the airport for a while figuring out how to install the sim card I’d got in Taiwan that would let me use my phone here, and then how to get into the city on the subway. I used my old Bart card and was significantly overdrawn when I tried to exit at Market. The lovely lady in the ticket box, upon finding out that I only had two dollar bills and a fifty, kindly let me go with the words, “Well, I can’t wring milk from a turnip, so go ahead.” Then it was up into the cold air (yes, cold, dammit. It’s in the upper 30s C in Taipei and my body is used to that) and the bus out to Ken’s, where I met with him, Casper, Mike and CJ who were all busy mounting photos for the exhibition. I was useless and probably would have screwed up anything I did as I was exhausted, but I didn’t want to go to bed too early and give in to jet lag. So we talked late into the night before I retired to the low-ceiling room in the basement under Ken’s girlfriend’s place, where I’m going to be staying on this trip.

posted by Poagao at 2:53 pm  
Mar 07 2018

3/4: Return to Taipei

Up in the morning…we’d packed the night before, so after breakfast downstairs and saying goodbye to Pamela (Ozkar was asleep) and the cats, we headed out into the…what was this? Hail? Freezing rain? Damn. Time for us to leave. Apparently the homeless dude who lived in front of the metro station thought so, too. “Fuck you!” he shouted at us repeatedly, elaborating on this theme as we passed. Finally, a blunt Canadian, I thought.

The usual inspection routine…Chenbl’s bag got inspected hard because of the portable speaker he’d bought. We were lucky enough to be on a sparsely populated flight back to Taipei, and we had the last two seats in the back of the Dreamliner, so in effect a little room of our own. Chenbl claimed the row in front of us, and I stretched out on our seats and watched Selma, Boyz in the Hood, Thor 3 and a few other movies, while sleeping periodically. I still wasn’t feeling great, but just getting a bit of rest finally had a good effect, and the Dreamliner has a lower air pressure as well, so my ears were fine.

Back in Taipei, we went straight from the airport to the ENT doctor for our little bags o’ pills. Work the next day, as well as the first class of the semester. I’m still feeling loopy AF, but I got a gig tonight at Huashan, so I need to get my shit together.

All in all, an interesting trip. One thing I noticed was how little I missed the Internet when I was in Cuba. Other than feeling stupid for not being able to look up things at random, it was refreshing, and I will try to cut down the time I waste on social media now. Wish me luck.

And that was that. Hope you enjoyed the read.

posted by Poagao at 2:55 pm  
Mar 07 2018

2/28: Vancouver

The cold medicine I got while shopping last night worked well enough to keep me asleep all night, but today was mainly spent in nearby shopping malls and restaurants. It’s cold and rainy outside anyway, so outside of mall stuff there’s not much to do, and I need the rest.

T.I.’s “Live Your Life” was playing at the health food shop, while the disco version of the theme from Star Wars was playing at Safeway. A nice young man named Nathan at the pharmacy told me that there’s not much you can do for a cold, except wait it out.

So we ate so-so ramen and watched the nearly incomprehensible humor on TV, noting that Canadians don’t seem to trust umbrellas that much. Keebler products are absent from Canadian shelves, but I did see a few pop-tarts and Little Debbie products. Hopefully the weather will be better tomorrow, and hopefully I’ll be feeling better as well.

posted by Poagao at 11:55 am  
Mar 07 2018

February 20th: Vancouver – Toronto – Havana

Breakfast at the hostel was a bright, help-yourself affair, full of earnest young backpackers shredding their gums with sugar-flavored Cheerios. The bright sun was a ruse, betrayed by the  bitter cold outside. Chenbl and I walked over to Chinatown, marveling at the familiar smells and signs and produce overwhelming the sidewalks there. The old Kuomintang building was abandoned, covered in weeds and neglect. Warming our hands with some hot Tenren tea, we walked over to Gastown. The whole thing would have been charming if I weren’t freezing my ass off. The famous clock was steaming (I assume it was steam, otherwise it really needs servicing) and hooted out the traditional clock melody at 2:45 p.m., after which we took refuge amid the cheap plastic smells of the local Dollar Store.

Later we walked back down to the harbor and browsed the signs elaborating on Vancouver’s shockingly sordid history of labor relations and all the awful things that happened in the process of labor reform. Seaplanes were taking off and landing on the water near a floating Chevron gas station; the remains of snow crunched under our feet. We chatted with some friendly construction workers who were busy renovating a house. Nearby, a large, forlorn heap of charred wood and plaster had apparently up until recently been a house.

Turning onto Davies Street, we stopped for entirely too much poutine before heading back to the hotel, where we spent a great deal of effort trying not to listen to an excruciatingly awkward flirting session between two young backpackers in the common room.

Then it was time to leave; we walked over to the subway and took the train out to the airport. The last few stops featured a shouty young drunk, but that was far less annoying than when we checked in and found that our airline not only didn’t know about any of these newfangled “frequent flyer” things all the kids are about these days, they cancelled our seat selections and put us in the middle seats to Toronto. The flight was overbooked, so the check-in staff asked if we’d take US$100 and a night at a hotel. Uh, no, we wouldn’t. But the line at the gate was truly egregious, a scene rife with insecurity as everyone wondered if they’d be picked to be a Sacrificial Passenger. Indeed, one passenger seemed to have already incurred the wrath of one of the flight attendants as we found out seats. “I’ve seen the way you overreact; you only have one more chance or I will have you removed from the flight,” the attendant warned ominously as the young man spread his hands in the internationally recognized symbol of WTF, man.

The whine of the engines drowned out the safety video and my cursing as my watchband broke, but we were in the air soon enough. Several episodes of Blackish later, as we neared Toronto, however, the captain said weather sucked there so we were going to Buffalo NY instead. The whole plane groaned; most people either didn’t have their passports and/or didn’t have a U.S. visa. Nobody could be looking forward to dealing with TSA asshattery; this was one of the main reasons we elected to go through Canada in the first place. The plane circled at the same elevation for a long period of indecision before they agreed that we would be going to Toronto after all, whereupon everyone cheered. After we landed, however, we taxied up to a gate that didn’t work; it was as if they were surprised to see us. Didn’t they call ahead? The crew tugged fruitlessly at the door for a while before giving up and having us all sit down, pack up, power up the engines, back out and head to a gate that actually worked.

That didn’t give us much time to make our connecting flight to Havana, so Chenbl and I booked it from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, embarrassingly specific final boarding accusations ringing in our ears the whole way, and just made it in time.

The flight to Havana was considerably more relaxed, with far fewer people and a party atmosphere. Everyone there, including the casually dressed but smartly competent cabin crew, seemed very happy to be leaving the frigid north behind. As we’d missed meals in our rush, we had some plane food that was bordering on ok. As we approached our destination, people began to change out of their heavy winter clothes into shorts and T-shirts.

Even though my mind was still demanding to know what the hell I was doing in Cuba, the warm air was an incredible relief. Chenbl changed money at a machine, and we caught a cab downtown to the Airbnb place where we’re staying to put our luggage down before heading out with Annanai, a Cuban woman who is more than passingly familiar with all of this.

Of course the old automobiles and colorful buildings are amazing, but I haven’t managed to figure out just how to photograph them sans cliché. All the taxis and buses are crowded, some of the old buildings are being brought back, and I apparently look like I’m searching in vain for a Cuban cigar. Brilliant musicians abound in the restaurants; the lung power of the trumpet players in particular is astounding. I brought my mouthpiece just in case I happen across an opportunity, but I doubt I could come close to keeping up with these guys.

We had cold chocolate at the Chocolate museum and then stopped into the Floridita bar, which was apparently one of Hemingway’s favorite drinking spots (he had many) as well as the origin of the daiquiri, and which features a larger-than-life brass statue of the heavy-set writer sitting at the end of the bar overlooking the field. Daiquiris were had, and we all left the place a little tipsy and wondering if the little straws were really necessary. The sun was setting before Annanai said we should go back to the apartment, so we got on a crowded bus back to Vedado, where our place is located.

Eric, the French-Canadian who runs the place, came out for dinner nearby, and we had a nice long conversation about his background and Cuba’s future.

posted by Poagao at 10:05 am  
Feb 19 2018

Vancouver

Even though I spent large parts of the last several days packing in a vain attempt to avoid last-minute panicking, I still managed to only just finish before I had to head out to meet Chenbl and his parents at Taipei Main Station for lunch. After we bid them farewell, we walked over to the airport MRT and boarded the express to Taoyuan. The weather went quickly from brilliant to gloomy as we descended from the heights of Nankan to disembark underneath Terminal 2, where we found a counter lady who hadn’t heard of her own damn airlines’ contract with the Star Alliance.

Chenbl is a great believer in getting to the airport in plenty of time to spare, so we sat in a movie-themed lounge watching clips from old kung-fu flicks over and over again until I had not only memorized the sequences, but the continuity mistakes.

Eventually we boarded a brand-new 787 bound for Vancouver. I’d never been to Canada before, so this would be a trip with several firsts. The plane was packed, and I had a hard time sleeping in between watching movies and playing with the polarized windows. I’ve been feeling ambivalent about this trip for a while now, and it still hadn’t really sunk in, even though I was looking at snow-covered mountains and fields as we descended.

Regardless of how I felt or didn’t feel about it, we arrived in Vancouver at around noon, and the moment we walked out into the cold wind I thought, ok, this might be a problem. Really? Canada in the middle of winter, you say? Shut up.

We took the subway into town and walked to our hostel, which is located in an older building, put our stuff down and went out to walk around in the cold. The disappearing light was nice, and we followed it down to the waterfront, where helicopters were taking off and ferries were running across the bay. After the sun set, the temperatures dived further, and we searched in vain for a public bathroom before finding one such establishment underground in a nearby park. We then escaped the cold for a while in a large cathedral, hiding in the midst of a large Catholic congregation during a Spanish-language church service.

Later we met a longtime online friend of mine, photographer John Goldsmith, at a nice ramen place, and we spent the rest of the night engaged in great conversation. After arriving back at the hostel, however, Chenbl decided he needed a second dinner, which was donair-related and delicious. The weather was bitterly cold, however, the sidewalks in front of the sex shops and pizza parlors and bars was sparsely populated. The remnants of yesterday’s snowfall are everywhere, and even locals are surprised at the coldness of the weather.

The cold’s not so bad as long as indoor spaces are heated, unlike in Taiwan where, if it’s cold, it’s cold everywhere. The hostel’s floors creak and tremble whenever anyone in the building takes a step; I guess I’m sensitive after being used to concrete structures.

I don’t know what we’re going to do tomorrow, except for catch the overnight flight to Havana.

posted by Poagao at 3:48 pm  
Nov 29 2017

Lately

We played a rather strange gig at a university down south a week or so ago. While well-paying, it was odd; the campus buildings were plastered with ads for the institution, in addition to large posters of various white men saying inspirational sayings. The buildings themselves looked rather new, and the campus is located out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by fields. We were in the middle of soundcheck on the outdoor stage when a battalion of gas-powered grass-cutters descended upon the large field in front, which was occupied by dozens of tables and chairs for the dinner that night. Apparently it didn’t occur to them to cut the grass before setting up the tables, chairs and tents. Nor did it occur to them that the noise might interfere in the soundcheck. When we asked them if they could wait a few minutes, they said, “It’s ok, your playing won’t interfere with our mowing, go ahead!”

The Important Older White People they’d invited to the academic conference were not only far fewer than expected, it seemed from the many empty tables and the achingly uneaten buffet (we were served lunchboxes in a backroom), they weren’t terribly into music either. I hoped that the indigenous singing/dancing group they’d hired were getting paid handsomely as well, but I doubted it. Halfway through our show they stopped for a highly orchestrated “flash mob"which was actually a kick-ass breakdancing group.

Though our show might have been a little underappreciated by the intended audience, when we broke out one of our new songs for the next album, “Temple Blues”, the indigenous group and the breakdancers came out and danced together to it. It was the highlight of the entire trip, and we stretched the song out so everyone could enjoy it more.

Then, afterwards, the organizers forgot that they were supposed to call us taxis so that we could get back to Taipei before midnight. We managed anyway.

My photography course is more or less back on track after the Dadaocheng events. Since we’ve been irking the janitorial staff by staying late after the night classes, I’ve decided to move some of the indoor instruction and review of shots to our outside photography days on weekends, and we now meet at Chenbl’s empty office meeting room in the mornings before going out to shoot in the afternoons/evenings. This last time we took the train out to Zhongli, where we then took a bus out to see a nice green mosque and nearby markets, before marching through empty rice fields to a recently refurbished old military village. My friend Josh Ellis buzzed in on his swank new Gogoro2, impressing the hell out of every single cat in the area, and took us to an interesting restaurant in the city. The place was on the second floor; the first floor was full of cobweb-covered antiques, and you’d never guess that there is a restaurant on the second floor. It was quite tasty. Zhongli is an interesting city, and I can understand Josh’s frustration that many in the expat community seem to look down on the place. Their new mayor is apparently a real mover and shaker as well, implementing the nation’s most generous subsidies for electric vehicles for one thing. I’ll have to make some more trips down there, which is even easier now that recently completed airport MRT goes there.

posted by Poagao at 12:19 pm  
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