Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was the bureau chief of the New York Times’ Shanghai office from 2003-08, as part of a 22-year career as a foreign correspondent. His new book, “Disappearing Shanghai”, is a photographic exploration of the life of neighborhoods “doomed to imminent extinction” as he describes it, with accompanying poems and essays by novelist, poet and Shanghai native Qiu Xiaolong. Sue Anne Tay of ShanghaiStreetStories caught up with him recently for a quick chat on the book.
First of all, congratulations on your book! For those less familiar with your work, can you introduce Disappearing Shanghai – how it all began and how long you have been working on it?
Thanks very much. Disappearing Shanghai began very informally, less as a project than as a way to deal with the stresses and fatigue of very intensive language training. I had just moved to Shanghai, in 2003, and in my relatively limited free time, during the first six months that I spent there, studying Chinese full-time, I began to explore the inner city, camera in hand. This led to the discovery of a kind of archipelago of old neighborhoods with really distinctive character that slated for demolition and were rapidly disappearing. I spent about a year or so understanding the geography and feel of these places, and on developing a photographic approach to them. As I did so, it slowly began to dawn on me just how special this moment was in the history of Shanghai, and how important it was to document these communities before they were dispersed and destroyed.
You mentioned that your work evolved from photography in the street to what you name “Landscapes Within” – a more intimate portrait of the home lives of residents. Can you elaborate on this shift or expansion in subject scope, and how it shapes the overall story you’re telling?
I left Shanghai in 2008 after spending five years there as the bureau chief of The New York Times. My new job was teaching at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and when I moved to New York, one of my goals was to begin editing a huge amount of material from Shanghai and to try to publish some of this work in book form. Several friends who are very well known photographers were very generous in helping sort through things, and in offering help with editing and other creative feedback. The comments of one of these people stopped me in my tracks, though. Danny Lyon, whose documentary work I’ve admired for many years, told me in no uncertain terms: “Howard, before you publish, you’ve got to go back to Shanghai and get into the homes of these people. We need to see what their private lives are like, alongside the life of the street in these neighborhoods.” Having just pulled up stakes in Shanghai, I took a big gulp, but resolved to return in the summer of 2009 to attempt to do what he urged me to accomplish. Up until then, I had spent negligeable time in the houses of my subjects, and was full of doubt on many scores. I knocked on the doors of strangers every day for three months, though, rain or shine, and gradually began amassing something that felt both intimate and coherent. In the end, the interior portraiture work became a hugely important part of this overall project. It delivers a private world that outsiders, including Chinese outsiders, just don’t ordinarily get to see. I also learned a lot in the process, not just about my subjects and their communities, but about photography. One of the most important things we have to confront, as photographers, is inhibition and reluctance. Danny Lyon’s suggestion to me was instrumental in getting me to take a further step.
Camera enthusiasts will want to know about equipment. For the project, you started off shooting mainly with film, but have switched up to include digital. What cameras were you working with, and has it affected your style and approach towards your subject?
My street work began with a Rolleiflex, an old 120mm twin lens reflex camera, which was great for my purposes because it is slow, meaning you need to work with great focus and deliberation, and because it is funky looking. Carrying a Rolleiflex doesn’t make you look like a big game hunter, like, say, a big Canon or Nikon might. In that way, it helps disarm your subjects. It is also deceptive, in that one looks downward into the ground glass to focus, and opposed to looking directly at one’s subject. Most people don’t immediately understand what’s going on, which favors candor. In the later stages of the outdoor work, I began using a Leica a lot.
When I began shooting indoors, I had to go completely digital, because of the weak light inside of these tiny dwellings. I did most of this work with a Canon 5D MkII and a couple of old manual lenses that I adapted for it: a 35 year old Olympus 24mm, and an even older and very fast Pentax 50mm. I like manual lenses as opposed to zooms, and I like the look I get from this glass in particular.
As many Shanghaiist readers are probably quite familiar with the city, can you share with us where in Shanghai you were mostly documenting? Perhaps an anecdote of the contrasts of before and after since your last visit? What has happened to most of the residents you photographed?
Some of the neighborhoods are long gone already, such as the litte streets strung along Tiantong Lu, that were an early favorite of mine. The Dongjiadu Lu area was another favorite, and when I was in Shanghai in August, I found it being cleared for demolition. Near Yuyuan, a street that I love, Luxiangwen Lu, just off of Renmin Lu, has already been partially demolished, but a lot of the original tissue still remains, for now, and I enjoyed seeing many old friends there among the residents just a few weeks ago. All in all, the book is based on a half dozen neighborhoods, most of which are gone now.
I have encountered cynics who have argued that focusing on the languishing parts of Shanghai is only telling one side of the story. How would you counter these views? And are there any similarities in the way you’ve documented Shanghai as compared to say New York?
I’ve frequently heard this kind of criticism but I find it leads to a sterile debate. No one has made the claim that “this” is Shanghai. My work is a very special piece of Shanghai photographed a poignant moment in its history, and photographed with great attention and affection. There’s plenty of room for other representations of Shanghai, of which there is no shortage. I do a lot of street portraiture in New York, particularly on Broadway, where I live and work, and there are lots of unhinged, or down on their heels characters in this portfolio. The effect is very different from my Shanghai work.
I’m delighted to see that the author Qiu Xiaolong, who is widely known for his popular Inspector Chen series (Death of a Red Heroine, A Loyal Character Dance) has contributed several poems for your book. When I met Mr Qiu in Shanghai, he mentioned that his first real love was poetry and his novels’ main character Inspector Chen Cao regularly quote poetry too. How did this collaboration with Qiu come about? And how do you feel his poetry and his being a Shanghai native contribute to your book?
Xiaolong and I met at the Shanghai Literary Festival many years back. I approached him after a talk and we became fast friends once he learned that I was working on documenting the kinds of neighborhoods that he grew up in, and in which his novels are often rooted. I’ve learned a lot about the city in conversation with him, eating there together with him, and in reading his books. I love the sensibility of his poems, which reflect a really stirring affection for Shanghai’s old urbanism, as well as a certain classic touch.
I see that besides teaching at Columbia, you’re also writing a book about China’s relationship with Africa, and have been traveling across the region for research, including South Sudan, Zambia and Tanzani, just to name a few. I imagine that there is significant interest in how China’s influence is unfolding in the region, is photography going to be a large part of your book?
The China Africa book is pure non-fiction reportage. I took a lot of photographs during a year on the road in Africa, but they won’t be used in the book. Perhaps I’ll do an exhibit at some point in the future.
I do encourage our readers to pick up a copy of your fantastic work. Can you remind us where they can purchase it? What is it you hope that people will take away from your work on Disappearing Shanghai?
For the time being, the best options would be from the publisher’s website, or from Amazon. I’ve included links to both on this page on my website. For the time being, the book isn’t being sold directly in Shanghai.
Sue Anne Tay is the photographer and author of the popular blog ShanghaiStreetStories. She first interviewed Howard French for her series “Behind the Camera Interviews”, featuring Shanghai’s best preservation documentary and street photographers.
Get a copy of Disappearing Shanghai here.
Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he began teaching in September 2008. From 1986 to 2008, Howard was a reporter for the New York Times, and eighteen of those years, from 1990 to 2008, were spent working overseas. He was the newspaper’s Shanghai Bureau Chief from 2003 to 2008. He is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, which won the 2005 American Library Association Black Caucus Award for Non-Fiction.
Qiu Xiaolong is a writer who has published, among others, six novels featuring Inspector Chen, including Death of a Red Heroine, which won the Anthony Award for best first novel in 2001. His book, Years of Red Dust, a collection of linked stories in Shanghai, was on the list of Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2010. Qiu was born and raised in Shanghai, where he was a renowned poet and translator. He came to the United States in 1988 and holds a PhD degree in Asian Studies from Washington University.
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