I wanted a clear and unobstructed photo of the marble door in the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia. This is not easy, because a continuous stream of people go through it. After a long wait I decided that I should be taking photos of tourists instead. In any case, ambush photography is great fun: you take photographs of people who are being photographed by others. The Family and I had an argument a few days before about whether Chinese tourists outnumber everyone else.
I’m not terribly good at pinpointing nationalities, but by my count about two and a half photos out of the eight in the slide show contain Chinese people. A significantly larger number come from eastern Europe. Add in the west Europeans, Turks, and a smattering of people from across Asia outside of China, and I think you begin to get a picture of where the tourists come from. About half of them take selfies, a fourth have someone else take their photo, and the rest are not interested in their own photos. My survey was interrupted because I was spotted while taking a non-ambush photo. I had to go back to being a tourist interested in the marble door again.
You’ll usually find colourful Bougainvillea draped over fences and climbing up walls. Most photos of these flowers emphasize the colour, but I think the texture is equally nice. That’s why these two photos: enjoy the texture of the bracts and the leaves. No disturbing colours. It’s a Monday after all.
The modern incarnation of Shamian island seems to have been built for street photography. We walked through it in the middle of the week, but the leafy roads were full of people clicking photos. The pair in the featured photo took themselves in various poses with the statue you see, and then sat down to look at the photos carefully.
This pair had found a much more interesting background, I think. Although the front camera is being used, it doesn’t look like the girl is taking a selfie. Perhaps the front camera is being used so that the subject can see herself in the screen and control her image better. What is better than taking a selfie? Have a friend take your selfie for you, clearly.
When people are so absorbed in taking their own photos it is much easier for a tourist to take photos of them. Did I feel like a voyeur? No. There were others equally busy documenting the modern Chinese need to put their photos on Weibo and Wechat. I’m used to my nieces taking each other’s photos for Instagram. They do not notice what I’m doing at such times. Sometimes they post the photo I took of them taking their own photos on Instagram. The meaning of privacy is much more nuanced now.
Whatever social medium is being used, some people are more professional than others. This pair could be creating portfolios: the woman as a model, the man as a photographer. But much more likely they will post it on Wechat. The pair noticed me, but did not care. Their portfolio/profile was much more interesting.
This guy was a serious amateur. If you look at WordPress, Flickr, or Instagram, you’ll see some really outstanding amateur photographers from China. This guy could be, or could become, one of them. I liked the fact that he was photographing a statue of a photographer. It gave me a chance to go another level meta.
And then there are tiger moms. The child did not want to pose any longer, but when mom says you have to do it, you have to. Not a hint of rebellion shows in her face or posture. Hard to believe that between shots she was complaining. This set is definitely going on the family Wechat group.
Where have I been during midsummer in the last decade? I thought I would look at my photos to jog my memory. I don’t have photos from the solstice on every year. For example, the last photo I took this year was a week ago in Mumbai; that’s the featured photo. So I just put together a photo selected from June each year, as close as I could get to the solstice.
I’d had a quick look at the list of photography exhibitions in Berlin before we left. It would be impossible to catch up with everything going on in photography if we stayed in Berlin for a month and visited only photo galleries. We didn’t even try.
Walking away from Kudamm one night we came across a wonderful large art and photography bookstore. Browsing through it I remembered that in the excitement of chasing street art I’d completely forgotten about photography. The Museum of Photography and C/O Berlin are close to each other and very close to the Zoologischer Garten S-bahn station. We targeted these two for our last morning in Berlin.
The Museum of Photography is housed in an old military building, and has a large exhibition space which coexists with a foundation devoted to the well-known erotic and fashion photographer Helmut Newton. I am not particularly fascinated by fashion photography, but the public at large disagrees with me on this. The uppermost floor of the museum had two fascinating exhibitions on. One was a look at transformations in cities. This is an idea which is still completely open, schools of thought have not yet formed, and the variety of ideas was visible in the variety of styles different photographers brought to the subject. The second showed the Cultural Revolution as seen by photographers. This period of China’s history is sufficiently close that it is still held in living memories, but far enough that a coherent story is emerging. The works of Hai Bo, Maleonn, Mu Chen and Shao Yinong, and Cao Kai together give a certain shape to this history.
We’d heard and read much about C/O Berlin. It moved from its old haunt in Oranienburger Strasse to the old USIS building (featured photo) in 2014. The building is lovely, and now that it is no longer the scene of street protests, one can see the shape that Bruno Grimmek had planned in 1956. It is perfectly suited to house a gallery. This had two wonderful exhibitions running. We spent a long time in the retrospective of Danny Lyon’s works. We decided to have lunch after this at the cafe in the glassed area in front of the gallery. This was full, and several groups seem to have come in only for the lunch. After we were served, we understood why the cafe is so popular.
After lunch we went on to look at the work of a photographer we had not encountered before: Willi Ruge. He was apparently very well known in the 1920s and 30s in Germany, since his work appeared in many German magazines of that time. This is first retrospective of his works, and it left The Family and me quite flabbergasted. At a time when cameras and planes were both new technology, Ruge not only took aerial photos, but also did sky diving and photographed himself doing it. His work fits right into the modernist art movements of his time. It was interesting to see also photos like the one whose caption you see in the image above: the more things change the more they seem to remain the same.
If the photo above looks weird, it just shows what I mean. On a walk in a high forest in Sikkim we came across primroses flowering by the road. They grew in clusters, brightening up an otherwise overcast day. But every time I tried to take a photo, it would refuse to come out right. I tweaked the exposure and colour balance on my camera. I tried as many other things as I could, even changed the f-stop, but nothing could make the colours come out right. The primroses looked much more pink to the eye than what the camera was getting. I could not stop the camera from changing a fuchsia to a violet.
It seems this needs post-processing. I tried to reproduce the original colour from memory by manually changing the colour balance and produced something that looks reasonable. I decided to make this change only on the left half of the photo above, so one could see what the changes did. It made the dead leaves look a little too red. Fortunately it did not change the colour of the green leaves and grass, and it made the small yellow flowers on the top left to pop a bit. I’m happy that it turned out to be reasonably simple.
I seem to have trouble with pinks and purples at high altitudes. Could this be due to the enhanced UV content of sunlight? Have you had such problems as well?
Berne’s university looks down at the switching yard to the town’s main railway station. I saw this grungy looking pattern of horizontal and vertical lines as I peered over a railing and took a photo with my phone. The lens seems to have a minor colour aberration: you can see that the center of the photo is a little biased to red.
With a camera I pause and think about what I take, and often miss what I wanted. With a phone I just click anything: mundane or not.
I had hazy memory from my school books that the Yangtze river is among the world’s longest. Before going to Wuhan, I checked that it is actually the third in the world, behind the Nile and the Amazon. I’d passed over Wuhan’s Second Yangtze Bridge on the way in from the airport. On the way to see the river a few days later, as the taxi negotiated a traffic tunnel, the driver told me proudly that it is China’s longest: a three kilometer long tunnel under the Yangtze (Changjiang in Mandarin), connecting the Wuchang and Hankou districts of the town. We emerged into Hankou, and turned past a river boat terminal into the mouth of a pedestrian entry.
Yangtze river cruises through the Three Gorges have been heavily advertised in recent years, and are increasingly popular with foreign tourists. These boats dock at the interesting looking terminal we passed. I got off the car and walked past the levees (which were raised in 2005 to protect the town against flooding) to the river. No large cruise boats were to be seen. But there were these interesting looking boats moored to a quay. They seem to have a very shallow draught, like the famous old sailboats of the Yangtze. I wondered whether they are floating docks or boats, until I went close and found that they are boats. They have so many cabins that they must be used for short cruises. If there were smaller boats I wouldn’t have minded spending a day drifting down this river. In the photo above you can see the Second Yangtze Bridge behind the boats.
It was late in the morning of a working day, so there weren’t too many people around. I walked down to the water. There was a lone swimmer near the bank, far from him were a couple of anglers. This is a nice lazy pastime. One angler was leaning on a barricade and chatting with another person: a friend or a passerby. You could see from here how wide the river was. It was hard to make out any details in the towers of Wuchang one could see on the far bank. As always in China, things were under construction. You could see cranes poking their necks out over the skyline.
Barely have I drunk the waters of Changsha,
Now I am eating fish in Wuchang.
I swim across the great Yangtse River
And see the sky of Chu unfolding before me.
The Yangtze has inspired poetry from some of the most famous poets of China. Even Mao Zedong wrote about it, after swimming from the Hankou side to Wuchang. This is something that people in China still talk about. I can understand it now. Swimming across this river is a pretty impressive feat. It also helps that Mao was a reasonably good poet in the classical Chinese tradition. The Yangtze attracts Chinese tourists, perhaps in greater numbers than foreigners. I’m happy to see that even on this fairly empty morning I’m not the only tourist toting a camera. At the back you can see the piers where the cruise boats dock, and the passenger terminal building.
I climbed back up to the levee. On the landward side is a long garden where grandparents had taken their grandchildren for an outing. There were vendors selling glittery kites and a few children were trying to fly them. As I wandered through the garden I heard music. I tracked it down to a person sitting and playing a small stringed instrument which I did not recognize. After he had finished, he packed the instrument into the carry-box of the scooter above, slipped his arms into the gloves built into the blanket you can see in the photo above, and drove off. Electric scooters in China are treated as pedestrians. I’d not seen this interesting blanket before, but it makes sense that they are being brought out in Autumn. I didn’t think it was cold enough for protection, but then I’m from hot and sweltering Mumbai, where the autumn temperature exceeds Wuhan’s fabled summer heat.
I arrived in Wuhan a couple of days after typhoon Mujigae hit southern China. It was raining in Shanghai and Wuhan. I checked in and looked out of the window at Wuhan’s famous East Lake and saw the foggy scene in the photo above. Very dark and brooding, I thought to myself. Misty like a Chinese landscape painting. All I was missing in the photo was a man in the middle distance fishing.
A couple of days later the weather had changed. The days were clearer than I’d ever seen in Wuhan before. The East Lake was a placid mirror reflecting the blue of the sky and the white fluffy clouds. The days were perfect for casual strolls by the lake. I liked these days better, but I liked that darker picture more.
There are few places on the planet as desolate as a high desert. When you climb high enough, there’s too little oxygen in the air for plants to survive. The straggling remnants of grass die out at a height of about 5350 meters (17600 feet) above sea level. The lack of oxygen affects people too. I was in a vehicle with eight other people, including the driver, and all chatter died down as we climbed. I could feel a little headache coming on. The landscape around me was odd: bare rock and dust.
We’d reached the high desert in a part of Sikkim which is geographically a continuation of the Tibetan plateau. This involved a climb of nearly 1400 meters (4500 feet) in about 5 hours. It’s guaranteed to give you a bad headache unless you are really well acclimatized to the height. But we had no choice. The only hotels we could find after much searching were in the Lachen, well below Gurudongmar Lake, which was our destination. We could not do a slow drive either, because high winds often start up there in the afternoon, and tourists are stopped a little below the lake.
We reached the lake before noon: we were 5425 meters (17800 feet) above sea level. A couple of my travelling companions were fit enough to start walking around the lake. The lack of oxygen was slowing me down; I was content enough to stand in one place and look at the wind-rippled surface of the water. The northern end of the lake looked strangely bright. My oxygen starved brain lumbered into gear and eventually told me that that end of the lake was still frozen. It was the last day of April. Clouds were massing up to the north, but there were still patches of clear sky above the lake. The only colours I could see were the brown of the rocks, the white of snow and ice, and the blue of the sky.
The lake is sacred to Buddhists because it is associated with Padmasambhava, the Buddhist monk who took the religion to Tibet. There is a local legend that a part of the lake never freezes because he stopped it from freezing by putting his hands into the water. The water looked clear and beautiful. If I’d been better prepared for the height then I would have liked to walk down to the edge of the water and tried to drink some.
We’d taken the road up from the south where the plateau sloped up very gently. This lake is within 5 kilometers of the Chinese border. When I looked west I could see the high Himalayan peaks, probably part of the Kanchenjunga range. Closer by, to the north, I seemed to see a glacier descending from a high peak (photo above). My headache was getting worse, and I was able to make simple inferences and look for landmarks only with much concentration. Eventually I stopped thinking and began clicking away with my camera. These are missing moments in my life; I have no memory of this time. I would later sort through the pictures, match them to maps and try to reconstruct what I must have seen. Very soon even taking photos was too much of an effort. I retreated to the vehicle and lay down for a nap.
Our driver was from Gangtok. He was in the car and trying to sleep. Later I found that he also had a bad headache at that height. When we drove back, a descent of about 30 meters (100 feet) was enough for my headache to recede. I could even run out of the car and take a photo of the vehicle stopped in the desolate landscape (not quite, because the road parallels a narrow stream). Everyone seemed to have a oxygen threshold. Some of us never hit it. Others recovered quite suddenly at various points as we descended.