Returning to Beijing this week, one of the more resolutely fascinating cities I have ever been to. Been there many times, though it is far too large, too energetic, and too rapidly tilting and shifting for me to claim to know it well. Like a runway fashion model who quickly strips off behind the curtains and then reappears onstage in a blink as a totally different creation, Beijing is continuously surprising. I am fortunate to have great clients there, and they have assigned me to many a wonderful wander with a camera.
Shot the above in 1987 at ShiChaHai, the legendary birthplace of many an excellent Chinese gymnast, and there have been lots of them. I got these laughs by leaving my camera on a tripod, and running a cable to my fingers, and then duckwalking back and forth, tongue out of my mouth, eyeballs popped. Mr. Goofy takes a picture. I look now and wonder a bit at where all these energetic little sprites went to, and how their lives have fared in the drastically different versions of China that have ensued since that time.
The athletes there (not just gymnasts, but weightlifters, volleyballers, etc.) go to school, and train. Go to school and train. It is serious business. They often live there full time, no matter how young.
I’ve covered many other topics in Beijing, of course. You put your camera to your eye there, and pictures unfold. It is a vibrant place, and much of the life of the city is on view, in the streets, as shops spill their wares out onto the sidewalks and people negotiate their own lives in the midst of so many others. A big change of course is that it is now a city of cars, whereas at one point, it was a simpler, cleaner, quieter city of bicycles.
I’ve had a window on different worlds there, which has been an education. I have often witnessed the world of fashion, which is amazing and vibrant. I’ve covered the elegant creations of legendary designers, set in historic and astonishing environments.
And I’ve shot the efforts of young women aspiring to be part of the industry. There are schools in Beijing designed to train models, for instance, and like many things in China, the standards are exacting. It took some negotiation but I managed to witness the weekly weight check! These ladies are monitored for weight stability and results and measurements are marked on a chart.
And of course, the world of dance. Chinese ballet is sublime, rigorous and beautiful.
In between assignments, you are never without your camera in Beijing. There’s just too much in the way of richness and difference to be caught off guard. The moments there are worthy of toting the rig and the glass. A smart phone just doesn’t cut it.
It is a city that is stunningly new, and at the same time, ancient beyond western measure. Last year, I shot several Chinese masters, older gentlemen who have practiced certain types of artistry for many years. In the rush of modernity, the Chinese struggle to maintain traditions, such as jade carving, pottery and the beauty of their style of opera.
To write something like “It is a city of great contrasts, of highs and lows, of etc. etc.” is travelogue. It sounds like a TV reporter on camera, engineering a two minute sound bite. Honestly, this city is unknowable to eyes like mine. I have made stabs at some pictures to be sure, but have always come up on the short side of understanding and the long side of simply being astonished. It’s enough. I will never know it, though I truly enjoy the glimpses I’ve had of it, like a kid without a ticket watching the elephants dance at the circus through a peephole in the tent. I wander there, wide eyed, like a country kid in the big city for the first time.
It’s good. Feeling tilted and out of your depth with a camera is excellent. It fuels your curiosity, and a curious mind is the best lens you can have in your bag.
Thanks for this, Joe. I’ve been living in Beijing for going on seven years now, and to be honest, the grind of this great city has worn me down. Really needed this fresh perspective on the place I call home. Thanks for reminding me of the daily wonder.
“like a kid without a ticket watching the elephants dance at the circus through a peephole in the tent. I wander there, wide eyed, like a country kid in the big city for the first time.”
your words compliment your excellent photographs. chapeau
Travis Pacheco says
As much as I enjoy your photography, I come here just as much to read what you write. It’s so honest and humble, the antithesis of the majority of photography blogs. Thanks for your insight and your unique ability to observe humanity.
Dave Polaschek says
Thanks, Joe. This is the kind of thing that keeps me coming back to your site.
Loved that quote. ‘a curious mind is the best lens you can have in your bag’
Doug A. says
Another reminder as to why I follow this blog. You are truly a master story teller. I greatly appreciate you taking the time to share stories like this with your readers!
Eric Reichbaum says
Great piece Joe, and of course great photos. I found Beijing to be one of the most chaotic (in a good way) cities that I’ve ever been to. I’m anxious to get back.
You never cease to amaze. I’m speechless. So beautiful; the photos were taken with astute care. You are a technician and an artist.
Joe is a true artist, a renaissance man. His camera deftly handled like a surgeon’s scalpel, his writing ability commensurate with his photos. I hate to use the word jealous when envious is more correct, but the places you’ve been and what you take from them and share with us is simply amazing.
Bharat Pania says
It is nice to see china with your eye experience. Great.
Oh Mr Joe I know exactly what you mean and how you feel. Even though I have only been to China one time as a young woman back in 1983 with my very first ever SLR … those images continue to be my favorite and best of all my travels since … and I still remember and can “feel” my sense of awe of it like it was yesterday … and that everywhere I pointed my camera was golden. Would so love to return. Sigh.
Vanilla Gorilla says
Mr. Joe, I think you have the wonderful ability to see good in most, if not all the places you visit. While reading your words, I hear your voice (from all the on-line videos) full of excitement of being “on the go” making photos. Keep enjoying your work
Simon Fleming says
Great read & insight on a place that is certainly an unknown to many many of us.
The opening image of the eight young gymnasts, and especially the story behind obtaining that shot rings so true with me. A lot of my work that is paying the bills these days involves photographing young children – learning to be (even more of) a goose in order to connect and get the shot has become as valuable a tool as the lenses & camera bodies. It’s funny but I have learnt more about communicating with people in general dealing with these little ones than I have in many years of photographing adults…
Roy Dunn says
While an avid reader of your posts, I have never felt compelled to comment until now….
To my (perhaps simple) mind, your best yet.
Thanks for all you do.
We met once. I had more flashes than anyone else in the crowd….
John A. says
Sometimes I’m torn between what I enjoy better, your writing, or your pictures. It must be tough to be so good at both. Thanks for sharing this as I have always been the consummate arm chair traveler. 🙂
pete prestegaard says
Just beautiful Joe, but of course not unexpected coming from you! Keep that eye!
Chace Cai says
As a fan of you in China,I’ve learned much skills from your videos and blogs.Thank you so much for shareing so much knowledge to us. Best wishes to you, Joe~ And, welcome to China.
Wonderful writing and photos, Joe !!! I will depart in August on my 8th China trip ….