Beijing Behaving

Temple of Heaven
1/640s, f/6.3, ISO 200, 27mm

With the odd day or two of smoggy air, the last month have brought unusually clear skies to Beijing.  The city is a different place when the air is clean.  From smiley faces on the streets to chummy taxi drivers, you can feel the people of Beijing draw a collective sigh of relief.  And no doubt most Beijingers enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude as Shanghai reached record breaking pollution levels a few weeks ago.  Perhaps the liquid nitrogen is already working its magic.

On a beautiful day earlier this week, I stopped by the Hongqiao Pearl Market across from the Temple of Heaven.  They have a balcony with great view of the park.  Above is a shot from the late afternoon.

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50 Years ago


Fifty years ago this month, my father boarded the SS Constitution at Pier 84 on Manhattan. At 23, he'd just driven across the country from San Francisco to Washington DC and then up to New York. He was on his way home. Some two years earlier, he had left Denmark for America to work on farms in Montana and California. 

Along the way, he took more than 1000 photographs. And he seemed to carry his camera everywhere. The pictures show him working the fields, drinking with friends, and cooking turkey in the oven.  There are shots out of airplane windows, of skylines and street life and tomato pickers. He would have been a great instagrammer.

My family recently had the photos scanned and it’s been a treat to rediscover them.  I grew up with those photos along with my dad’s scrapbooks with maps of cities and states. About once a year, usually around the holidays, he would get out the slide projector and show his pictures and tell his stories. He was the best storyteller I knew. And as a kid, no-one seemed to know the world better than him. 

The pictures shaped me. There were landscapes and cities on a scale I would never see in Denmark. And my father’s stories suggested that travel and discovery was a normal part of adult life. I understand now that those experiences were based on choices. My mom made similar choices in her early 20 and spent time as a waitress in Germany, a nanny in England, and later as an exchange student in Spain. The experiences of my parents had a profound impact on me, and I couldn’t wait to go out and see (and photograph) the world on my own.

My father was born on a farm in southern Denmark in 1940. His name was Hans Oluf Knudsen. As the middle son, the family farm passed on to his older brother. He came from a family of farmers going back generations and never seriously questioned a different career. But not having the responsibility of taking care of the family farm suited him just fine, and he was off to the States soon after he completed his military service and vocational training

The winter my dad returned to Denmark, he reunited with my mom at a New Year’s Eve dance. He'd left her behind a few years earlier and would soon leave again for another year (to be a bus driver on the American military base in Greenland). But this time my parents kept in touch. At 25, he was back in Denmark for good. Together, my parents bought a farm close to where they’d both grown up and raised three children. And they stayed put. Once their children moved away from home and began their own lives, my parents took pride in seeing them move around the world. We didn’t travel much growing up but once my brothers and I gave my parents places to visit, they eagerly followed. 


My dad’s photographs is a window into his personality. There are shots of children playing in the street, friends staring dreamingly into dramatic scenery, laughing co-workers on large farming equipment, and open roads. Going over each shot, I’ve paused to think of the moment before my dad pressed the shutter--what prompted him. The shots seem so very him, but I find it difficult to describe exactly what it is about the pictures that reveal his personality. A friend once wrote about how describing his dad made him feel like a fish who can’t describe the sea. I feel the same. Both my parents were so central to my upbringing that I too struggle to describe who they are.  I can still see and feel who my father was, and some details stand out: his kindness and compassion, his teasing and his laugh. Yet, I can’t seem to get close to an adequate description of what made my dad who he was. Of course, a complete portrayal is impossible.  But the pictures fill in some important gaps and help me remember him.

I wish my father could have been around to show my children his pictures and tell his stories. He passed away suddenly last year from a heart attack when he was out biking with friends. I didn’t have the feeling that there was anything more that he needed to tell me although there were plenty of life events I still wanted to share with him. The last time I saw him, I told him that I loved him and wished him goodnight and safe travels.

More pictures below the fold.

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Beijing at Night

Night Worker
1/60s, f/1.2, ISO 3200, 50mm

So I have been trying to settle on a new photography theme.  Lately, I haven't had a chance to shoot much during the day, so I've ended up with a lot of evening shots.  And most of them have been landscape shots of the citiscape variety.  When I lived in New York and Hong Kong, I ended up doing a lot of late night street photography but in Beijing I've found this type of photography more challenging.  This is mostly my own fault.  Unlike New York and Hong Kong, I no longer have a bustling street at my doorstop.  I have lived in Beijing neighborhoods without much street life, and to capture street scenes and portraits, I have had to make it a point to go somewhere and shoot.  But I am trying to change that since Beijing has so many parts that are rich with street life, character, and contrasts.

In this post, I have compiled some of my street photography highlights from my time in Beijing.  More to come soon...

Night Street Vendor
1/800s, f/1.4, ISO 1600, 35mm

More shots below the fold.

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Poem for a Wednesday

Fields of Gold
1/800s, f/10.0, ISO 400, 30mm (HDR)

Ithaca

As you set out for Ithaca
hope that your journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laestrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare sensation
touches your spirit and your body.
Laestrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon-you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope that your journey is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and learn again from those who know.

Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so that you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would have not set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.

C.P Cavafy (1910, 1911)

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Finally...

Guomao at Dawn
1s, f/4.0, ISO 800, 35mm (cropped)

What a relief!  After a week with heavy smog, a rainstorm came through last night and washed away the polluted air.  This morning it was all blue skies and the light in the early dawn was totally stunning.  Beijing will seduce you like that.  Just when you think you've had more than you could possibly take, she will come back with the most amazing weather.

Regular blogging will resume soon.  I've been travelling over the last month and will be back with some shots form Denmark and France.

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Behind Sanlitun (三里屯的后边)

Behind Sanlitun
1/500, ƒ/2.2, ISO 400, 35mm

Sanlitun is an area in Beijing's Chaoyang District packed with high and low end shopping malls, restaurants and bars.  In the 1950s, the new government moved most of the embassies here and built several apartment complexes reserved for foreign diplomats in and around the neighborhood (until the 1980, these apartments were generally the only places where foreigners could legally live).  As China opened up in the 1970s and 1980s, bars and restaurants catering to foreigners began to appear.

Like most of Beijing, Sanlitun has undergone a dramatic transformation.  Until about a decade ago, most of the businesses catered to a younger, budget-minded audience, and cheap bars and hostels were surrounded by low-rise apartment buildings and hutong neighborhoods.  Then the Olympics arrived and with that several high-end developments.  Today, an upscale, open air shopping complex called the Village (recently renamed Taikoo Li in an effort of corporate branding) has become the center of Sanlitun complete with designer stores like Rolex and Versace and a trendy boutique hotel (where the nightly rates exceed the monthly salaries of people living just blocks away).

Despite the changes, traces of old Sanlitun remain.  I recently took a walk with my camera around one of the hutongs behind Sanlitun Village.  The contrast between the new and the old is mind-boggling, really--even if it's typical by now for most large Chinese cities.

Behind Sanlitun
1/2000, ƒ/1.4, ISO 1600, 35mm

Read on below the fold for more shots.

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Meanwhile in New York City

Above Union Square (联合广场)
1/100s, f/2.8, ISO 3200, 115mm

I want to be lost among
your thoughts
the way you listen to New York City
when you fall asleep

Leonard Cohen

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Beijing Cabbies

Beijing Cabbies1/2000, ƒ/1.8, ISO 400, 35mm

Beijing taxi drivers know life.  More posts soon.

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Into the Night

Into the Night
1/25s, f/2.2, ISO 800, 20mm

Sometime it's not really necessary to focus.

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With or Without

Silhouette
1/2000s, f/7.1, ISO 400, 28mm

I went for a quick walk at the Summer Palace in the late afternoon last week.  The night before, an unseasonably late snowstorm had covered Beijing in a thick lawyer of snow.  By the afternoon, most of the snow was gone and with blue skies over the city, the Summer Palace was not a bad place to be with a camera.

The light was a real treat.  On the way up Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan), I came across this hallway where where the late afternoon sun was creating some beautiful long shadows.  With few people around I was able to capture the scene pretty well.  Still, I wish I had taken a wider lens along, so I could have gotten some more windows inside the frame.

Pretty happy with the final result, I still can't decide if it works better with the silhouette of the man passing through the door (above) or the more deserted look with the view of the mountains in the distance (below the fold).  I suppose, they are really two different compositions but ultimately I feel like the person adds more of a story to the picture.  Thoughts?

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Evening Photo Walk in Shanghai

The Bund at Night
10s, f/18.0, ISO 200, 48mm

I went to Shanghai for a short trip last week. I only got to squeeze in a short walk with my camera but luckily the timing was good.  I got in on the train from Beijing late in the afternoon and arrived to blue skies and warm spring temperatures.  The late afternoon light was beautiful and after walking around the area by People's Square, I made my way down to see the sunset and watch the skyline lights turn on  by the Bund.

It's hard not to be struck by Shanghai's immense contrasts.  From the uber-modern, rapidly changing Pudong skyline and the neon signs on Nanjing Road to narrow lanes and night markets, the old and new exist seemingly effortlessly side by side.  Read on to see some shots from around the Bund and People's Square.

News Reader
1/80s, f/1.4, ISO 1600, 50mm

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Behind Qianmen (前门)

Behind Qianmen (前门)
1/60s, f/1.8, ISO 3200, 50mm

Qianmen sits on the south end of Qiananmen Square.  Also known by it's official name, Zhengyangmen, it was once part of the Beijing's city wall (Qianmen means front gate).  Today, the city wall is long gone but the gate remains.  It's one of the landmarks of the city and a popular tourist spot.  Despite being in the middle of the Beijing, the neighborhood around Qianmen is home to several hutongs and traditional courtyard homes.  Walking around the hutongs' narrow streets, it's hard to believe that you're just a few blocks away from the political and cultural center of Beijing (and, indeed, of China).

I spent some times getting lost in the neighborhood a few weeks ago.  Continue below the fold for shots of Qianmen and Qiananmen.

Double Quack
1/400s, f/2.2, ISO 200, 50mm

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The Lakes, Copenhagen

The Lakes, Copenhagen (Søerne) GF1, 1/640s, f/4.0, ISO 200, 20mm

The Lakes (Søerne) in Copenhagen are a series of five rectangular lakes in the center of the city.  On a cold February morning last week, the pastel colors, the clear lines, and the almost matching color of the icy lake and the sky caught my eye.

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Stars

Orion
30s, f/4.0, ISO 1000, 24mm

It had been a while since I had experimented with shooting the night sky.  I've always been fascinated with astronomy.  I worked at a planetarium in high school and recall how frustrating taking pictures of stars would be with a film camera.  With the instant feedback of a digital camera, it's a lot easier to get a decent photo of the night sky without investing a lot of time in sorting out the right exposure.  Trial and error really go a long way here.

I took these two shots on a cold January night near Hornbæk in Denmark.  Hornbæk is about an hour north of Copenhagen and near the water.  It's a popular spot for summer houses but in the winter time it's pretty quiet.  And there is very little light at night.  On a clear, cold winter night, the night sky is absolutely breathtaking.  The first shot is a 30 second exposure, featuring most of the Orion constellation.  Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky is also visible on the left side behind the trees (or try following Orion's belt to the left).  In the second shot below, the exposure is about half an hour long.  It captures the stars as they appear to rotate around the North Star (of course the stars don't really move but we/Earth does).

Stars
33m, f/4.0, ISO 800, 25mm

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Behind Every Single Window

Copenhagen Courtyard

2s, f/4.0, ISO 800, 24mm

Yesterday I got the chance to check out a rooftop in the Nyboder neighborhood in central Copenhagen.  What a treat.  I'm always excited at the chance of getting to the top of buildings--especially in the center of a city.  The views usually reveal something interesting that you won't experience from just walking the streets.   This time I got to see a multicolored, magnificently-lit courtyard.  A sort of behind-the-scenes-look.  And it got me thinking of Dan Turèll's old poem "Behind Every Single Window" (”Bag hvert eneste vindue").  Here's an excerpt:

"…You walk down through a long street
which you know or maybe don't know
in your own city or an unknown one
and you raise your eyes and look at those thousands
of shining lit-up windows
and you know that behind every single window people live
and that simple thought everytime is so new and strange"
behind every single window people live
people with real live problems
as concrete as a fist in the kisser
behind every single window men and women are breathing
easy or with trouble
each in his own rhythm..."

Dan Turèll, (1979) 

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A simple message for the new year

Love
1/6400 secs, f/1.4, ISO 400, 50mm

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Poem for a Saturday

Fields of Gold
1/160s (bracketed HDR), f/5.6, ISO 800, 30mm

Encounter

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going?
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Czeslaw Milosz (1936)

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Frosty

Slivsø (Sliv Lake, Denmark)
1/640s (bracketed HDR), f/8.0, ISO 400, 24mm

Here's a shot from Slivsø (Sliv Lake) near Haderslev in Denmark.  The lake is one of the largest in southern Denmark but was drained and used for farm land for almost half a century.  It's a beautiful spot any time of the year but it feels particularly peaceful in the winter.  I used moderate HDR processing to capture the details in the sky.

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At the Wet Market

At the Wet Market
1/640s, f/1.8, ISO 800, 50mm

I happened to walk past the wet market around Graham Street near Central in Hong Kong today.  It was a rainy, damp day, and luckily I had my camera along.  It was late in the afternoon, so the market was busy and the light great.

At the Wet Market
1/800s, f/1.6, ISO 800, 50mm

More shots below the fold.

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Fall

Posing at Beida

1/500s (bracketed) f/4.0, ISO 800, 50mm

I don't like cold weather one bit.  But spending another fall in Hong Kong, I've realised how much I miss the changing of the seasons.  The weather in Hong Kong cools down this time of year but fall and winter temperatures are very mild.  I like how refreshingly crisp fall weather can be--especially after a hot summer.  It was therefor a welcome change when I travelled to Beijing this weekend.  The sky (for the most part) seemed almost an impossibly clear blue and the fall foliage was stunning.  I took a walk around the Beida campus but only had a 50mm lens with me.  A wider lens would no doubt have been better suited to take in the full beauty of the landscape...

Fall
1/800s, f/1.6, ISO 100, 50mm

Continue below the fold for a few more shots

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