Posts Tagged ‘Photography’

When I first started this blog last summer I envisioned posting new photographs regularly.  I thought it might challenge me to produce better photographs, while also giving me the chance to talk about certain images that I really like.  Since I have yet to do this and am also busy with a writing project I shelved two years ago, I thought I may as well begin now.  Here’s to hoping for a shorter blog post….

Contrary to the pleasure with which I photograph natural landscapes, I find urban settings especially difficult to capture.   It is often hard to recreate the mood of the place.  Since I can’t expect the city to pose for me, the lines and the postures are never mine to control.  The city always explodes past my frame and, unless I’m in the right ‘frame’ of mind, I find this frustrating and daunting.  So without happening upon a particularly arresting pattern of lines or a striking outline of architecture, I tend not to take the camera from its bag.

Of course, this means, too, that I’m reluctant to photograph human subjects within these urban landscapes.  I find myself reluctant to sleuth with the camera, to steal away shots, to fire multiple frames per second into the faces of the unprepared.   But, I know that if I’m going to push my photography, I need to embrace the act of photographing people, preferably alive and moving, within the places where they live (ie. the city).

In Korea, people are most abundantly available for photographing in the shopping districts, which are truly sights to behold.  Thousands of people spill through brickwork streets, pouring in and out of boutiques and brand name stores, purchases in tow.  Scooters rev their way through the flood tide and food stalls part the sea down the middle.  These open-air stalls serve up roasted corn, foil-wrapped sweet potatoes, pork skewers, deep fried peppers, and the ubiquitous tteok bokki, a rice cake/processed-fish concoction served up in a spicy-sweet red sauce.

I’ve walked through an untold number of districts like this and have never managed to capture the scene to my liking.  There were either too many disembodied human parts pressed into a frame that told no narrative, or wide stretches of unpeopled pavement, giving the illusion of a deadened shopping district– something it decidedly was not (if there is a global recession, it’s not recognizable here).


Passerby, Eunangdong

Frustrated by my lack of success, I resolved one evening to focus on a single food stall in our downtown market.  I walked circles around the tented booth and snapped shots from different angles.  The electric lighting seemed perfect against the slightly dimmer streetlights and the rising steam lent a warmth to an otherwise cold photograph of an even colder day.   I finally happened upon an angle that seemed to work especially well; I took a number of wide-angle shots from behind the stall, as shoppers lined up for warm food.  I then waited for the street-cook to serve up a dish of the aforementioned tteok bokki, hoping to capture the hand-off across the grill.  Just as she did so, and just as I pressed the shutter, a boy walked across my frame.

Since this had already happened numerous times, and since the ritual passing of the tteok bokki, which I was waiting for expectantly, had occurred squarely behind his head, I silently cursed at the boy and walked away from the food stall in frustration.

Only later, with the photographs uploaded to my computer, did I realize that this photograph was far more interesting than any of the other shots I had taken.  Despite blocking the food exchange I so desperately wanted to capture, the boy’s pixelated movement covers up an otherwise boring foreground; this also serves to direct the viewer’s eyes to the lighted warmth of the couple, huddled by their own plate of tteok bokki.  The proximity of the boy’s passing body to the camera lens, plus the steamed faces of two female shoppers in the upper right corner fills the frame with a sense of crowdedness, of a street scene spilling beyond the arbitrary cropping of my camera.  The result is (finally) something akin to the feel of the shopping district.

Which brings me to the lesson learned:  if I’m going to push my photography in urban spaces, I need to embrace the dynamism of the place, which means not only accepting unpredictable movements but utilizing them as best I can.

So about that shorter blog post….


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While the following does not quite fit the criteria for my “word-for-word” (mis)translations, I thought it such vividly morbid stream-of-consciousness that I dug it up from the archives.

On the eve of Halloween, I asked my writing class to frighten me with a descriptive paragraph about a haunted house.  After reading out the submissions by flashlight in a darkened classroom, I couldn’t help but copy a portion of one of them.  To create the desired effect of spoken-word poetry, please read aloud, in rhythm, and in one long breath (maybe turn the lights out too):

The haunted house is empty and scary on top of the hill broken windows and screams and evil laughter and ghost and skeleton is die people.

(The lack of punctuation should not reflect negatively on my ability, or lack thereof, to instill basic grammatical rules in my students.)

An abandoned house in the foothills of Volcan Barva, Boquete, Panama

An abandoned house in the foothills of Volcán Barú, Boquete, Panama

- photo by Geoff Martin

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After having inhabited the Land of Narnia for about two years of my childhood, it seems I cannot pass a lamp post by without framing it in my camera lens.  Street lights are one thing, ever-present in their monotony, like gray-clad sentinels positioned by regimen at precise intervals.  There is an aesthetic in that, to be sure.  But lamp posts are something else altogether.

Appearing as they do in park spaces and along forested trails, lamp posts are suggestive of human presence, as if the world of men and women lies just beyond the next evergreen.  They exude a warmth not found in all the white haze of light pollution.  The lamp post is an antique, a relic of the past, a bearer of contemplative nostalgia.  Unlike street lights, you can’t be lost beside them.  Regardless of your direction, the lamp post signals home.  It is an electrified equivalent of the candle-in-the-window.

In the wilderness, where electrical lines have not yet run, there is abandonment.  In the city, where orange, conical light illuminates the limitless stretch of asphalt and concrete, there is alienation.  In the park, where the wilderness meets the city, there is tranquility.  And where there is tranquility, there is usually a lamp post close by to safeguard such peace of mind.

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Death by Photographs

At 27 months, hockey consumed my imagination.

At 27 months, hockey consumed my imagination.

I heard recently that your body completely renews itself every seven years.  Cellular bit by cellular bit, all physical matter is rejected and then simultaneously replenished; the body shedding itself clean and then growing itself anew. And, through it all, we persist. Our identities, our memories, our essential selves continue.


I was thinking of this while staring at a photo tacked up on our bedroom wall. In last minute packing haste, Colleen and I grabbed a random assortment of photographs and threw them in our suitcase.  In the pile was a photograph of me as a two-year-old, aspiring hockey player.  I have a 1 liter container of Tenderflake on one foot, acting as a single goalie pad, and an adult-sized hat turned backwards on my head, acting as a helmet.  With my mouth biting hard on the plastic adjusters and my eyes peering out from the semi-circular opening, I grip my wooden mini-stick judiciously and stick handle a yellow tennis ball.  Freeze.  I am not Wayne Gretzky (I don’t yet know who that is) nor am I Doug Gilmour (he’s not even on the scene yet)– I am a Family Flyer and I am about to score the winning goal for my father and all of my uncles.


If this seven year cycle is true (and I do admit to not reading any medical journals of late), I am now three fully decomposed bodies removed from that distant, two-year-old self.  This photograph, then, tacked as it is on floral wall paper in East Asia, is the sole material artifact of my former self.  In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes calls it “the living image of a dead thing.”  Of course, I am not dead, but the proof of my earlier existence, of myself like this at this particular moment comes by way of this photograph, by way of emanations transcribed onto a negative.  Memory cannot claim such veracity; it is too fickle (even now, after a lifetime of viewing this image, I had to retrieve the photograph off the wall and change the above description from a “raised arm” and a “large, red ball”).  To borrow from Barthes again: “from a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.”  This picture is me (at two years of age), I am told; but physiologically, it is not.  More correctly then, this picture was me (at two years of age); but to conjugate the verb admits to a sort of death.  This was me, but it is no longer.


Which brings me to the broader point: death seems to lurk beneath every photograph.  I can’t look at any photograph without situating it (the event or the people) in relation to my own life and the event and lives depicted.  In that relation, I see time’s slide towards the inevitability of death.  Susan Sontag says it best in On Photography: “precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”


So when I look at this photograph, I see the march of time; I find myself mourning the passing of that body (three times over!).  I am older and stronger, yes, but I’m also closer to my end.  The camera freezes an otherwise transient moment and now, twenty-three years later, I am pricked by nostalgia and am reminded of the inevitable.

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