Saturday, 28 March 2009

Selected Excellence: A Fresh Eye

parking meters(It looks as if the meter is peeking through the torn opening. If you were the photographer, would you just walked past without noticing this interesting aspect of the scene?)

Yesterday, we discussed how to stay fresh in seeing a scene. Here is someone who manages to keep a fresh eye in his photography works, John Marrocco from Florida of the United States.

John has been passionately involved in the art and technique of photography for over 30 years. Sometimes working professionally, but mostly not. Currently make his living in boating related endeavours and living to make his photographs. He writes that, “I photographs because I have to….to feed my soul. The not-so-profound draws me in. Mundane objects we see and pass every day. Most go by without notice. The photographs posted in my blog are as I see it.”

The following photos are themed on the boardwalk by John.

boardwalk(Boardwalk, Flagler Beach, Florida)

pilings(Pilings, Daytona Beach, Florida)

fog (Boardwalk, Flagler Beach, Florida. Foggy morning on the pier. The dedications carved into the planking were interesting. Nevin: I especially like this foggy shot. The silhouette of the man makes an important reference to the heavy “foggy-ness”, and a sense of depth too. The atmosphere is adequately conveyed)

By John Marrocco: It is difficult sometimes to stay fresh, it is primarily why I try and shoot at the same see what more is there. I have worked at a marina for almost 25 years and it is the most difficult place for me to photograph. There are wonderful images there, however I have a hard time finding them.

I have been shooting everyday since getting my GX200. The camera has freed me to just go out and shoot and there is a difference between the feeling with digital and film, though it’s hard to put into words. I often feel a lack of freshness in my shooting...even when its not always justified. I think it’s the nature of photography (and other arts) to doubt that what you are doing means anything. To me mostly it’s just a matter of doing it because it’s simply enjoyable.

barrier(Barrier on the boardwalk, Daytona Beach, Florida)

untitled (Shacks on the boardwalk, Daytona Beach, Florida)

By Nevin: The first time I visited John’s blog, I was amazed by the quality of freshness in his photos. You see, there is actually not really much to be photographed on empty beaches, not least if you shoot the boardwalk again and again. Inexperienced photographers would have simply walked past and missed a lot of the wonderful shots John managed to impress us. When I looked at the photos, I wished I could go naked and jump into the scene for a swim at once. His photos have a crisp, simple and fresh character. Simple but powerful; this is a style having been developed after years of practices for sure.

Fact is, it is not easy to stay fresh when you have taken photos for, in John’s case, over 30 years.

Look at the first parking meter photo. I would have missed this shot if it were me. Besides freshness, it expresses the state of being of the photographer: calm and observant. This is pretty much an area which photography is about: to reveal a photographer’s mind in a photo. And probably practising a calm and observant mind is the secret to the success of staying fresh in photography. Well done and thank you, John.

sun(Boardwalk, Daytona Beach, Florida)

(Published with courtesy and copyright of John Marrocco. Some texts are reproduced from John’s wordpress site, with some photo titles slightly adjusted by Nevin for illustration’s sake)

Friday, 27 March 2009


Let’s take a break from the hefty LNII series and start a fresh question: How to keep a fresh eye in seeing a scene?

R0010345 (Medium)(The plastic plate reads: "fresh fruit juice" ranging from orange juice, watermelon juice to starfruit juice and more.  I shot this picture with the WB tuned to purplish. The light was right and the mood peaceful.  There is some special quality in this scene that entice me to pause and shoot)

Last July, I bought the GX200. Since then, I have been taking photos every day. On good days, I take lots of shots; on other days when the mood or weather is not right, I take fewer. This is way too different from my film days. For one thing, film photographers tend to be more frugal; for another, serious film cameras are less portable on a daily basis.

Anyway, taking pictures is more like eating breakfast to me now: I will feel funny if I skip it. Well, I’m not a breakfast “refusenik”, so to speak. When I reviewed the daily posts I wrote here, I was sort of amazed by how varied the topics and photos I had done.

For a minute, I wondered, “How could I tell which scene would make a good photo?”

The answer is probably that I can’t tell. Instead, with a bit of luck for sure, I have managed to keep a fresh eye in seeing a scene and find in it what holds a viewer’s interest. So the real question is: how do I keep an eye fresh in seeing a scene?

1) Training. I have been taking photos for 20 years. My mind can see a scene like through a viewfinder. In the old days when I couldn’t carry with me the SLR all the time, I liked to see a scene through the “viewfinder” by joining the ends of my thumbs and index fingers to form a rectangle.

2) Reading. I have been reading books on photography techniques. By the way, I do not read much about camera reviews really. I bought the GX200 because I was amazed by the GX100 loaned to me. I didn’t read any review about the GX200 or 100 before I bought it. Time is precious.

3) Reading again. Read anything which can cultivates an artistic mind. I read poems and proses. Well, I play classical music with my guitar too.

4) Mimicking. When I learned to do creative writings in the university, a professor revealed to me that shadowing the style of great writers was a surefire way to success. Personal style usually comes after years of practices. The same can be applied to photography. I read albums featuring works by photography masters and sometimes mimic their treatment of some particular scenes. I may do it right away after reading, or later on when a similar scene arises.

R0013574 (Medium)(The car owner must have done some reasoning before coming up with this novel way of fixing his car.  Can we call this creative?)

5) Reasoning. When you come across photos which lots of people praise, ask this question, “A good photo but in what way?” Then read on to see if you agree to what people praise about it. Why and why not? This makes you a ready photographer next time a similar scene shows up.

6) Timing. Visit a place in different days or different time of a day or in different weather (especially in extreme weather conditions). Fresh scenes will present themselves whether you manage to keep a fresh eye or not.

7) Reversing. Go along a familiar route in a reverse direction. This can make you see a scene differently.

8) Standing. Take for example, sometimes I just stand in the street at the same spot for ten minutes to look around and take pictures. This forces me to calculate the best way to shoot a scene.

9) Orientation. If you haven’t stood against the sun to take pictures, try it. If you haven’t lain on the floor to take pictures, try it. If you haven’t used only your more creative right brain to take pictures (by closing your right eye), do it. If you haven’t taken a bus ride just to give yourself a higher angle to take pictures, you have missed lots of good shots. Orient yourselves to fresh viewpoints.

10) Scouting. Scout a location to find a unique viewpoint

11) Sleeping and exercising. This is no kidding. You have found yourself in a great mood after a good night’s sleep or some aerobic exercise, haven’t you? Researchers have found that enough sleep and aerobic exercises can increase the serotonin levels in us, giving us a better mood and sharper mind. Being sleepy and in bad mood can benumb creativity. As an aside, little girls are more calm and contented than the boys because their serotonin levels are higher.

R0013725 (Medium)(Think but you don't have to smoke. I took this picture when I came out from a performance hall. I wasted no time and shot this picture with the WB tuned to greenish. I waited for the man to exhaust a breath of smoke to convey a sense of thinking)

12) Thinking. Think about what you want to express in a photo before you compose. Better still, think about what theme you wish to work on before setting off with your camera. A specific target makes you see things in specific perspective.

13) Reviewing. Review your photos to see what is good and what is not. You may also use a software to do the cropping and trimming to see how a composition can be improved next time.

14) Topicality. Think up a project to work on. It is a good idea to pick a topical issue. You will learn a lot about what and how to shoot in the process, along with other useful knowledge. Make reference to similar projects before you set yours rolling.

15) Make friends. You can learn from your friends something you may never know otherwise. They give you new perspectives in seeing a matter. And the number of ways we manage to see a scene also hinges on our ability to reason things from different stances. Besides that, friends can afford you chances to go somewhere or do something you may never try otherwise too. Those are the occasions which can unleash your power to see a scene with a novel eye.

R0013881a (Medium)(If I haven't acquainted myself with the Taekwondo master, I won't be able to shoot pictures in this grading test)

16) Keep taking photos. “Practice makes perfect” is a platitude but always true.

These are all I can gush and share with you. What are your tips? Do drop a line to tell us how you keep a fresh eye in seeing a scene.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

LNII Series: Outlaw Territories

management_head (Medium)(The old resettlement estates were not called "outlaw territories" for no reason. Such poor neighbourhoods were the least patrolled by the police. Hoodlums and triad members carved up spheres of influence in the estates. This photo showed a rare spot check being carried out by the then Royal Hong Kong Police Force)

LNII stands for Lower Ngau Tau Kwok (II) Estate, the last resettlement estate to be redeveloped in Hong Kong. You may wish to read here for the first and here for the second instalments of this series. The photos presented in this series were taken by me with my GX200 during my two visits to the estate. This instalment continues on the daily life in a resettlement estate, with an emphasis on the reminiscences of the adult residents.

sewing machine (Medium) (To make ends meet, most resettlement households were desperate for whatever that could earn some money. This is a sewing machine which was typical money-earning tool for housewives in the old days. Usually, contractors of textile factories set up distribution points in the neighbourhood to recruit women to do the sewing at home. The earnings in return were minimal)

plastic flowers (Medium)Yesterday we read about how, in retrospect, some former residents enjoyed their life as kids in resettlement estates. Was the life of adults in the resettlement estate a different story?

(Not only housewives helped to make ends meet, but children also had to contribute their time and efforts. Besides sewing, assembling plastic flowers as shown was popular among resettlement households for earning an income at home because this was when young children could handle)

From Mark I to V

R0013770 (Medium) (This is a communal water tap room. Only communal water taps were provided in the earlier resettlement blocks. Residents had to go to the room and wait for their turn to get water. This old lady is washing rice in a bowl before it is cooked)

R0013971 (Medium) The design of LNII was superior to that of the earlier resettlement estates in that each flat had its own water taps and toilet (actually just a tiny space fitted with a squat-type flush toilet). Ms Tang, who with her husband and his family moved in a Mark I resettlement block in 1972, recalled that the flat allocated to them was as small as about 86 square feet. After she gave birth to her baby, the crowded conditions in the flat became even more unbearable.

R0013768 (Medium)

What disturbed Ms Tang most was the fact that the public shower room had no door. “If I went home late,” she says, “I would rather skip showering. If I really needed a shower, I would ask a family member to keep watch by the entrance before I dared walk in.” (Note: In case you don’t know, oriental people usually take a shower or bath at night instead of in the morning.)

(The communal shower room was without arental card door)

Later on, the Tangs were transferred to a new resettlement estate which adopted the Mark V design as LNII. In addition to a better view, their new home also had its own water taps and toilet.

(This is a tenant certificate. Each household was req uired to register all tenants living in the allocated flat in the certificate)

"The most important thing," says Ms Tang, "was that when I took a shower (in the in-flat toilet which had no shower head; therefore, residents used a bucket to hold water for cleaning themselves instead of taking a shower in a strict sense), I no longer needed to be on tenterhooks."

typical bunker bed (Medium) (To save space, many resettlement residents used bunker beds, with this typical metal type being the most popular)

Yet in the resettlement estate as a whole, there were still things which caused residents unease.

Poor Public Security

R0013457 (Medium) (This was the first sight when I climbed up to the first floor of a LNII resettlement block. The poor lighting added to the sense of insecurity inside the building. The photo was not taken with a LOMO camera, if you wonder. The four corners were darkened because only one underpowered strip light was used for illumination here. The refuse room is on the right behind the trash cart)

While flats of the adjacent Upper Ngau Tau Kwok Estate were allocated through proper applications, those of the LNII were earmarked for resettling squatter area dwellers affected by natural disasters or redevelopment clearance. Some believe that this was why the LNII neighbourhood was rougher and the house rules were loosely adhered to.

R0013639 (Custom) (The light box on the wall was seen on the ground floor of the block. The characters on it read, "Noodles with pig giblets" and the arrow points to a dark long corridor leading to the noodle shop)

R0013648 (Medium) (A peek into the kitchen of the noodle shop, which is also situated on the ground floor of the block, will make you wonder if this dangerous setup is really allowed by the house rules)

Compared with the older seven-storey resettlement blocks, the new Mark V design adopted in LNII created longer and higher residential blocks, multiplying the population intake (LNII blocks have 15 storeys each). When more and more multi-storey buildings were constructed, problems multiplied too.

R0013661 (Medium) (This eatery on the ground floor shows that the management problems are not only about security but also public hygiene. The big pot with piping white smoke is placed on a busy pedestrian passage within the estate)

R0013659 (Medium) (The eatery illegally occupies the common area with foldable tables and plastic chairs to extend business. Most eateries of this kind do the same. Since this is illegal, in the old days, they soon became the targets of blackmail by triad members. Those responsible for suppressing such illegal businesses in turn became susceptible to triad bribery, complicating the problem of public security)

Mr Ho, now 81 years old, recalls, "Those new resettlement estates had a community too big. With so many people living in it, the neighbourhood naturally got rough. I still remember that shortly after moving into my flat, I learned of two groups of residents from different Chinese native communities fighting with one another for the control of mini-bus business. Somebody was killed."

R0013780 (Medium)(There used to be a large asphalt ball court next to the LNII. A gathering place for youngsters, the ball court became an ideal place for the triad society to recruit young members) Surely, fist fights and robberies were common events in the resettlement estates. Triad fights and acts of voyeurism were frequently reported. Illegal gambling dens were set up. In addition to common crimes like robbery, triad elements infiltrated some schools. Cases of students being forced to join a triad society were often talked about. Parents were particularly wary when teenagers and youngsters gathered in groups. What made things worse was that it was the time when corruption among the police was rampant. The police force and the triad members were rather intertwined in those days.

R0013462 (Medium) (This dimly lit staircase leads to all floors of the residential block. Climbing up and down the stairs make people worry about their personal safety, especially when the blocks are open to anyone. Luckily, the LNII blocks are provided with lifts. But lower floor residents prefer taking the stairs to avoid the waiting)

Another resident in a resettlement estate, Mr Pang, recalls that he did have a sense of insecurity, "There were as many as 600 or more flats in a single block, which was just too many really. Except for our immediate neighbours, we did not know each other. Besides, the lighting in public areas was poor. It was only natural that we felt insecure."

Mutual Aid Committees

R0013423 (Medium) R0013424 (Medium) (The numbers of flats along the corridor are written on the wall)

Mr Tony Miller, a retired high ranking official in the Hong Kong Government, tells of the same in recalling his days as a district government administrator. More than once, he made inspection visits to the Mark V resettlement blocks. The environment there left a deep impression.

"With the faint lights in the building, the long corridor looked as if it were one mile long, as if you would never reach the other end. It was a frightening environment. I could perfectly identify with the residents' feelings of fear and insecurity."

In fact, the residents, too, began to realise that there was only one way to fight the waves of crime, to overcome the feelings of fear and insecurity they felt in their new environment: unity.

R0013512 (Medium) (A room on the ground floor of each block is turned into the office for the respective mutual aid committee. The special patterns on the door hints that it could be an early 1970s vintage)

Against this background, the mutual aid committees of public housing estates were born. With the Independent Commission Against Corruption gradually suppressing corruption in the society, and the setting up of a full-fledged Housing Department, steady improvements were seen in the management of the resettlement estates.

R0013516 (Medium) (A shot of the inside of the mutual aid committee office)

After taking glimpses of the living in the LNII, we will look at the shopping there next. Be prepared to see photos of shops which may hold your interest in the coming instalments.

- continue here -

(The old photos without copyright notes are reproduced from various printed materials)

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

LNII Series: Living in Matchboxes

residents_head (Medium)(Cubicles in a Matchbox: A cubicle in the LNII matchbox-like blocks measure as wide as the space the barred windows and the ventilation hole for the toilet occupy)

R0013452 (Medium)h LNII stands for Lower Ngau Tau Kwok (II) Estate, the last resettlement estate to be redeveloped in Hong Kong. You may click here for the first instalment of this report.

(A vacant flat peeked through the ventilation hole from the central corridor)

The photos presented in this series were taken by me with my GX200 during my two visits to the estate. This instalment peeks into the daily life in a resettlement estate, with the focus on the colourful childhood days there.

R0013667 (Medium) (Any strangers can go in through this main gate, walk up the stairs or take the lifts to any floor of the block, which is what we are going to do in this instalment. Note that the photo is rightly exposed. It was around past five but the extensive sunshades of the deserted shops blocked the sky, and this entrance was exactly so dimly lit. No wonder that the crime rate was high in such resettlement estates in the past)

Yesterday, we read about the nickname "matchboxes" for resettlement estates and stopped at the dark, long and suffocating central corridors featured in the design of LNII buildings.

R0013447 (Medium) (This photo shows the ventilation holes on the partition wall which separates the flat from the corridor. The hanging urn on the right is a shrine for worshipping the god of earth, a traditional ritual common among Chinese families)

To make up for poor ventilation due to this design, ventilation holes were formed in the partition walls separating the flats and the central corridor. The noise from the corridor inevitably wafted through the holes into the flats. Some residents simply sealed them. These holes had provided fun for children through which they could chat with one another.

R0013769 (Medium) (An old photo showing the inside of a flat and the ventilation holes through to the corridor)

Wild Kids

R0013772 (Medium) (The kids are playing "stick game" in which tiny sticks are showered on the floor and the players take turn to pick up as many sticks as possible without moving the other sticks to move in the process. As the photo suggests, they are playing in the street)

For the children, the central corridor also served another unintended function. The long distance made it an ideal playground for children to play football, marbles, race or ride tricycles from one end to the other when they did not play in the street.

R0013435 (Medium) (The central corridor is as dark as can be. Some residents hung washing in the corridor. I didn’t underexpose the scene, in case you wonder)

R0013443 (Medium)For the children, the dark, central corridor is an adventurous place to be. A longer exposure reveals the nitty-gritty of the setting in the central corridor. As shown in the above photo, there is a power distribution room (which is next to a residential unit!) behind the red door on the right; clockwise to the left above the aquamarine gate is a light bulb which the household use to illuminate the dark entrance to the flat; along the ceiling are the pipes and wires serving the flats; to the right there are two clothes hangers hanging some socks; below them, the two goldenrod ball-shape things connected to some pipes are the water meters; now back toR0013411 (Medium) the right you see the metal mailbox attached to the gate; an opening on the opposite aquamarine gate makes for a mailbox; mark that the urns on the floor outside both flats are the god-of-earth shrine, and that the power meters are above the flat gates.

In those days, children were seen roaming around all over the street in the daytime because the parents were busy day and night to make ends meet. They didn’t really have the time to spare for themselves, much less the time and attention for their children.

(A makeshift kiosk by an old cobbler occupies a quiet corner in the street. He could have seen lots of children growing up in LNII)


R0013479 (Medium) (This is the old shop owner and her grocery on the ground floor of a residential block in LNII. Before the emergency of supermarkets and convenient stores, such grocery stores were the only places to buy staple food items lie rice, eggs and flour. These stores had been a fantastic place for children to hang around nearby because sometimes the more kind-hearted would give out some biscuits for free. Now look carefully and find the blue and red buckets near the light bulb. This is the old way to store money by shop owners: one for coins and the other for money notes. They could be the prototypes of modern cash registers, couldn’t they?)

However, this was anything but regrettable for children, which is precisely summed up by an ex-resident, Mr Tang: "I really enjoyed the way of life in the resettlement estate. It was so free."

The life led by Mr Tang was a typical wild boy’s life. “I did not have any proper schooling," he recalls. "So besides helping Mum with the housework, I had plenty of leisure time in the day. What I most enjoyed was hanging out on the hillsides with friends of my age, swimming, hunting, fishing and cooking."

R0013417 (Medium)

R0013421 (Medium) (There is a strong sense of liberal attitude in any old resettlement estate like LNII. Take for wxample, some households of flats on the ground floor simply hangs the  washing like underwear outside the flat, which is next to a sidewalk. If not for the being blocked by the washing, the inside of the flats can be easily seen by any passers-by.  Probably for this liberal attitude, people growing up in such estates tend to be more easy-going and resilient under pressure as far as my experience goes. They just seem to worry less)


R0013415 (Medium)

R0013420 (Medium)(Passers-by can easily peek into the flat on the ground floor if not for the washing)

Mrs Lee spent a similar childhood in the resettlement estate. She says, "We used to gather together and play on the open ground in the estate and on nearby slopes. The boys played marbles and had 'paper-pellet' battles. The girls went high up on the hill to pluck wild fruit and flowers, or climbed into empty lorries parked on the open ground to take a nap."

R0013668 (Medium) (Similar food kiosks are a common sight in the neighbourhood of LNII. They were gourmet places which tempted children in the old days)

R0013680 (Medium) (The neighbourhood of LNII is also crowded with shops of different trades. It is easy to imagine how amazed the children were when they spent their leisure time roaming these shops when they were not on the hill slopes)


5049-1 (Medium) (School kids of the old days at the school in a resettlement estate)

The prime purpose of the early resettlement programme was to resettle residents affected by fires or by squatter clearance. It did not take into consideration the provision of community services or education facilities for children.

R0013638 (Medium) (One of the schools in LNII. This is the main entrance to the school)

R0013679 (Medium)(The school office on the ground floor of the deserted campus)

People moving in LNII were the lucky lots as the estate was provided with schools, which were like truncated annex wings to the residential blocks.

R0013637 (Medium) (The school is like a truncated annex wing to the blocks)

R0013636 (Medium)(Part of the school playground; the other half of it is on the other side of the school building. How limited the space is!)


"Teachers and students in the school had a very close relationship. My school-mates were all from the same neighbourhood. So, after school, we could always go up the hill behind the buildings and play together," recalls Ms Ng, another resettlement resident during her childhood.


Notwithstanding the monotonous, functional architectural design, and the crowded, messy and dirty environment, a village atmosphere was miraculously retained in the early resettlement blocks for the children.  In the 1960s, deserted land and hill slopes surrounded these densely-packed blocks. R0013677a (Medium)Children ran and played in the natural wilderness and had a wonderful and colourful childhood, which sounds very much a fable to the well-groomed, multitasking kids of the present days in this big city of rat racers.

(An old man smoking in a sitting-out area in LNII: Is he being nostalgic about the past of LNII? Who wouldn’t for having lived in a place for forty years?)


R0013672 (Medium) (The kids have grown up and the parents are aged. The LNII has completed its historical mission. It is going to be missed by lots of its residents. Or will they?)

Next, we will look at the life of adults in a resettlement estate. More photos to come. Stay tuned!

- continue here -

(The old photos without copyright notes are reproduced from various printed materials)