Shanghai street photography series on Cuckoo Magazine – Interview with photographer Tim Gao

May 2016: Featured and interviewed with Cuckoo Magazine - Interview with photographer Tim Gao

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[Text archived on May 2016, Full article]

Interview with photographer Tim Gao

When did you first become interested in photography?

When I was browsing around the college library on a sunny afternoon, I was deeply touched and inspired by one photography book of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I still remember the comprehensive photographic collection of his works, including images of Shanghai in the late 1940s, in a straight and yet humorous way. That was around 2009 and one year later I got obsessed in taking street photographs.

What camera did you use for your Invisible Theatre series?

The gears I use for my Shanghai project of Invisible Theatre are various, from the earlier analogue cameras like Konica Big Mini F with lens 35mm f/2.8 and Nikon FM2 with lens 50mm f/1.4, to current and yet compact digital cameras like Panasonic GF2 with lens 28mm f/2.5 and Fuji X100s with lens 35mm f/2. I try my best to post process the photographs of the series with a similar look.

What sort of research do you do before starting on a project?

Actually I didn’t start my project with a particular theme in mind. With a curiosity, I walk the streets and take snapshots around me in a quiet relaxed manner. I feel elated.

I have lived in Shanghai for over 9 years. I always try to explore the urban city and residential lanes that are hidden and unknown to me, and contemplate my emotional attachment to the city. I have been persistently shooting Shanghai and at the beginning of this year I looked back through these photographs and then edited them. I consider taking these photographs as a form of private diary rather than as a photographic project.

What aspects of street photography do you enjoy and what do you find challenging?

The uncertainty and drama happening in the ordinary streets. Street photography is not just a sharp triggering of the shutter to shape the outside world in the form of light and shadow. It is simultaneously a curious observation and emotional perception of what’s happening in the ordinary streets at any moment when unpredictable dramas and realities are actually taking place.

When I get more and more familiar with the streets and the corners of the interconnected lanes, after so many years, I find it pretty challenging that I will tend to ignore the minutiae beneath the everyday of the streets. The good thing is, however, when I feel that the light is changing and the metropolis is transforming. The commonplace disappears; new mystery arises.

What helps to be more creative?

I think reading is a great source for inspiration. I am now reading a book by a Shanghai writer Yucheng Jin called Fan Hua (meaning Blossoms), for the second time indeed. Written in Shanghai dialect, it’s a novel about Shanghai daily life of ordinary people, uncovering the most visceral self of the metropolis and the hidden residential lanes.

Another book I have read by Anyi Wang, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, is also a great novel about Shanghai and the people who reside here. Anyi’s unique feminine narrative of writing vividly visualizes the physically fascinating Shanghai and also adds an emotionally intrinsic dimension to the soul of Shanghai.

Which photographers influenced you and how did they influence your thinking?

I was inspired by many great photographers such as Nobuyoshi Araki, Daido Moriyama, Diane Arbus, Josef Koudelka, Mark Riboud, Takuma Nakahira and Issei Suda, among others. I feel fortunate to have read several of their photographic books and writings at the book stores in Shanghai. I think one important thing I’ve learned is that photography is actually about self. As for Shanghai street photography, I try to be straight and honest with the subjects I am seeing.

Describe your style in 3 words.

Mystery, drama and nostalgia.

What does photography mean to you?

With a curiosity about the world, I find my passion in street photography. Street photography not only enables me to create a documentary view of the unique Shanghai streets and its culture, but it also reveals the extraordinary and metaphorical aspect of Shanghai – an ‘invisible theatre’ of mystery, unease and nostalgia.

Sometimes I have a feeling that what drew me to taking photographs was a mood of nostalgia. When I was walking the streets I tried to capture the ephemeral and dramatic realities and reconstruct them into a new and multilayered world – the paradise of my lost memories.

What are you working on at the moment?

Since I am also a portrait photographer, one of my next projects is to seek collaborations with fashion designers and stylists, trying to create a series of portrait photographs with my understanding and introspection of what does Shanghai mean to me. The metropolitan Shanghai will be dissected and examined either as a physical shooting background or as an emotional concept, in a documentary and experimental manner.