Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Jun 11 2018

Back from San Francisco

Ken drove me back downtown on Wednesday morning to the Leica store, where I met and had a nice chat with Jeff Mermelstein, who was starting his own workshop that day. People say he’s the anti-Gilden, and I can see why.

I met Andy in the lobby of his hotel, and we caught an uber to the airport, where we got off at our separate terminals, his domestic and mine international. Then all that lay between me and my 12-hour flight was the pathetic TSA demonstration of ignorance and paranoia. That over with, I bought an extravagantly expensive turkey sandwich to eat while I waited for boarding.

A window seat awaited me on the plane, and fortunately no one in the middle seat so I could stretch out, but my cold didn’t make any part of the flight pleasant. Back in Taipei, I went to an ENT clinic to get something for it before going back to my comfy Water Curtain Cave and passing out.

So I’m back, but due to my cold-induced fogginess I never really experienced arriving, putting me in a rather surreal state of mind.

posted by Poagao at 11:10 am  
Jun 06 2018

San Francisco, Part 5

After the bus I thought was taking me to the ferry building unexpectedly veered off onto a side street, I got off and hurried over to meet Andy before we walked over to where our students were waiting. We discussed a few things before sending them off to shoot. Then Andy, Harvey and I took a circuitous route through downtown in the general direction of Glass Key, where we were meeting everyone for afternoon discussions and final reviews. I was gratified to see that most everyone seemed to show significant improvement, and were happy with their progress. My friend Ben Molina arrived as we were finishing up; I introduced him to Andy, and we walked back down towards Andy’s hotel, stopping along the way to shoot some nicely lit corners. After hamburgers for dinner, we went over to Cameraworks to meet up with some old friends, including Tyler and Skyid, and new ones such as Fadi. I wish I had more time to meet the other guys, but alas, I’m coming down with a cold, and my flight back to Taipei is tomorrow.

It’s been interesting, and kind of bizarre. San Francisco always seems a little bizarre to me, and that seems magnified in the photography scene, and more so in the local street photography scene, which is full of drama and intrigue and passion that seems incommensurate with what actually gets produced. Perhaps it’s simply the character of the city, but I’m not entirely sure I could ever be comfortable in such a place, physically or mentally.

posted by Poagao at 1:25 pm  
Jun 05 2018

San Francisco, Episode IV

The second day of the workshop was quite fruitful. Some of the students were already showing quite a difference as they tried new things and new approaches. We met at the Hyatt lobby and talked about the previous day’s work and set challenges for each student based on what they needed to work on, and they went off on their various missions while Andy, Harvey and I walked around Union Square amid the tourists, touts and of course the ubiquitous mentally ill homeless people that are such a prominent feature of this burg.

Later we all walked over to Glass Key photo, where I gave a small presentation on some thoughts I’ve had on the subject of motives in street photography, and we went over some of the students’ work. There was a little pushback, but that’s to be expected. There were also surprises. All in all it was a promising session.

Andy was giving a talk that night at the Harvey Milk Center, so we Ubered over there in a Dodge Challenger whose driver was playing an oldies rap station we were all digging. After Andy’s talk we listened to another by Michelle Groskopf presenting her wonderfully intimate flash work.

Tired and hungry after the long day, Andy, Harvey, and I were joined by Andy’s old college roommate, who is now a world-class yo-yo practitioner, and an aspiring community college photography teacher who had many questions for me, for pizza nearby.

posted by Poagao at 9:47 pm  
Jun 04 2018

San Francisco, Part 3

Ken and I went over to one of the photo spaces on Market on Saturday to attend the “Ethics of Street Photography” talk they were giving. There was very little of either in the talk, but I did meet Pei Ketron again, as she was one of the organizers of the thing, as well as a photowalk afterward. Pei came to one of my solo exhibitions in Taipei years ago. After the photowalkers had left, Ken, Joe, Jake and I put up some photos, soon joined by Andy, who had just gotten in the night before. Then we went out to shoot and chat as the light was nice downtown with lots of reflections from all the glass buildings. We had some good ramen at a place where they actually give you a whole egg instead of half of one as they do in Japan and Taiwan…American portion growth over the past twenty years continues to baffle me. After the others left, Andy and I had some drinks at the jazz bar on the second floor of his hotel, the Mystic, which seems like a great name for a hotel.

The first day of the workshop (Sunday) went well. I walked over to the Harvey Milk Center in the morning, dodging skateboarders and scooters, admiring the open windows and detailed architecture of the houses here. At the Center, which is located close to the Castro up the street, I met our assistant, who is conveniently if uncannily named Harvey Castro. It’s as if he was named just for this workshop, but he insisted that this is in fact his real name.

Some of the students were sitting on a bench outside, and we chatted a bit while I ate the bagged breakfast I’d bought at a corner store on the way. Andy had arrived but was out shooting, but we all congregated in the classroom at 11. One of the students who had had an email mixup decided he wasn’t interested at the last minute. Something about not really being into having his photos reviewed. Ok.

Andy and I introduced the workshop and ourselves, and we proceeded to review the works the students had brought; there was some very nice stuff, and we were able to figure out more or less what areas they needed to work on. Later, we boarded a train downtown and took the students shooting, meeting up at intervals and doing some individual guidance as we went. As evening approached and the students departed, Andy, Harvey and I climbed the stops above the tunnel and had some drinks at the Tunnel Top bar before catching an uber out to a Korean barbecue restaurant to meet up with Joe, Rob and Rob’s wife. The food was excellent, and I ate way too much as I hadn’t had any lunch.

I am now staying at Ken’s place as the basement I was previously staying at is otherwise occupied, but it’s all good. I’m sitting in his dining room right now typing this early on Monday morning before anyone else is up. Today we’re meeting the students in the lobby of the Hyatt downtown, and Andy says if they try to throw us out he’ll whip out his Hyatt Member Card, but hopefully it won’t come to such drastic measures.

posted by Poagao at 9:59 pm  
Jun 02 2018

San Francisco, part 2

It’s been a busy couple of days. Yesterday I got up and went over to Ken’s for a breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, olive bread and conversation in his kitchen, after which I set out for Joe’s place on Hyde Street. The walk took me longer than I’d thought it would, and I ended up being rather late. We walked over to Union Square to meet his friend Jake, and we spent more or less the rest of the day walking around downtown, often encountering other photographers walking up and down Market Street. We walked down to the waterfront, had a snack, and then out onto a pier lined with elderly Asian fishermen. At one point we spent quite a lot of time at the trolly turnaround area, the others talking with a friend of theirs. As the sun set, we went to a market for fixings, and then returned to Joe’s apartment, where we witnessed a truly excruciating attempt by a dude in a Mazda Miata to parallel park. Tacos ensued.

Jake had to go, and I caught a bus back to the Panhandle area where I’m staying, stopping at Target to have a look around before walking back.

This morning I awoke with a headache, so after breakfast and some Aleve, I returned to bed until the pain was more or less receding. Then I took a bus down to Market and walked over to the Best Buy on Harrison to look at speakers. While I was there, a grey-bearded man with a cart strode in, loudly proclaiming, “BEST BUY RUINED MY LIFE!” A clerk hurried over and spoke with him for a minute about his grievance, and then he strode out again, shouting just as loudly, “IT’S OK IT WAS JUST A MISUNDERSTANDING, NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT!”

I wandered over to the camera section to have a look at the new Sonys, and the sales dude came over to ask if I had any questions. “How fast does this wake up?” I said, pointing to the A7rIII.

“Point-six milliseconds,” he said.

“Really.”

“Well, maybe half a second,” he said. I picked up the camera, held down the shutter and switched it on. We both waited until the shutter activated.

“So, a little over a second?” I suggested.

“But there’s literally no situation where you’d need it to do that,” he said quickly, and I couldn’t, try as I might, to suppress a laugh.

“Are…are you a photographer?”

He took umbrage at this. How dare I insinuate that he was not a photographer. “I am a photographer, as a matter of fact.” Challenging glare, arms folded. Ok. I didn’t want to get into it, so I thanked him for his time and left. I know I shouldn’t have been so mean; I’m sure he’s a lovely photographer.

Joe and Rob picked me up in front of the store, but not before I made the elderly white man standing there clutching a printer extremely nervous. Everyone here seems unreasonably nervous, for some reason, like they’re all waiting for something awful to happen.

We drove back to Joe’s place, tried to walk his dog, but the dog, Miller, wasn’t having it. So we left Miller there and headed out again, this time for sushi with Ann, whom I’d met two years ago. We’d expected a wait but were able to head right in. The sushi was good, fresh and not cheap. Fortunately Rob is a CIA agent so he was able to make the check “go away”. Then he drove me back to the panhandle, telling me stories of various famous photographers he’s met.

I walked up to the Lucky grocery store to get some snacks and gifts, but I had to use the restroom first. I walked back to where they were located, and saw a middle-aged white woman kneeling on the floor fussing with her bag. As I walked to the restroom door she started and yelled at me, “What are you doing here?!” in a panicked voice.

Confused, I pointed at the restroom door, saying, obviously I thought, “I want to use the restroom.” But she was shaking her head, and saying she knew what I was up to, no, I couldn’t fool her. I was a sexual predator, apparently, sneaking up on her with the most nefarious of schemes.

Upon seeing my expression, she said, “Oh, and I’m the crazy one? Ha!” I ignored her and tried the handle of the restroom, but there was a keycode because everyone in America is paranoid and narrow-minded. When I gave up and began walking to the register to ask for the code, the woman said snidely, “Oh, I guess you’ve decided not to use the restroom, huh? I know what you’re up to, you pervert!”

I ignored her, went to get the code, used the restroom, picked up my snacks, and headed to the counter, where the woman was just finishing her checkout. As I waited in line, looking at my phone, she chatted with the clerk, looking for all the world like a normal person. I guess that’s the most frightening thing about all of this.

The photo activities are ramping up tomorrow, so that should be interesting.

posted by Poagao at 2:46 pm  
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  
May 16 2018

Books, photography, albums, etc.

While it’s nice and all that my book Barbarian at the Gate: From the American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army has been listed on Taiwaneseamerican.org’s 50 Books for Your Taiwanese American Library, their description of the book’s content is not quite accurate. But I suppose I’ll let any potential readers out there find that out for themselves. Coincidentally, also listed as well as shown in the lead image of the page is Francie Lin’s The Foreigner, which features one of my photographs as the cover art.

It’s hot and muggy out; everyone is waiting for the plum rains, but the weather just doesn’t seem interested this year. As the water flowing under the Bitan bridge assumes more of a coffee hue from the lack of rain, no doubt drought will be announced soon. I’ve been scanning old negatives at home while listening to podcasts, and am constantly amazed at how poorly the original photo labs printed these shots, cropping out significant portions of the photos and seemingly making exposure decisions at random. I’ve also been busy with my photography course, leading students around various part of northern Taiwan and covering material in the classroom, as well as planning for the upcoming BME street photography workshop in San Francisco that I’m teaching along with Andy Kochanowski. I’m looking forward to seeing the SF crowd again…if I make it into the country that is; I’ve successfully applied for the visa waiver program, but I’ve still got my fingers crossed that I’ll get a decent immigration officer. The Muddy Basin Ramblers’ third album is slowly coming to fruition; the two riverside listening tests we’ve held so far have been promising. Other members of the band have predicted that this one’s going to be big…we’ll see. I’m just enjoying the ride, and regardless of how well it’s received, I’m happy to have been part of it.

Riverside testing our new album.

The catchword for 2018 so far has been “surreal”…everything feels like a loaded plate balanced at the very edge of a table, and half of us just want to see it fall. The transition from winter to summer is usually the most volatile, atmospherically speaking. China has increased its efforts to erase Taiwan from everyone’s awareness, and for all of their crowing about democracy and freedom, businesses, governments and media all around the world seem perfectly happy to go along with the charade. For our part, our precious leadership here in Taiwan, which has become infamous for the many things it hasn’t done since it came to power, has decided that screwing up our air quality is no big deal as long as they don’t have to face any criticism from raising our laughably low utility prices. And the U.S. is…well, you know. Plate. Table. Shrug.

But hey, happy thoughts! I should remember that I have a great deal to be grateful for, many opportunities in the four+ decades I’ve been on this particular rock. I’m lucky enough to have a great place to live, a good employment situation, health and friends. So, as the great Joe Walsh once said, “I can’t complain (but sometimes I still do).”

posted by Poagao at 11:34 am  
Mar 26 2018

Another world

Saturday was the Calla Lily Festival in Taoyuan, and the Muddy Basin Ramblers were playing. Though the event wasn’t far from the high speed rail station, we took a van from the Xindian metro station, listening to tunes on the portable speaker I’d gotten in Vancouver along the way as the driver navigated the traffic both on and off the freeway.

The event went well enough, though there was no cover on the stage; the sun was strong and poor Redman was without sunscreen for the two 45-minute sets. The audience was enthusiastic and the kids were (IMHO) properly ignoring the red cordon around the stage and dancing to the music. After we got back to Xindian everyone split except Redman, Slim and I; we headed over to the river to hang out for a bit listening to the swooning sax music and reflect on the day before heading back to our respective abodes.

On Sunday, I took my photography students on a walk around Linkou. We met at Taipei Station and basically commandeered a bus as it was the first stop and we basically filled the vehicle. The trip out was smooth and fast, up the highway through the valley lined with metal-roofed factories and now impossibly high roadways, past the metro stop to the Zhulin Mountain Buddhist Temple, the next-to-last stop. I figured the wide-open courtyard in front of the temple, with a good flow of people coming and going, would be a good place to go over the basics with our new students, this being the first outside activity of the semester. A few mechanical problems such as buttons stopping working and batteries refusing to come out of cameras had me wondering if we should have informed the temple gods what we were up to beforehand, but thankfully nothing too serious (None of my students use film cameras, alas, even though I’ve suggested that it’s a viable option, and I would welcome such experimentation).

After we were done at the temple, we walked over to the touristy old street for some lunch (beef noodles), and as we were heading out again we bumped into Bin-hou, one of our classmates from violin class. He lives in the area, but it was a neat coincidence. He’s also studying trumpet, and is currently in possession of my old Arban’s book of exercises, which happens to include traditional Chinese text for some reason. When I first bought it around 1981, I had no idea why that was the case, but now I know.

We continued walking towards the highway, and an old, half-demolished rowhouse caught my eye, so I went over to have a look. Behind it we found an old tea farmer just finishing up work in the fields. He enjoyed the attention and took us on a tour of the remaining half of his old house, which was built in the 1930’s, and then invited us to his shop for tea. As it turns out, he’s 90 years old, and apparently lives alone with only a Filipina caregiver named Annie. The teas he served got cheaper and more delicious as we went, by design I’m sure, just to prove that expensive tea isn’t necessarily better. If you’re interested in dropping by for a chat and some excellent tea, the place is called Hongyuan Tea, near the corner of Zhongzheng and Jialin Roads in Linkou. Just look for the half of a house.

As we continued to walk, the older buildings were replaced more and more by huge, modern apartment complexes and vast, empty parks; fewer and fewer people were to be found on the streets despite the pleasant weather. We ended up in front of the Mitsui Outlet Park mall, and although class had officially ended hours earlier, most of the students were still hanging out with us. The afternoon was waning, though, so we officially disbanded, and Chenbl and I went over to the outlet mall to take a look.

The mall is basically a Western mall in virtually every respect, surrounded by huge apartment blocks fronted with floor-length glass windows and nary a rack of metal bars to be seen. Occasionally we would see an ROC flag hanging from a luxury balcony. “Foreigners, most likely,” Chenbl commented.

We went into full-on Mall Mode, looking through the shops where everything seemed to be at least 60% off (of highly inflated prices, no doubt); I even bought some baggy jeans as the jeans in every other store I’ve seen are skinny and I can’t stand skinny jeans. Dinner completed the Western Mall fantasy with an actual, genuine god-damned avocado burger that made me feel both intestinally and morally compromised. Half of the mall is exposed to the open air, and the roof is covered with grass; a musical group surrounded by kids was playing the courtyard, under a roof that is apparently meant to collect rainwater. Next to the mall is an enormous parking garage, because of course there is; there are also superfluous pools and fountains. It was all quite surreal.

Night had fallen by this point. Feeling depleted, we walked out the main gate, past the entrance fountains, and along the wide avenues lined with huge, gleaming apartment blocks adorned with art-deco LED trimmings that shot up into the night towards the airliners that flew over every few minutes. “Everything is so big,” Chenbl exclaimed.

“It’s like Banqiao,” I offered, but he shook his head. Banqiao is apparently child’s play compared to Linkou on Chenbl’s scale of Surreal Western Enclavities.

Maybe it was the avocado burger, but the surreal experience of the mall and just the feeling of just not being in Taiwan for a period of time made me look forward to getting on the metro home. As we waited on the elevated platform among the gleaming buildings, though, I couldn’t help but noticed a father yelling at his son while his daughter watched. The kid was playing on the ground, and the father made a sort of twirl, lifting his foot and actually catching, seemingly by accident, the kid’s head with his foot. The boy didn’t say anything, just looking up at his father, but I thought it odd. Then, just before the train arrived, the man lifted a foot and violently stomped on the boy’s toy car, prompting an outburst from his son that the father refused to acknowledge.

As I was looking over at the scene, Chenbl warned, “Don’t stare.” It did seem that the man probably had violent tendencies. I wondered if they lived in the area. What kind of life would that be? All I know is that, if that boy survives his childhood, that man will have a very lonely old age, provided he survives that long either.

A group of loud foreigners in shorts and baseball caps who had gotten on the train with us preceded us at the terminal station in Taipei, so we took our time walking to the MRT station. I was exhausted after two consecutive days full of events; all I wanted was some time in my comfy bed before facing another week of work and classes.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:06 pm  
Mar 19 2018

Sunday

I needed to choose one of two things to do on Sunday morning. I usually like to go down to Taipei New Park and practice taichi/tuishou with the fellas; it’s good to move around, get some exercise, sun, and chat about recent news. But I also needed to practice violin, as I’ve fallen behind after not picking it up a single time during the winter break. Originally I’d thought I could do both, and after breakfast I took out the violin and began practicing with the full intent of just doing some brushing up and then heading out to the park.

Before I knew it, it was well after noon and I was still playing. I’m slowly getting the hang of changing positions; it makes more sense to me than it did when my teacher first introduced the idea, and feels more natural. Though my neighbors no doubt disagree, I actually found practicing enjoyable. But taichi was out, so I had a tasty lunch at the Pancho Cafe downstairs and then crossed the bridge to hang with my friend Casey, who’s got his hands on an interesting apartment on the other side of the river. It’s in the back of a building on a slope, for one thing, and it’s full of junk nobody else wants. Casey hauled out a bunch of moldy old cameras for me to look at…they’re probably hopeless, but I took a couple off his hands to take to the shop so they can have a look. Casey’s also into taichi, so we pushed hands for a while and I didn’t feel as guilty about missing the park.

The day had started out sunny, but it was cloudy as I made my way back across the crowded bridge to put the cameras away before heading out again. I hate crossing the bridge in the evenings these days, as Bitan is doing its inane fountain festival thing, which is basically a few water spouts on the paddle-boat docks going off while huge speakers boom out “Time to Say Good-bye” and the theme to Pirates of the Caribbean every half hour. This somewhat-less-than-spectacular display manages to attract roughly half of Taipei to see it, and the bridge strains and bucks under their weight. To make matter worse, I forgot my phone and had to make the arduous trip twice, cursing as I did so.

The reason I was heading out to the city instead of spending a comfy evening scanning old negatives and listening to podcasts at the Water Curtain Cave was that David Chen had invited me to see the last show of the Gypsy Jazz Festival at the Eslite Spectrum theater. I took the subway to the City Hall station and got a bite of pork rice before heading up to the bookstore to read more about the background of Koudelka’s Exiles before heading to the theater to meet David and Vincent, who organized the whole thing.

The concert was amazing. It was a simple setup, with Tcha Limberger on violin and vocals, Antoine Boyer and Denis Chang on guitar, and Kumiko Imakyurei on double bass, and the resulting music was ethereal, like a dream. They played many Django Reinhardt tunes, including a version of the little-performed Pour Que Ma Vie Demeure that is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. I looked it up later but couldn’t find a version that came close to the one they played. Tcha’s violin sang and wept with him, and Antoine, who is amazingly accomplished for his age, played as if he was possessed. Virtually every song was mesmerizing, and at the end they had all of their workshop students come up and play a phrase during an extra-long version of the Tchavolo Swing. Some were better than others, but all of them were good. Vincent has done a great job organizing this thing, and I look forward to seeing where it goes in the future.

So it was a good day. I’d needed a good day.

 

 

 

posted by Poagao at 10:58 am  
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  
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