Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Nov 18 2022

Mixed messages

I had an interesting conversation with a construction site manager yesterday. At least it went better than some of the previous interactions I’ve had with them.

It was a nice, warm, sunny day, and I was wandering along Zhongxiao West Road after a pleasant lunch near Camera Street and then hanging around the North Gate watching a wedding photographer chase the retreating light around the square. “Pretend like you’re running!” he called to the prospective groom, while his bride fiddled with makeup in a tiny tent.

“Like this?” the groom lifted a leg up hesitantly. Clearly he hadn’t been expecting this, especially after putting on a fancy white-and-purple suit.

“No, you look like a dog peeing!” the photographer said, but in a nice way. “Run like a bus is about to hit you!”  This was helpful advice, as buses were indeed zooming by inches behind him.

I walked east and got yelled at by a crazy Chinese monk for taking a photo of the Mitsukoshi Building. “Don’t fuck with me! I am long exiled from Foshan!” he shouted.

I kept walking, ending up on the famous pedestrian bridge at the intersection of Zhongxiao and Zhongshan. A busy construction site where the old round City Council building used to be caught my eye, and I took a few shots from the bridge before heading down to see if the light was nicer from street level.

“You can’t take photographs here,” a site manager walked over to tell me.

“Why’s that?”

“Company rules.” I sighed. This again.

“I don’t work for your company. Your site in is public view from the public road I’m standing on, and I’m not violating any safety rules here.” The manager considered this.

“All true, but we could get in trouble if you post these photos and our boss sees them, especially if he sees our company logo.”

“Why would your boss be unhappy at that? It seems like a well-run site. This project has even been shown in the media before.”

“He might yell at us for allowing someone to take photos.”

It was a pleasant, cordial exchange, and while I did not envy this man’s conundrum, I had to tell him: “You might not have noticed, but your site is bathed in reflected light from all these glass buildings next door in the afternoon. That’s going to attract photographers. Also, you’re not only right by a pedestrian bridge that is a famous photography spot, you’re also near hotels, the Executive Yuan and the train station. That means curious tourists walking by. Photography is going to happen. If you make a big deal about hiding the site from them, there’s a chance some of them will be IG influencers, journalists or even members of foreign diplomatic groups.” Someone might even blog about it, I added mentally.

He seemed amenable to this point of view, but he was still in manager mode. “Ok, I’ll let you keep the photos you’ve already taken, including the ones from the pedestrian bridge, but please don’t take any more.”

“There’s nothing you can do about the photos I’ve already taken,” I reminded him, noting that they’d tracked me all the way from the bridge. “But I appreciate your point of view and thanks for being courteous about it.”

As I walked on, I couldn’t help but wonder why people automatically go to some imagined worst-case scenario when they see they are being photographed. Is everyone afraid that their nefarious behavior will get them in trouble? But that can’t be the case, as being recorded by the government and corporations 24/7 has become a matter of course; nobody ever even thinks about it. Then again, government and corporate surveillance is expressly put in place to catch wrongdoing, so is it that far a stretch to imagine that, as such recording becomes more ubiquitous and ever present, the general population just assumes that any kind of photography is accusatory and predatory in nature? People crave attention, but just the safe kind of attention, I suppose. Whatever that is.

To wit: I recently got back in touch with a street photographer I used to chat with back in the early days of Flickr, Joe Wigfall. He no longer even takes photos; he says it had become too much of a hassle, so he paints and writes instead. It’s a shame; he made some very good work when he was active. He noted that when he was out shooting, Black people would give him more shit for photographing them than people from other groups would, and he noticed the same for white and Asian photographers he’d go shooting with. We can give them a pass, but you’re one of us; you should know better seems to be the message they were sending.

I took the subway over to Taipei 101 and walked across Wuxing Street towards the mountains, noticing the imprints of old military villages amid the empty fields as well as the occasional illegal villas with partially demolished balconies. Brightly colored election trucks, cars, motorcycles and bicycles crisscrossed the streets with their various candidates promising various things from mounted loudspeakers. But the sun was setting, so I walked back over to the Tonghua Night Market to meet up with Chenbl for a delicious meal of noodles at a wood-paneled restaurant where the competent young staff played old and pseudo-old jazz. They knew about the Ramblers, and put on some of our music.

posted by Poagao at 12:07 pm  
Nov 03 2022

Tainan memories

Chenbl had got his hands on some hotel coupons, so we decided to spend a couple of days in Tainan, along with his elderly parents. Chenbl’s father is from Tainan, so he enjoys the nostalgia of trips back there.

We took the bullet train, Chenbl’s parents enjoying the plush purple business class seats with complimentary coffee and champagne or whatever it is they serve there, while we watched the brilliant green of the rice fields flash by as we consumed our brown-bag breakfast in the still-spacious blue standard seats. Tainan’s high-speed rail station is rather out in the middle of nowhere, as several of the stations between Taipei and Kaohsiung seem to be, no doubt thanks to land speculation, but no matter: We were going to experiment with the i-Rent online car rental system to save Chenbl’s parents, who are in their 80s, a bit of walking. I used my phone to locate the car, took some photos to show it wasn’t damaged, and then we were off.

It’s been quite a few years since I drove a car, but it didn’t take long to get used to piloting the white Toyota Yaris down the rural roads. The trick, I’ve learned, is not to get emotional while driving. Other drivers will do stupid things all the time, but if you leave enough space and think ahead, things generally work out. Not being able to see the front edges of the car was annoying, however. Never had that problem with 80’s cars, he grumbled oldly.

Chenbl had constructed an intricate itinerary with Google Maps, noting all of our potential destinations, and he used the service to issue navigation orders from the passenger’s seat, occasionally telling his parents to be quiet when they started suggesting oblique routes from half a century ago that may or may not still exist. Our first stop was at a market in an old row of buildings; we parked behind a factory near what was either a motorcycle that had been nearly consumed by weeds or a motorcycle-shaped bush. Chenbl bought snacks while I explored the strange blue-tinted light of the nearby alleys, and when I returned he was talking with one of the shop owners, who gave us free samples of their sausages. Tasty.

Next was the huge, elaborate Buddhist Daitian Temple complex at Madou. The place was very “sensitive”, Chenbl explained, as he is attuned to these kinds of things. The gods were kept behind ornate iron gates to keep them from being damaged by the huge crowds that visit during religious holidays. Behind the main temple is a huge structure in the shape of a dragon, full of scenes of whatever the temple’s founder envisioned heaven looked like in 1979. Chenbl’s father was going to go take a look inside until he found that the entrance fee was NT$40. We went instead, and the experience was indeed probably not worth NT$40, being a series of “It’s a Small World”-esque motorized figures depicting various deities having tea parties on lawns. There was a Monkey statue, however, so of course I had to get a picture with The Poagao, whom I’m fairly sure didn’t pay NT$40 to get in and probably had some tea party paraphernalia in his pockets.

Next to the exit of the Heaven experience was a gate to the Hell experience, which was also NT$40 and probably didn’t include air conditioning. We declined the Hell experience and went back to the main temple. Chenbl pointed at a palanquin parked outside, surrounded with surly young men in temple garb. “Someone is visiting,” he said. We went back inside to see a couple of elderly mediums shaking and shouting and pounding the table, while other devotees standing by interpreted all of this. After this we went to another structure, a large round edifice with very nice statues of the four Directional Deities inside, each one a different color. I hadn’t known about the Directional Deities; Chenbl’s father was filling me in when Chenbl suggested we take our leave due to my photo-taking causing a few mutterings from the staff.

Our next destination was Laotanghu, an “art space” out in the middle of empty fields. Apparently some enterprising painter had gotten the land for cheap and assembled the place out of stuff he’d found in an old village. Large buses disgorged tourists into the complex, where you could have your picture taken dressed up in cartoonish “traditional” garb, and a musician played guitar by the banks of the “lake”, which was most likely an old rice field. We got on a small boat to go out to a peninsula on the other side of the water, manned by one of the staff. When we’d all gotten on, the young man called out to the tourists at the front of the boat, “Hey! Start pulling the rope! This boat won’t move itself!” It was a neat trick; Tom Sawyer would be proud.

On the other side we encountered a group of Real Photographers surrounding a model in one of the traditional costumes. They saw me with my camera and beckoned. “Now you try!”

“Thanks, I’m good,” I replied, as I’d already been taking pictures of the scene, and I didn’t want to get in their way. They laughed.

The sun was edging towards the horizon, so we headed out to the coast to see some piles of salt. This is apparently a huge photography spot, and the area was swarmed with people hauling some serious gear around getting shots of an array of small piles of salt as sunset approached. The actual sunset was rather disappointing, as a passing typhoon was making Tainan’s usually sunny skies overcast and grey. We walked out to the windbreak, where a young woman posed for selfies and an older man shot invisible birds with his slingshot by a small earth god temple.

We set out again for a Michelin-rated restaurant Chenbl had read about, the Dongxiang. It was also in the middle of nowhere. We arrived just in time, though, as almost immediately a large tour bus pulled up, flooding the place with dozens of Women of a Certain Age, all chatting loudly. When the food came, I could see why they were so highly rated. The oyster noodles in particular were so good that Chenbl ordered another after we’d finished the first plate.

Driving back to the hotel at night was smooth, though again it had been a long time since I’d driven at night, so I was especially cautious, leaving plenty of space for the inevitable scooters weaving in and out of my lane. We were staying at The Place, which had been connected to a mall pre-Covid, and the severed connections had yet to be re-established, so we took an elevator to the basement, walked a few feet to another elevator, and then went up to the mall. There we did mall things until we tired, and went to back to our room to sleep.

The Place has an expansive breakfast that we took full advantage of the next morning. Outside, unfortunately, pouring rain had thrown a monkey wrench into the day’s plans. We set out, me driving even more cautiously in the rain, and found a small temple that Chenbl’s father had known when he was a young man. The table top in front of the altar was scarred from generations of mediums’ pounding. Chenbl’s father said that the temple had barely changed over the last 60 years. Almost every place we stopped required me to dig out my old parallel parking skills from high school. Thank you, Coach Munson, for teaching me an actually useful skill.

As we drove on, Chenbl’s father would sometimes point out spots he remembered. “That’s the stream we forded when we were fleeing the Americans’ bombs during the war!” We stopped at another old neighborhood to find the first house he had purchased, the last one in a row of two-story structures. After walking a short distance, Chenbl’s mother knocked on a door in an alley. A middle-aged woman answered, and she turned out to be Chenbl’s cousin, and one of his father’s family members with whom Chenbl’s mother had gotten along with the best. She even remembered Chenbl, even though he left Tainan when he was a small child. The group had a nice long chat in the alley, asking about this relative and that.

We then stopped by the house they’d lived in next before moving up to Taipei, finding the old well they used back in the day. “That used to be a machine shop,” Chenbl’s mother pointed at an old Japanese-era wooden house nearby. “I had to borrow their telephone to call the hospital when the kids came down with fevers. We didn’t have one of our own.”

The original plan had been to drive out to walk around several seaside villages, but due to the rain we limited our choice to just one. Chenbl’s mother stayed in the car after we looked at the inevitable temple facing the harbor. A bunch of local people hung out at a shop next door, chatting and laughing, and a group of students practiced violin nearby. We wandered the adjacent alleys in the rain, finding old wells that apparently represented Dragon’s eyes according to the fengshui masters, and chatting with some of the people we met, me testing the limits of my Taiwanese language abilities. There weren’t many people around; the area seemed largely deserted, with the foundations of long-demolished houses here and there. At one house we passed a large black dog, its age showing in its grey muzzle, barked furiously at us from through the mail slot. Its owner, a middle-aged man, told me not to take photographs after I took a few shots of the dog. “I’ll bet he uses that dog to intimidate people,” Chenbl muttered as we walked back to the car.

We drove around a few other interesting villages, but the rain showed no signs of letting up, so we gave up and drove back to the high-speed rail station, returning the Yaris early and trading our original return train tickets for earlier ones. The whole i-Rent experience was smooth and reasonably priced, and I can see using it more in the future, especially if they further expand their network.

The trip back was spent dozing. I’ve always enjoyed driving, but spending all day keeping my attention on the road was tiring as I’m not used to it. We’ll have to go back in better weather to get a better look at some of those old villages, or even, dare I say, one of the larger piles of salt. One can hope.

posted by Poagao at 12:16 pm  
Oct 13 2022

A newsletter? Really?

When I began writing online journal entries in early 2001, I simply wanted to share stories from my daily life with whomever might be interested. Stories of my life as an ex-American Taiwanese, of playing in a jug band, making films and engaging in photography, etc. Things a few family and friends might enjoy, perhaps. The blog, as such accounts came to be known, grew to encompass several topics as blogs became popular, and then, with the advent of Facebook/IG/et al, waned in popularity, returning to the realm of people who just enjoyed writing rather than using them to garner attention (photography seems to be following a similar track). In any case, this is my experiment with TinyLetter, part of my attempt to escape the confines of the social media algorithm and regain a semblance of pre-Facebook sanity, and a return to the simple, rambling stories I’ve always produced.

Another part of my escape plan includes another piece of retrofitting, i.e. a personal website just for my photography. This has been somewhat of a saga, as I had originally concluded that Squarespace would be the best way to present my work more or less as I desired it to be seen, rather than the hit-and-miss, mysterious popularity machines. I tried out other trials such as Wix and Format, but the interfaces didn’t appeal to me. After subscribing to a Squarespace 7.1 template, however, I found that once you choose a template, you are basically stuck with it. I was told I would have to cancel my entire subscription if I wanted to choose a 7.0 template that I could change. I tried one I’d been recommended but it wasn’t doing everything I wanted to, so I wondered exactly why I was spending all this money again?

Some friends had been suggesting Google Sites, which is free and apparently nicer than it was after some upgrades, so I played around with that out of curiosity, and, well. I made a site. Here it is. I’m still working on it, and hopefully Google is working on further upgrades to the service, but it’s free and it sort of works, though it looks a lot better on desktop than on mobile, but I figure viewing photography on a phone is sub-optimal at best in any case, so this is what I’m going to use for now.

So the issue now is weaning myself away from the dopamine hits of Likes and Comments and Follows that social media has me addicted to, clawing my way back to some kind of real-world existence (oddly enough, VR experiences are more akin to IRL interactions than social media ones, but that’s another topic for another day).

So yeah, a newsletter.

I’ve been writing this journal for well over two decades, making it one of the longest-lasting blogs out there, But lately I’ve been tiring of the FB/IG algorithm, and I suspect I am not alone. I’m still working on all of this, but I hope to achieve some amount of autonomy, even though my mind has likely been rewired by so many years of dopamine hits in the form of little red dots signifying “engagement”. Congratulations! You’re part of the tribe! You matter! Now do it again! And again! Faster!

Except my time would be far better spent creating for myself and those I care about rather than some greedy algorithm that ultimately doesn’t produce anything of value. Recent inspirations have come from Craig Mod and Andy Adams of Flak photo, both of whom are way better at this sort of thing than I am. But they, Craig in particular, have beaten a path towards what I would rather be doing than posting on FB/IG (or, heaven help me, twitter), which is mainly writing, photographing, video, and editing the result of the whole thing.

So there is no set topic for this account. Those who have faithfully read my journals for the last 20-odd years know what to expect: random posts about wandering the alleys and byways of Taipei, musings on photography, writing, cinema and virtual reality, the odd music gig or photo excursion or exhibition, trips abroad…that kind of thing.

As with just about everything else I do, this is an experiment, a space to see what happens. And as always, you’re welcome to come along.

 

powered by TinyLetter

posted by Poagao at 6:55 pm  
Oct 11 2022

Weiwuying Gig

So the Ramblers played a show in Kaohsiung on Double Ten day, at the Weiwuying Arts Center, taking the bullet train down from Taipei at noon for an afternoon soundcheck. David had shown us photos, but nothing prepared me for the actual sight of the place we were to play. “That’s no stage…that’s a space station,” I couldn’t help but whisper as we were ushered into a giant atrium that looked like we were hovering underneath an upside-down starship. Hard, curved surfaces everywhere. Surely the acoustics were impossible? But somehow they made it work for the soundcheck. And they provided bento meals, which we took back to our hotel, which was about a half hour’s walk away. Once outside, I pulled down my mask for a moment to inhale the mix of small- and medium-sized industry fumes and scooter exhaust with just a hint of coal and thought, yes, this is Kaohsiung alright. Each city has its peculiar scent. Take out the coal and humidity, and then add a bit of incinerator smoke and you’ve got Taichung. All of these take me back to the days of my youth, inevitably.

I sampled the free hotel ice cream and took a nap as night fell, before heading back to the arts center for the actual show. I took a circuitous route through the park and around the large outdoor stage with its pop show and screaming fans. The show went well enough, but, possibly because some of us had consumed way too much caffeine, we played nearly ever song about 20% faster than usual, resulting in a rather frantic pace. Afterward some fans came up and told us what they thought of the show, and it was mostly nice things. Then back to the hotel, putting instruments away, plugging in whatever needed charging, relieved at wrapping up another gig. Some of our foreign fans had come to see the show, and everyone ended up in front of the nearest 7-Eleven, drinking, chatting and sampling questionable convenience-store versions of fancy cuisine. I didn’t stay; I was tired and not feeling talkative, so I went to bed, actually sleeping better than I do at the Water Curtain Cave.

Of course that might just be a function of traveling, of being in a different city with the prospects of the kind of discoveries that only aimless, solitary wandering can achieve. Even just a few hours of this can do wonders for my mood. Would it be so hard to just take a train south for the weekend, just to decompress and unwind, spending a night or two in a cheap business hotel? I used to do it; perhaps covid has thrown a wrench into such things, but I miss doing that kind of thing. Chenbl loves to plan everything Just So, with itineraries and restaurants and things to see all at certain times, but my ideal day is just open and unplanned. Perhaps this is why I have failed to accomplish so many things I otherwise might have, but I can’t help but brighten at the thought of what might happen if I just allow the space for it. But yes, that does usually involve some amount of planning.

The next day dawned bright and warm, and I went out for a walk around the area, crossing across parks and alleys in the areas and exploring the interesting Guandi Temple with, for some reason, statues of large-eyed Europeans in crusade drip at the foot of its stairs. Inside were huge, marvelous god statues, though. But I had to get back, have some hotel breakfast and a shower before we caught a mosquito-ridden cab back to the High-speed rail station at Zuoying where our train departed just before 11 a.m., speeding north through brilliant rice fields, towns and, eventually, mountains. An hour and a half later and several degrees colder we were parting ways in the grey, indefinite climate of Taipei Main Station, them to who knows where, and me back to the office. We’ve got lots of shows coming up; it seems that many of the gigs that were put off during covid are coming back now, and October is always a busy month regardless. At least I’m playing so much that practice is virtually guaranteed.

As per my last post, I did sign up for TinyLetter for a newsletter-type setup, but for some reason this has made me extremely hesitant to post. It all still feels pretentious to me; I feel that if people are waiting for me to write things, with Expectations and all that, they will most likely be disappointed in the random rambling accounts that have dominated this journal for the past two-plus decades. Then again, everyone has a Substack account these days, so is it really all that different from the original blog era? Perhaps, but in any case, screw it; I write what I write.

posted by Poagao at 3:37 pm  
Sep 02 2022

E-xodus

I’m seeing more people these days, particularly photographers and writers, eschewing the chaos of mainstream social media and returning to the quiet world of personal blogs and websites. Perhaps they feel, like many of us, that the algorithms pushing conflict, sensationalism and drama over meaning, empathy and subtlety have made their efforts inconsequential in the face of the “influencers” and “creatives” who crave and cultivate the former over the latter. It’s simply a battle that cannot be won, and not even worth engaging.

My theory is that with ever-growing access to social media as well as ever-growing dependence on it driven by recent events such as the pandemic and general paranoia, our online tribes have simply gotten too large; we’ve opened our doors to nearly everyone, and there’s a reason tribes topped out at a certain number; beyond that they just became mobs (This is one reason I feel that VR-based engagement, limited to more human-scale interaction, is inherently superior to the mass-text-based chaos that dominates FB and Twitter, but that’s another article). As it stands now, greed-fueled social media corporations are throwing these mobs at each other and calling it “engagement”, raking in the resulting profits. I can see the attraction of returning to the previous paradigm, disposing of the myth of instant, real-time internet fame and focusing only on one’s relatively small group of peers. It feels like a return to sanity.

However, years of those dopamine-fueled hits have left their mark, it would seem, as those artists who are seeking to lessen their dependence on the Likes of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram are leaving a door open from one MO to the other in the form of newsletter mailing lists like Substack, Buttondown, Memberful and TinyLetter. The idea is to utilize the following one has cultivated on social media by posting links to one’s mailing list, gathering subscribers, and then going on from there. Readers will be informed of upcoming projects, articles, etc. via that antiquated form of communication we Gen-Xers call email, and then proceed to the website in question to peruse whatever it is. It’s all rather quaintly endearing, like letters arriving in the post.

I am, as usual, late to the game, only having recently followed a few interesting photographers/writers in this fashion lately, including Craig Mod, Sean Lotman and Andy Adams (Craig described his views on newsletters quite succinctly here in 2019(!).

So far I’ve only come across these newsletters on social media, so the reliance is still there, but I assume the goal of this trend is to lessen such dependence and time spent on social media where one is simply not in control of anything. The cost of this is, on the surface, less interaction with the authors in question, but that would seem to be a fallacy in that what little actual interaction occurs on social media tends to be toxic and ill-informed. In one striking example, I signed up for Heather Cox Richardson’s political analysis mailing list, and continue to enjoy her missives. But on her Facebook page, when I left a comment objecting to her use of “self-ruled island” to describe Taiwan, I was flamed and eventually banned from the page. The same (or worse) would most likely have happened on Twitter.

Not having cultivated a large group of followers in any particular space, I can only envy those gentle, enterprising souls who have managed to do so. It’s my own damn fault as I can often be rather blunt in expressing my opinions, and I am bad at hiding my feelings, so it’s kind of WYSIWYG. So, thanks to both of my readers who have stuck with me across the decades (and now that I think about it, “both” might be on the optimistic side).

Nonetheless, with the trend of photographers abandoning Flickr for Instagram and then realizing that Instagram isn’t for photography, I’ve been looking into making a website just for displaying my photography in a fashion I can somewhat control (which ironically is the very reason I made this site back in 2001, before this damn blog took it over). I could use WordPress to add a photography page to this site (right now it points to my IG), but the WP website interface is rather daunting, so I’ve been looking at paid services like Squarespace as well as free services such as Google Sites, both of which would seem to be capable of helping me make a simple photography site with varying degrees of classiness. Squarespace can serve up a suave site, but it’s pricey, and I’ve been experimenting with test sites both there and on Google Sites to see what I can make.

Would making an actual newsletter be pointless? Would anyone want to get actual email notifications from me about whatever I’m blathering on about lately? I doubt it. But I’ll at least be sure to let you know when I get my photography site up and running. Both of you, even.

posted by Poagao at 12:04 pm  
Aug 15 2022

4th shot

So the student exhibition of work from the last semester is up and running at the Ren An Hospital Museum exhibition space on the second floor. I made a video about it, using just my iPhone and a little stabilizer unit which turned out to be surprisingly effective. It’s going until mid-September, so if you’re looking for some good street photography and are baffled at the confusing art pieces that crowd Taiwan’s photography galleries these days, go have a look.

One day before the one-year anniversary of getting my first covid vaccine, Chenbl and I went to a clinic on Sanmin Road to get our second booster shots. It was a rather casual experience, just a few people waiting around instead of the strictly organized lines and zones I’ve encountered elsewhere. When we were at the counter a woman came in with a form to show the nurse. “You don’t need to show me that,” the nurse said, rather brusquely. Chenbl gave me a look.

“What’s up?” I said. He glanced at the women, who was now heading upstairs.

“I think she’s a covid patient getting meds,” he muttered. “The nurse didn’t want anyone to see her diagnosis.”

“I’m just going to wait outside,” I said. He laughed.

We were getting the Novavax vaccine this time, though my first three were Moderna, and Chenbl got BNT. Just for a little variety, to keep covid guessing. And a little payback for it keeping us guessing, I guess. My shoulder was sore for a few minutes, and I felt a little drunk for the next couple of days.

This might have affected my views on the two plays we went to see on the following two days. The first was at the National Theater at CKS, a grand affair. We were sitting on the very side of the theater above the stage in a box with a single file of seats, oddly not facing the stage but forward, necessitating a certain amount of rubbernecking. The play, featuring the complicated life of a woman from the 70’s to the 90’s and featuring a great deal of jumping around in time, was by Wu Nian-jen and was entirely in Taiwanese, so I missed a good portion of it as my Taiwanese is rather basic. Still, it was quite moving. The second play was up at the big new traditional theater complex near Zhishan Station in Shilin, and featured the marriage-related travails of a family of women. It was also quite good, and it being in mostly Mandarin I didn’t have to guess at any of the meanings. Afterward Chenbl and I walked over to an old neighborhood for dinner, and then back to Shilin Station, where they have unfortunately cut down all the trees to widen the road. That’s a shame.

I’d thought I was done with the after-effects of the vaccine, but after a couple of days feeling drunk and posting ill-advised rants on DPreview, I started just feeling exhausted, like bone-tired on an existential level. This is the first non-mRNA shot I’ve had for covid, and it was not playing. Fortunately it only lasted a day or so, and I got by by watching the excellent new season of The Orville. The BA4 and 5 variants are making their way into the general population, and cases, which had been falling, seem to be on the rise again. More people are maskless outside, and I suppose I can understand why in this spectacular combination of heat and humidity that, if I hadn’t come up in Florida and south Texas, might be unbearable. I took a bike ride along the river the other day and took my mask off to do so, as that is now allowed when exercising outside, and it did feel good. I’m keeping my (color-coordinated) mask on in crowds, though.

In other news, I’m looking at making a photography page for this site…well, not poagao.org, but poagao.com. Squarespace is looking like the best option for a technically impaired person like myself. In a way it would be coming full circle; when I started this site in 2001 my aim was to just have a place online where I could put my photos, that being before the photo sites had started up. Then came this blog, and the photography kind of just did its own thing. But now people are abandoning flickr and sites like Instagram are focusing on becoming TikTok, so perhaps it’s time to make a page on here where I can showcase various projects and topics. Feel free to let me know which particular photograpic websites you like most; I’m looking to keep it simple, but I’m open to suggestions. In any case, I’ll let y’all know when I get something up.

posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Aug 02 2022

Busy days

Things are getting busy again, on several levels. Despite all the Twitter-based hullabaloo about Pelosi’s upcoming visit to Taiwan (most of which can’t even be called journalism and completely misses the point), life goes on as normal here as ever.

Last week the Ramblers played a three-day-long gig at the Lin Family Gardens in Banqiao, in a courtyard out in front of one of the old halls. My instrument cart no doubt scuffed several of the centuries-old stone door frames on my way in, but I’ve always liked the place so it was nice to play there despite the oppressive heat. The staff were nice, providing us with tasty bento dinners, souvenir photos of us playing in cute frames, and even umbrellas when a heavy downpour followed our second performance. Thumper and Red Man missed the first show, so Sylvain filled in. Our old friend Chalaw worked wonders at the soundboard to make us sound good, and despite not having played in a good while we managed to put out three solid shows in three days. In between the brutally hot soundchecks and the shows later in the evening I would walk around the neighborhood exploring the various alleys and bridges, the markets and temples. Police on scooters zoomed around checking people’s IDs. After the shows it was cool to be able to wander the complex at night, when it’s usually closed, imagining all the shenanigans and goings-on that happened there back in the days when it was an oasis of culture and taste amid empty fields and swamps. Now it’s an oasis of culture and taste amid apartment buildings and shops of every description.

On the morning after the last show, I met up with Chenbl  and his parents at the Taipei high-speed rail station; we had breakfast on the bullet train south, arriving in Taichung in short order. Chenbl’s parents were staying at The Lin Hotel, a ritzy place near the National Theater, whereas we were staying at a place called simply The Place in another part of town. The neighborhood is crammed full of  swank high-rises now, totally unlike when the Ramblers performed at Tiger City so many years ago, the bitterly cold wind blowing across empty lots as we played. We took a train to the impressive Nantian Temple, which features a giant statue on top, and then a bus to the Second Market, a hexagonal affair, where we had delicious noodles for lunch.

We then strolled through the city through the artsy West District. It’s been too long since I visited Taichung; I miss it. Chenbl’s father commented that Taichung seems to have more potential these days. While Taipei’s been content to rest on its laurels as the capital, Taichung these days seems more about exploration and experimentation. It’s also more physically spread out, which makes a second metro line a must  if the city’s going to continue developing.  Residents apparently don’t even have to pay for bus trips under 10 kilometers. We walked to the Place where Chenbl and I were staying, put some stuff away, and headed out again when what had seemed like imminent rain did not manifest.

As a lot of walking was going on, we all packed light, though Chenbl’s father insisted on carrying several heavy bottles of water in his backpack. I only brought one bag as it was just one night and all I needed to bring besides what I usually have on me was an extra shirt. After going through a series of cheap bags whose zippers would break almost immediately, not to mention a Domke that eventually disintegrated, and on the recommendation of some local photographer friends as well as the badge of approval of DPreviews’ Chris Nichols and Big Head Taco, I recently spent bag to get bag from Wotancraft, a local company, and so far I like it a lot. It looks heavy but is actually quite light and comfortable.

Sunset was seen from the odd and interesting roof of the National Theater, which reminded me of that of the Casa Mia apartment building in Barcelona. Chenbl’s parents were fine dining at The Lin’s popular restaurant, so Chenbl and I headed over to the food court at Tiger City for some excellent beef rice bowls.

On Monday morning we took a bus over to The Lin, and then walked to Taichung City Hall, a trim and efficient pair of buildings linked up in the middle. We browsed the exhibition and then took a bus at one of the failed BRT “stations” to another part of town to look at Literature Museum which features a huge old tree in the courtyard. As we were wondering how old said tree was, rain began pouring down. Chenbl’s mother was the only one of us with the sense to bring a real umbrella; she took refuge in a small pavilion while Chenbl’s father and I moved to a tin structure where we could feel the rain pounding on the roof reverberating throughout the entire structure. Chenbl had found a handy arcade. There we all waited for the rain to ease, and it did after about an hour. Chenbl’s father is always full of interesting stories and advice, so the time went by quickly. We then walked to the old martial arts hall, and then took a bus back to the train station, where we spent the rest of the afternoon having ice cream treats and dinner at the Miyahara Confectionery, previously an Optometrist’s office but now more like a rebranded Harry Potter exhibition with cookies. At one point Chenbl and I popped out to get some of the obligatory suncakes. Chenbl refused to be seen carrying the other store’s suncakes into the confectionery, as apparently there’s some rivalry going on there, so he made me carry them instead as I apparently DNGAF about such things.

Chenbl’s parents were itching to get back home, so we took an early train from the huge new station, dwarfing the stately old one next to it, back to the high speed rail station, and then back to Taipei and home. It was good to get out of town for a bit; we need to do it more often. Chenbl and I are scheduled to get our second booster next week, and case numbers are dropping steadily, though I still suspect that when the new variants might arrest that trend, but most people seem to still be wearing masks (despite all the white dudes on those sites howling in protest all day), so perhaps we can still get through all of this ok.

posted by Poagao at 12:00 pm  
Jul 08 2022

Their Way

I was planning to meet Chenbl later yesterday at Jiantan, so instead of getting my usual salmon bento to take back to the Water Curtain Cave for consumption, I had a pleasant sandwich/coffee/carrot cake combo at the Metro Cafe on Chongqing South Road. As it does just about every day in summer, the weather went from bright sun to threatening skies during the course of my meal, so I went back to my office to get an umbrella, planning to take the subway up to Jiantan to have a look around before meeting up with Chenbl after he got off work.

The sound of singing that was entirely too awful to be a recording, however, drew me to the square in front of Zhongshan Hall, where a large group of mostly elderly people huddled under tents as rain began to pelt down. Most of them were wearing vests sporting various military-themed logos, and they seemed to all know each other. The songs being sung were old-timey patriotic/nationalist songs (plus the first part of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” with the phrase “the final curtain” replaced by “the final battle”(!), and even more disturbing: Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please Release Me”); the KMT was in heavy presence, as were various police officers, obviously armed, with one sporting a clump of white zip ties on her belt. I didn’t know what they were expecting; there were no counter protesters and hardly any media around.

They held a ceremony consisting of people lining up to lay yellow flowers on the “Monument to the Victory of the Anti-Japanese War and the Restoration of Taiwan” plaque opposite the hall. Several speeches were made conveying the disturbing message that the “real enemy” was the DPP, not the CCP. A Buddhist monk spoke, as well as various KMT officials. I walked around the edges of the crowd, taking a few photos but not daring to get too close as entirely too many of the old people were maskless and sitting clumped together under the tents. A few of them gave me some strange looks but mostly I was left alone as they probably assumed I was just some random tourist. It all felt a little sad and desperate, the last gasps of a disappearing world. But it would be dangerous to discount this demographic; although they are diminishing in numbers, especially due to covid, they still wield substantial financial and political power.

“Are you a photographer?” an unmasked Asian American man who looked to be in his 40’s asked me. As always, I didn’t know how to answer that question, but he wasn’t concerned with my lack of a definitive answer. He was, he said, a YouTuber, and a quite well known one at that, focusing on political analysis of both the U.S. and Taiwan. I didn’t contribute much to the conversation, mostly listening and nodding at his rather, uh…unconventional views. He stressed, with no prompting, that he wasn’t a fan of Trump, though I hadn’t asked or even mentioned Trump. That always strikes me as odd. But when he was talking about the “mystery” of Republicans gaining ground in Florida, I couldn’t help but ask if perhaps DeSantis’ agenda had been having an effect. “Who?” he asked, puzzled.

“Ron DeSantis?”

“I don’t know who that is.”

“The governor of Florida,”

“Oh, I don’t know who any of those people are,” he said, dismissing such knowledge as unimportant. The real issue, he said, was the DPP stuffing ballot boxes. I asked if he had participated in the voting process here, but again, no, he wasn’t a citizen; his source was…and you might want to sit down for this…a mysterious friend with connections to U.S. intelligence. I only hope I haven’t said too much.

The sun had come out again at this point, and Chenbl said he was on his way, so I caught the subway up to Jiantan. While Chenbl got his hair cut, I walked over to the river and spotted a nice puddle that would surely, I judged from the top of the flood wall, reflect the sunset and skyline. As I approached, another man approached from the opposite direction, a large DSLR around his neck. Surely he will see that reflection, I thought, so I adjusted my path to let him approach it first, but he didn’t. When I crouched down to get my shot, however, I heard the clack of his shutter and looked up to see him photographing me. So if you see a photograph of me crouching by a puddle, 1) this is probably what I was doing, and 2) this is not a rare thing for me. My fellow BME member Don Hudson always points this out, and I am not ashamed of my inability to resist the attraction of a reflective surface. I’ve been doing this shit since the Mirror Project of yore and even before, and I don’t plan on stopping.

posted by Poagao at 12:08 pm  
Jul 04 2022

Egography

ego

/ˈiːɡəʊ,ˈɛːɡəʊ/
noun
  1. a person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance.

Numerous discussions of the practice have been popping up on social media platforms such as Twitter, where one can come across diatribes centered around the evils of what is being called ‘toxic’ street photography; the practice of Bruce Gilden, described as running around rudely violating the personal space and ‘rights’ of hapless pedestrians with his closely held flash and brusque New York attitude, is often brought up as an example. Garry Winogrand is also criticized for his admittedly questionable “Women are Beautiful” work. Many speakers state the remedy to this state of affairs can only be first engaging with one’s subjects before any photography can take place, which would seem to negate the possibility of truly candid photography unless a great deal of time is spent becoming familiar with all involved, at which point it would then become pure documentary work. The work these critics point to as “ethical street photography”, and in many cases the work they themselves produce, is however more akin to staged portraiture, often photos of people standing on a street, staring blankly at the camera, many of them posing.

While some of this kind of photography can be interesting, much of it seems to be more about satisfying the photographer’s ego than the people being photographed. And the photographers themselves, satisfied that they got the shots they had planned, don’t even seem to be aware of nor care about this limitation, let alone the degree to which they have inserted themselves into the work at the expense of their subjects.

Of course, all photography is about the photographer to some extent. But in the course of such an interaction between photographer and photographed, the demand placed upon the subject to react to the photographer’s presence according to whatever social contract applies removes that subject from their original purpose and authentic emotional state. It wrests their attention to the lens and the performative act of ‘being photographed.’ When viewing such work, I can’t help but wonder what the photographer interrupted, what these people had been doing, what they’d been thinking before the photographer called their attention to them: “Hey can I take your picture? Could you stand there? That’s it.” The insistence that a subject acknowledges the photographer’s presence and purpose, then acquiesces to their requests – rather than making a photograph respectfully and without intruding – could almost be bordering on narcissistic.

On the other side of this debate, of course, you have what I’d refer to as the “street bros”, who are quite vocal about expressing their right to “shoot” and “capture” strangers on the street. To them, as they stride down the thoroughfare with GoPros recording their safari adventure for their YouTube channel and TikToks that will no doubt be accompanied by fast-paced percussion music in their videos, street photography is an almost vindictive, chest-beating pursuit, getting as close and aggressive as possible. One of these guys (and yes, it seems to always be guys), popped up in a Flickr street group the other day, slamming anyone with the view that the feelings of one’s subject should be considered: “Enough said: street photography is a harsh genre and not for the faint hearted,” he posted. “You must be committed to the genre and retain a stiff upper lip when it comes to snowflakes and their feelings…these snowflakes will always find me, and a bunch of others, ready to confront them and put them in their place.” The use of the term ‘snowflakes’ is quite revealing here, and reeks of the kind of toxic masculinity and straight-white-male entitlement that accompanies the subjugation of others, fueled by an egocentric worldview and lacking human empathy.

“…the demand placed upon the subject to react to the photographer’s presence according to whatever social contract applies removes that subject from their original purpose and authentic emotional state. It wrests their attention to the lens and the performative act of ‘being photographed.’“

I’ve only run into a few such individuals myself. Again, while there is potential for interesting results, the work produced tends in most cases to be rather sloppy, jarring, and lacking contemplation. It seldom says anything except, “Look at me!” But as much as this behavior is described as being fundamental to street photography, it doesn’t correlate with the majority of photographers I have encountered.

Perhaps, as dichotomous as these two extreme positions of “street photography should be banned” and “street photography should be practiced ruthlessly” may seem, these two approaches could be said to be essentially about the same thing: the photographer’s ego-driven urge to impose themselves into the work, making the purported subject a secondary consideration.

The obvious reason for this migration towards these particular binaries is the desire to invoke public perception: The kind of photos that get attention these days on social media tend to be straightforward, obvious pieces that immediately hit the viewer over the head; after all, they only have a fraction of a second before said viewer swipes on past on their tiny screen, and these days attention is capital. Thus, details, subtlety and contemplation have receded from our template.

That street photography is being boiled down to two such unappetizing choices isn’t just depressing, it’s a gross misrepresentation of what was once seen as a much more diverse and complex genre of photography. There is an entire-disregarded world in between the two poles, a world encompassing multitudinous ways of engaging with subjects without imposing oneself onto them…photographs that are instead gentle, detailed, reflective and poetic observations without the need to either shove the crux of the content down the viewer’s throat for the ‘Likes’ or decry the ethical nature of one’s practice with a diatribe on ‘consent’ as a corollary to quality. Instead, these two strikingly similar extremes have somehow come to bear false witness to the entire genre.

How did we get here? Perhaps one extreme created the other, and the two polemics have expanded and reinforced each other, overtaking more moderate and nuanced positions, strict black and white crowding out all the tones on the spectrum in between. Social media companies have thrust us into this paradigm to keep our attention riveted on the ensuing drama, which in turn keeps their bottom lines going up, and they’ll continue to do so as long as it can make them more money.

Might it just be that the deeper problem isn’t how we choose to photograph, but rather how the role of personal photography is perceived in the context of our ever-more tenuous connections with each other amid the constantly growing encroachment of 24/7 surveillance by the government/corporate realm trying to wrest such observational authority from our purview? This would explain the compulsion of the ‘street bro’ crowd to assert their ‘rights’ to take pictures, as well as the desire for other individuals to insist on the conscious, consensual participation of the subject in all pictures made in public spaces. Yet, in both of these binary counterpoints, the imposition of the photographer’s ego erodes authenticity in the relationship between photographer, subject, and audience. Real photography should be about genuine connection, at its best conveying the human condition, but as we lose touch with each other, as social media paradigms encroach upon our sense of self, seeking to replace generations of actual social connection, we have lost much of any basic sense of trust we ever had.

Our true masks in these times are not made of fabric or paper, but of mistrust. As our connections have been siphoned off by media manipulation, blue checkmark validation vainly attempting to replace actual self-validation, our attention being redirected to bolster corporate bottom lines, our desperate urge to prop up our sense of self has overflowed into the space we previously reserved for others in our hearts and minds.

Observation with compassion and empathy may be cynically described as nearly impossible in such a state of affairs, driving the view that street photography can only be either inherently exploitative or a billboard for the ego, but it is vital that we keep it alive. Otherwise, it won’t just be photography that disappears from view, it will be our very humanity.

posted by Poagao at 10:40 am  
Jul 01 2022

George’s Folia

I get earworms sometimes. They seem more common in this Spotify-driven era, or perhaps it’s just brain chemistry. Regardless, like most people with earworm tendencies, I have a method of removing them. Some people swear by the “By Mennen” jingle as a definitive way to end the constant cycle. I’ve found that putting the opening to one of the many versions of the authorless renaissance tune La Folia on the record player in my head, I could reset my mental song palate, to mix a few metaphors.

One night as I was attempting to get a certain song out of my head (probably something like Lil Nas X as that man can make a catchy tune), I put on La Folia, but somehow in my mind it morphed into the 1955 recording of George’s Dilemma by trumpet legend Clifford Brown. I tried to wrest it back, but even though one is in D and the other in C# minor, the two overlaid each other until I realized that one of the reasons I love George’s Dilemma so much is that is seems to follow closely the chord progression of La Folia. When I looked up the roots of the song, Caribbean roots are mentioned, but not La Folia. I suppose the two are not exclusive, as La Folia is such an old tune that has been incorporated into many other forms of music.

I’ve always loved La Folia and often wondered if one could do a true jazz version that would lend itself to an improvisational style. Brown’s composition seems to be just that, and you can tell from his solo, which pounces on the notes that are at once the least expected and the most satisfying. Harold Land follows with a rather standard sax solo that does the job but doesn’t explore out the possibilities of the tune. Then Richie Powell constructs a delightfully exotic and evocative piano solo before the instruments come back in for the ending, which is a reprise of the beginning, all underlied by George Morrow’s bassline and Max Roach’s percussion. I would have loved to have heard another sax player take on that piece, Coltrane or even Parker, who died the year the song was recorded. Sometimes I take out my horn and try to follow Brown through the song, getting little hits of satisfaction on the few bits I can keep up with, but it’s a difficult key for trumpet, and all I can say is that Brown must have loved the workout his fingers got from it.

I’d still be interested in hearing more jazz adaptations of La Folia, particularly as I can imagine renaissance musicians in some small Spanish village getting together, eating, drinking, smoking and jamming to it all night, resulting in the tune becoming stuck firmly in their ears the next day.

posted by Poagao at 8:41 pm  
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