Monday, November 23, 2009

Photographing Details and Grasshopper Buzz

Earlier this month I had fun searching for detail photographs, those very selective views extracted with a telephoto lens, while visiting Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province, a bustling and visually chaotic city of 11 million. From past experience I knew that discovering details often reveals small insightful stories about the country I'm traveling in, which I feel is one of the best rewards of travel.

While walking through the park-like Kuanzhai Xiangzi shopping area in the central Chengdu, I heard the melodic sounds of metal tuning forks. Men and women dressed in medical style white coats were sounding them to solicit business from shoppers and tea house customers.

They were the city’s unique ear-cleaners, who carried pockets full of what looked like miniature chimney sweep tools, long wooden and wire handles with knives, scoops and brushes on the end, some tipped with tiny delicate feathers.

I didn’t really want my ears cleaned, especially not in full view of the public, but there was no shortage of others getting comfortable in chairs under shade trees, closing their eyes and slowing displaying the most relaxed expressions on their faces.

I was told the procedure is less a hygienic exercise and more a massage-like experience, with the tools and feathers stimulating acupuncture points within the ear. When the vibrating tuning fork is placed against a brush, the gentle sound deep within the ear has been described as the soft relaxing buzz of a grasshopper.

I encountered another visual detail while visiting the Wenshu Buddhist Temple where visitors were touching, patting and caressing two large brass lions guarding the main hall’s entrance. These mythical male and female lions symbolize defense and protection and guard many building and gateway entrances throughout China.

I knew touching the lions is thought to bring good luck, but these worshipers were also touching the corresponding spot on themselves. A pat on the lion’s worn head, a pat on their head. A brush down the lion’s back, a touch to their own.

A visitor explained to me that it is believed their own physical ailments at those locations would be healed or at least improved with the tactile help of these lions.

Just outside the Wenshu Temple were incense and candle shops and rows of outdoor souvenir stands lining the busy commercial street, a perfect example of the new China. One tiny detail caught my eye, a rack of plastic medallions with bright red braided cord.  In the USA they could pass for either Christmas ornaments or decorations to hang from your car’s rear view mirror.

I loved the juxtaposition - and irony - of  Mao Zedong’s familiar and reassuring portrait being sold next to Buddhist religious icons. China certainly has come a long way since the chaotic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s where no religion or independent thought was tolerated, nor were entrepreneurs allowed to flourish selling anything.

Such a small detail I might have overlooked in the past

When earlier in my career I was shooting news for daily newspapers and later United Press International, I was always looking for that one moment in time that would tell the reader the journalistic touch points of who, what, where and why. Often the best way to do that was with an all encompassing wide angle lens, placing the action in the foreground while maintaining the context of the surroundings. The optics of a wide angle emphasizes what is closest to it, yet it can fit in a lot of real estate left to right, especially if your in tight quarters. A photographer can also create a wonderful three dimensional feeling with a wide angle with graphic lines leading your eye within the image.

I still have that news photographer point of view, a wide angle is my “normal” lens, 24 mm or so, rather than what text books describe as the preferred angle of view, a 50 mm..

But as my client base and photographic interests have broadened, so has my need to capture detail views to be published in print complementing the scene setter, or utilized in multimedia shows depicting movement and time.

And I’m learning more about the world around me ... maybe when I next visit Chengdu I’ll understand the wisdom of  having my ears cleaned.

Here's a link to more editorial photography from Sichuan.

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