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The Vertical Beauty of Hong Kong
An Interview with Photographer Romain Jacquet Lagrèze
HK Neon Signs #3, Hong Kong, 2014 – All images by Romain Jacquet Lagrèze
Romain Jacquet Lagrèze is a French photographer based in Hong Kong. Since 2010, he has been photographing unique aspects of the city, including its street culture, Cantonese street signs, vivid rooftop life, and abundance of trees sprouting from concrete buildings. Six of his photographic series have been published as photo books. His photographic work is currently represented by Blue Lotus Gallery.
In the interview below, we discuss his work, the aesthetic atmosphere of Hong Kong, the importance of making photography connected to the real world, and related topics. You can view his work at RomainJL.com or via his Instagram or Facebook pages.
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On the Arts: Before getting into photography, your background was in design. How did you end up switching to photography full-time? And do you think your experience with design has affected the types of photographs you take?
Romain Jacquet Lagrèze: When I arrived in Hong Kong, I was a freelance web designer. This left me enough spare time to visit the city and get more deeply involved in the field of photography. Whenever I walked in the streets, I felt a constant and inexhaustible source of inspiration, so I simply kept recording it. After I had enough photos to make a series I had the chance to find the local publisher Asia One.
In 2012 we released my first photo book 'Vertical Horizon' and it had a huge coverage in the press worldwide. This really helped me set up myself as a photographer as I found Blue Lotus Gallery to represent me and to sell my prints. Since then I have been releasing several new books and doing exhibitions with the gallery. I believe that having a trained designer eye helps me a lot for the composition of my photography. Finding a good balance is the key to a good design, and this is the same thing for photography.
Nowadays, especially with all the new tools to create artificial photos through AI, we start to be flooded by photos that look real but are not. I see it invading more and more of my social network feeds and it makes me convinced that the core value of photography is its bond with reality.
OTA: It’s important for you to display real images without any major modifications. Could you elaborate on that?
RJL: In my point of view, a photo must be a reflection of reality. I really dislike it when I learn or I notice that an element was artificially added to a photo. Even staged photography is not my thing. Nowadays, especially with all the new tools to create artificial photos through AI, we start to be flooded by photos that look real but are not. I see it invading more and more of my social network feeds and it makes me convinced that the core value of photography is its bond with reality.
In regards to editing, I think that a photographer should just stick with contrast harmonization, removing lens distortion, adjusting the white balance and for sure cropping which I think is the most essential part of editing. But adding an element that was not in the scene or totally changing the colors just makes your photography join the pool of artificial photos.
OTA: You see photo books as a way for “photography to enter the real world”. Should photographers today focus less on social media and more on physical objects like photo books?
RJL: Making my photos present in the physical world is of utmost importance for me and the more it goes, the more I feel this way. We really all are overwhelmed by digital content on our smartphones. And the noise of notifications makes us unable to focus deeply on anything we see online. When we are in front of a photo book, or in front of a large print, we can switch off our device and focus on what we see, on what the photographer is willing to show.
OTA: You also do limited edition prints, which reintroduce scarcity into a medium (photography) that has become very abundant. Why did you choose to make limited editions?
This was actually advice from my gallery. I followed them on this, and I am happy I did. I think as humans our nature is to look down on anything which is abundant. So making my prints in limited edition is to me the only proper way to make people fully appreciate my photos.
OTA: Printing photo books and prints also allows you to control the paper, and choose certain materials that highlight the specific elements in a photograph. How do you choose a paper to print a particular photo?
RJL: It all depends on the photo. Usually for each of my series I choose one type of paper that I will use on all photos. I really like the semi gloss art paper from Hahnemühle and I use it on many of my series like 'Concrete Stories', 'City Poetry' and 'Wild Concrete'. But for a photo of a big cityscape with large glass buildings illumination at night, a metallic pearl paper is the best fit according to me. This is what I use for 'Vertical Horizon' and 'The Blue Moment'.
OTA: In your Old Shops series, you write that Hong Kong street life is slowly disappearing because the modern residential towers in Hong Kong don’t have ideal spaces on their ground floor. As a photographer that focuses on urban environments — and with a background in design – what other architectural elements do you think contribute toward building a rich street life, in Hong Kong or elsewhere?
RJL: A rich street life is only possible if there are enough shops, restaurants on the ground level. And the architecture in Hong Kong after the 80s tends to build only mega structures that have a shopping center on the first few floors. That turns the street life into shopping center life, which is for sure less charming and also less inspiring for photos.
In general I think that an important architectural feature for a rich street life is to have a sheltered walkway. It enables bypassers to take their time walking slowly and shop around even under a scorching sun or a heavy rain. This is typically what you can find in the old districts of Hong Kong.
OTA: Another one of your series focuses on rooftop scenes. Hong Kong seems to have a uniquely rich rooftop culture, but this also seems like something newer buildings are slowly eliminating?
RJL: Yes absolutely, the main characteristics of old architecture buildings in Hong Kong is to have a rooftop which is accessible by all. On small buildings the rooftop is supposed to belong to the last floor owner/tenant and they sometimes fenced it off.
But in a wider building, there are just too many units on the last floor, so generally no one fences any area. The whole rooftop is then accessible by everyone in the building. It creates a large area where we can find children playing, people doing exercise or using the strong sunlight to dry anything (mostly laundry, but also fruits and meat). New buildings tend to have the rooftop either totally unauthorized or only accessible to the last-floor owners with alarms systems. That's why there are much less people going and much less life on those rooftops.
OTA: In the City Poetry series, you took photos of neon signs in Hong Kong in order to learn Cantonese. As someone also living abroad in a country where I originally didn’t speak the language, I really enjoyed this – and I had the same idea myself!
Cantonese is a character-based language, unlike alphabet-based Western languages. Do you think this has an effect on the visual landscape? And do you think being character-based adds more of a visual element to written language?
City Poetry is focused on any sign that I can find in Hong Kong streets. It can be neon signs which are disappearing drastically in the last few years but also other sorts of signs using any other material like, stone, wood or metal. I tend to prefer shooting the characters that are old where the marks of time are apparent as it makes them look more fragile and treasurable.
What I like about character-based language is that each character has a meaning by itself, and it enables me to create collages of these characters where I strip out the actual meaning of the sign it belongs to, in order to create a new meaning when put with other characters. I think that this way of creating is best applied in character-based language because each word has the same square shape and it can be moved around more freely which enables me to find the best possible balance for the overall artwork.
OTA: Your most recent project is “36 Views of Lion Rock,” a series that focuses on Lion Rock, a famous rock in Hong Kong, and was inspired by Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji. I’m curious of how you went about creating photographs that all needed to have the rock visible. Did you have specific city viewpoints in mind, or did you just walk around the city and see if the rock was visible or not?
RJL: I did have a few viewpoints in mind when starting the series, but the whole fun of the project was to look for more of them. It made me explore streets and areas of the city where I usually wouldn't go. So it was a lot of exploration, especially because I wanted to show the diversity of scenes we can find in Hong Kong: people shopping in the streets, playing sports outside, taking care of their plants on their rooftop, riding on boats, etc.
OTA: Hong Kong has a long legacy of photography and filmmaking, including Fan Ho, Wong Kar-Wai, and Ghost in the Shell, to name a few. Are there any particular photographers or filmmakers that worked in Hong Kong which have been influential to your work?
RJL: Fan Ho had a great influence on me in terms of photography as it made me realize the importance of cropping. I had plenty of occasions to see his books and admire his prints as his work is also represented by Blue Lotus Gallery. So this is probably the photographer I studied the most. I had the chance to meet him once and I was very glad to see that he knew my photos and appreciated them.
I also love the work of Wong Kar-Wai a lot, but somehow his style is too far from what I do to be a direct influence. Japanese animation movies from the early 90s have been a more direct source of inspiration for my work. Especially Ghost In the Shell and Akira which both portrays mega cities in a way that I try to reach.
…I wouldn't have become a photographer if I was not based in Hong Kong.
OTA: Most of your work has an intimate relationship with the city of Hong Kong. I think this is unique amongst photographers, who often travel to multiple cities. Do you have any interest in traveling to take photos, or do you think being in Hong Kong is “integral” to your work?
RJL: I can say quite certainly that I wouldn't have become a photographer if I was not based in Hong Kong. I come from Paris and experienced life in Los Angeles and Tokyo before arriving here. But no other cities have created in me an urge to take photos as intensely as Hong Kong did.
Now that I built my photographic eye, I could certainly use it and find inspiration in multiple places, but I think that in order to create quality work, one needs a lot of time to be fully impregnated by his subject. It looks to me that travelling a little bit here and there can only result in generic photos.
Do you have a new photography project in Hong Kong? If so, what topics are you focusing on?
I am currently shooting the sequel to my photo book 'Wild Concrete' that I shot 10 years ago. Since then, all the trees that I documented in it have disappeared and there is a whole new generation of trees that are out there that I must record before they in turn disappear. I also keep shooting all the characters I find in the streets in order to create new artworks for my project 'City Poetry.'