This is the first of the “Behind the Camera” series. A little background here.
Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was the bureau chief of the New York Times’ Shanghai office from 2003-08, as part of a 22-year career as a foreign correspondent. His most widely exhibited work, “Disappearing Shanghai”, documents the life of neighborhoods “doomed to imminent extinction” as he describes it. French’s work is evocative in its quiet dignity and intimacy with his subjects, like one old soul talking to another.
1. You were most recently the bureau chief of the New York Times’ Shanghai office, following many years of reporting all over the world. Now you’re also increasingly known for your photography. Can you tell us how and when your interest in photography started? Did it influence the way you reported your stories?
HF: I was introduced to photography by my father and by a great uncle. Roughly around the same time, say between the ages of 10-12, the one (my Dad) taught me how to develop black and white film in a simple basement darkroom he helped my older brother and I build, and the other (my uncle) gave me a Kodak Retina camera – way prematurely. I’ve been involved with photography ever since, but became serious about it in an applied way for the first time while living in West Africa in the early 1980s. I began working as a freelance journalist there, and in addition to taking pictures for my own purposes, I started doing so to produce images to accompany my articles.
Working as a reporter with other photographers, like Stuart Isett (to name one), in Japan, influenced my photography and my journalism. I learned a lot about slowing down, about coming at a subject from multiple angles, about the importance of self-criticism, about getting closer to people.
2. When you were shooting in Shanghai, how did people react to your presence and intentions? Can you name a particular incident that left a deep impression on you?
HF: The most interesting facet for me of documentary photography has always had relatively little to do with “technique,” in the traditional sense of the word. Yes, one must have a sense of such things, but the barriers to learning the technical aspects involved in this kind of photography are not terribly high, nor for me do they hold great fascination. What most excites me about the kind of work I’ve done in Shanghai instead is rather what I’d call the personal interface between photographer and subject. Finding my style in the street and getting deeper and deeper into my subject matter was a matter of initiation in a whole new world of communication, a largely non-verbal world, that I had scarcely imagined existed beforehand. Lots of photographers, including most beginners, are seduced by longer lenses and by zooms as a way of drawing closer to their subject. I wanted to do the opposite, to restrict my lens choices to fixed optics from the other end of the spectrum, either standard lenses (50mm on SLRs and 80mm on my Rolleiflex) or wide angles. This necessitated learning how to draw closer to my subjects without alarming them, without having them pose or otherwise perform for me, and sometimes, indeed, without even alerting them. Learning to do so begins with great patience, but that only gets you so far. The next steps come by way of body language and other mostly non-verbal stuff. Sometimes it is a matter of conveying a kind of sympathy. Other times one may convey disinterest, or even boredom. Most often, though, it is a matter of giving a sense of belief in what you’re doing; not looking tentative or apologetic, frightened or unsure.
I don’t have a particular image or story to relate to you. What I can say is that my street work often involved lingering in a circumscribed area, a well-defined neighborhood, a specific block, or maybe a street corner, for hours at a time. After a while, people stop paying so much attention to you. If you visit and revisit these places over and over again, as I did, the chemistry begins to change, and all sorts of new possibilities begin opening up for you.
3. Of all the places you photographed in Shanghai, please name a favorite.
HF: I’m not very good at “favorite” questions. One of the places of greatest early discovery for me, and a place I returned to maybe a hundred times was Shanxi North Road, just north of Suzhou Creek. It was the center of one of the city’s most extraordinary old Shanghai neighborhoods when I first began photographing there, probably in early 2004. Sadly, it’s ravaged now. The best of it has disappeared.
4. What do you find most challenging while shooting in Shanghai?
HF: My subject matter, these vibrant old neighborhoods, was steadily being demolished. My work relied to a substantial extent on personal investment, of time and patience and of building a really deep visual catalog of people and their habits, of streets and alleys, even of pets. Having this world constantly dissolving before one’s eyes was distressing on a number of levels, but in the most selfish sense, as relates to your question, it meant constantly having to work really hard to keep penetrating new worlds.
5. You recently added another dimension to “Disappearing Shanghai” on your website, entitled “The Landscapes Within” . Can you tell us more about it?
HF: The idea came from a discussion with another photographer, Danny Lyon, who is a real master. He looked at my street work as I was beginning to explore book publishing and told me that he wished I would show the private worlds that these peoples’ lives were living in, as well as the public ones that I’d spent 4-5 years documenting. This meant getting inside of peoples’ houses, hundreds of perfect strangers, that is. It was a shocking suggestion in many ways, one because it was obvious, and yet I’d never thought to seriously try it before; two, because I’d already moved to New York, and didn’t have the luxury of having the city as my oyster any more; three, because the neighborhoods I’d worked in for so long were already so sharply diminished by the bulldozer, especially in the run-up to the Shanghai World Expo. And four, because the idea scared the daylights out of me. I’d established a comfort zone and degree of confidence in what I had done up until that point. The proposition of entering people’s houses like this involved lots of new challenges, both interpersonal and on the level of technique, and never having made a serious, sustained effort to do something like this, I had no idea if it would work or not; if I would be successful. What I should have known or remembered from the early stages of my previous work, and can say now with utter conviction is that there are no creative pursuits worthy of the name that don’t involve having to climb the wall of worry.
I returned to Shanghai last summer, and virtually every day for three months was out in the street working on what would become The Landscape Within. It’s best for others judge the work. What I will say is that it took a lot of sweat and experimentation and obstinacy, and it wasn’t until I was about half way into the effort that I was sure I had anything of worth at all.
6. You mainly shoot in film. Can you tell us more about your choice of camera/s, lens and preference for film? Any plans to move to digital?
HF: I’m really agnostic about this. There are people who I respect quite a lot who feel strongly on film versus digital, Danny Lyon (film) being one of them. I have no fixation, and feel that for the most part it’s not really about the camera. My street work was overwhelmingly done in film. Landscape Within was mostly done in digital. The choice imposed itself by mid-summer. I wanted candor, and the tiny, ill-lit homes I was working in made it much harder to achieve that with film, which is slower.
7. Are there any photographers that have stood out or influenced your work?
HF: I’d have a hard time drawing up a short list. Honestly. I love pictures and study them with purpose. I like Robert van der Hilst, whose work was exhibited in a joint show together with Disappearing Shanghai at M97. I’m blown away by his concept of color, about which I’m still a primitive. Completely off the top of my head, I like Marc Riboud. Eggleston. Eugene Atget. Daido Morayama. Gilles Peress. Yasuhiro Ishimoto. Stephen Shore.
8. What do you consider the most important elements of street photography?
HF: I admire the thought behind the fact that Winton Marsalis dresses a certain way when he performs Jazz. It is, he says, out of respect for the music. Respect for your subject is most important in my book. Know it as well as you can. Celebrate it, don’t cheapen or sensationalize it.
9. What are you currently working on now?
HF: I’m trying to get my Shanghai book published. I’m preparing for shows of it in New York and Hong Kong within the next year. Meanwhile, I’m trying to keep learning and growing. I do a lot of portraiture on the street in New York, which is very different in style and approach from anything I’d done before. I’m slowly building a body of nudes, and have really enjoyed my initiation into that subject area. I’m spending a month on a project in Southeast Asia in the spring, and I’ve begun considering new projects for the summer in China, which is where I’ll be. The only thing that’s for sure is that it won’t be like anything I’ve done there before.
Thanks for taking our questions, Howard. We look forward to your upcoming book and new work. See you in Shanghai soon!