Taiwan: nation of show-offs

14 Oct

Photographers, even wildlifers and landscapers, love show-offs. And Taiwan loves to show off, its women especially. Young or old, any suitably scenic location brings them out in droves. Not just with selfie stick and smartphone (or escorts toting SLRs) but dressed to kill.

It’s taken me nearly all of this visit to register how rich a vein Taiwan’s ceaseless fashion parade is. As writer I’m always looking for pictures to liven stories. As photographer I’m always looking for story in my pictures, at time of exposure and at time of editing, the latter most obviously in the way I crop but also in manipulating the variables of highlight and shadow, contrast, warmth and clarity. I place street photography, though I’m neither expert practitioner nor pundit on its praxis, at the cutting edge of making stories with pictures. As the late Jane Bown said, truly and fairly, others take pictures but I make them. She isn’t usually thought of as a street operator but in freezing the celebs she brought that eye for the moment, with minimal kit and fuss that so endeared her to editors and subjects alike, I see as hallmarks of street snappery.

Street photographers must read the future with the speed of the wildlifer or sports snapper, but bring to the art the instincts of the narrator. Not that we should discount sheer luck. Time and again I’ve realised post exposure that the real story in the picture on my screen isn’t the one I’d thought it to be. It’s the more compelling story I never saw till now. So there’s luck, and of course there’s no end of wastage. I’d never have got into this game in the days of film.

Here’s my point. Twice in the last three days I’ve gone to a very particular place for a very particular purpose. On Thursday that purpose took me to Yehliu (“yay-leo” is as good as you’ll get from me, though that last syllable falls between “oh” and “oo” in a way I can’t replicate). That’s a ‘geopark’ on the northern tip of Taiwan.

There, a coastline formed in the miocene age of twenty-five to five million years ago has been and is being carved and chiselled by the waves – directly by erosion and corrosion; indirectly through air trapped in crevices and compressed by trillions of watery tons – into spectacular shapes that remind me, not for the first time, of rock formations I’ve seen on Tenerife.

If you’re interested, check out Yehliu. You won’t find much more about it here because this was a day whose agenda was hijacked by show-offs …

… as was Friday’s. I’d thought I was going to an exhibition on the flâneur – what Paris Review calls “the stroller, the passionate wanderer of nineteenth-century French literary culture”. Taiwan, its manufacturing every bit as export-led as that of its bête noire across the Strait, faces many challenges from this reality. One is the need to keep a keen ear and eye on the mood swings of art, fashion and design.

Which sheds light on why phones go off to Mozart’s Turkish March, dustbin lorries play Beethoven’s Für Elise (as with our ice cream vans, the residents come out to them) and shop music weaves Beyoncé and Eminem; Miles, Mingus and Quintette du Hot Club de France. This is not about apeing the shifts of an affluent west but recognising and repurposing Quality.

It’s why I heard, browsing in an upmarket mall that day, an exquisite mandolin take on John Lennon’s Nowhere Man. And why, back to the point, Taiwan dresses so well, in ways that acknowledge but never simply mimic the best from the west, a term that certainly includes Japan. What endeared me to the two geisha lookalikes above – they already had my aesthetic admiration – was the throaty chuckles as they reviewed and commented on their selfies. If only I’d been able to decode those words, and salty suggestiveness therein. I may be influenced by The Handmaiden but suspect – you had to be there – they are lovers

So here’s a sliver of Taiwan in pictures I was never meant to take. I’d thought to photograph geology in the first case, not to photograph at all in the second. In fact both set challenges more familiar to me on the streets of Delhi or Danang; to do with reading situations and not so much spotting the right place but, hardest thing for me, waiting there for the right moment. I missed so many tricks – most lost forever; a few revealed here in images where the real story was in so small a corner of my frame I had to crop beyond acceptable resolution – that I’ll have to come back just to snap with better art and science Taiwan’s endless catwalk. I’ll bring my serious kit, which would have served me well at Yehliu though not at the former tobacco factory that now hosts big international exhibitions, including that on the flâneur. The latter was jam packed, which upped the fun levels but ruled out anything larger than a cell phone.

But one freeloading tendency did serve me well. I’m no stranger to poaching shots, snapping a model whose pose is for a lens other than mine. I was at it this summer in Shanghai (outdoor pro shoots are even better since they supply, and gratis, not just models but lighting too) and now here I was, up to my old tricks, at Yehliu and a Taipei exhibition hall.

For each venue I’ve included a few context shots, prefaces now to a different story: Taiwan’s splendid show-offs.

Keen to get at least one people-free shot, I forgot that a picture like this next one affords no sense of scale. It could be a close up on a small section of badly eroded dirt road’; an illusion heightened – or should that be flattened? – by its looking down from a high promontory. Those boulders and protrusions are several metres tall


And that’s it. My last post from Taiwan 2017. Tonight at 23:35 I fly home via a three hour layover in Dubai.


Update October 16. Actually that wasn’t quite it. Two hours after uploading the above I sallied forth, with brolly, into the streets. For two days it had rained incessantly: here torrential, there just heavy; but not once letting up entirely. My few plans for this final day had to be scrubbed. I thought to visit a mall near the 101 Centre: world’s tallest building till Dubai knocked up the Burj Khalifa in 2010, followed by China besting it three times; South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the USA (new WTC) once apiece.

As it happened, next to the mall was an international photography exhibition. All global players were there, including those I help make rich: Canon (lenses, cameras); Epson (printers, papers); Sanya (storage media, from a factory I snapped by a rice field outside Hualien); Lowepro (kit bags); Velbon (tripods) and Manfrotto (tripod heads).

(The flaneur  show wasn’t a flash in the pan. Taipei is a big exhibition venue, with at least six – I was told this by a Malaysian working here – international centres, each with many halls. Next door another hall of the same dimensions, easily 500 by 500 metres, was hosting an outdoor exhibition packed with its own big names: Wolfskin, Coleman, Vango etc.)

For once I wasn’t in technolust mode. With zero interest in kit that another time would have had my eyes out on stalks – including, ominously, flying drones bristling with state of the art photo-video-optics – I focused on a new set of posers. Here though, unlike at Yehliu and Flaneur City, most of the show-offs were being paid to do precisely that …

Occasionally things got real. Like when I snapped this worker, paid not to pose but to sell, in an unguarded moment. (I’ve worked exhibitions myself and know how draining they are.) It should have been a set of three. Take one, I catch her off-guard. Take two, she busts me …

… take three, except I never took it, is where I smile at her and she smiles dutifully beautifully in return. But my favourite has this worker, shoes kicked off and only partially shielded by the box between noodles and chopsticks on the one hand, my sneaky S7 on the other.

Here’s something of the context: a few of the punters, with women in the minority but I suspect a growing one.







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