Pixel power

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 February, 2007, 12:00am

DAVID CLARKE had intended to use his new digital camera only to help him with his university work. A photographer and professor of Fine Arts at the University of Hong Kong, he says the thought of digital cameras and colour images didn't push his creative buttons. That was, until he started using his Panasonic Lumix.

'It all happened by chance,' Clarke says. 'I'd bought the camera for what I thought would be documentation and so on. I thought I hated digital. But, when I started using it, I found it captivated me and I changed my mind overnight about digital cameras and colour photographs.'

He says it was a turning point in his approach to photography. Until then, when taking black and white photos - such as for his installation 1968/2002 - he'd always had to think about the colours and how they would appear monochromatically. But when he started using the digital camera, that was no longer true, forcing him to change tack.

'I lost my centre of gravity and in the process had to find a new stability,' Clarke says. 'It helped mark a new beginning in that I wanted to go back to places and see how things looked different in colour.'

The results of his conversion are on show in his latest exhibition, A Year in the Life of a City, a collection of 60 photos taken between October 2004 and October 2005. The show coincides with the launch of his latest book, Hong Kong x 24 x 365, which features the images.

Originally, there were 9,000 photographs to choose from, because Clarke found that using a digital camera encouraged him to fire off a few shots to get a feel for his subjects. Black and white, on the other hand, was more restrictive because it was more expensive.

The exhibition is an eclectic journey through Hong Kong, with some shots of still objects, others of people moving, and many from intriguing angles to breathe fresh life into familiar scenes. Photos taken from vehicles add visual interest, and the collection also contrasts those taken at night with those shot during the day.

'I like shooting at night,' says Clarke, who teaches modern and contemporary art history and theory. 'I have more time to wander around and I like the mood.'

In one night-time shot, of a building adjoining the Tamar site at Admiralty, the structure's glowing hues of red, purple and green reverberate against the inky blackness of the background. The exposure is long, so there's a slight blurring of lines. There's also a shaky aesthetic due to a little camera movement (Clarke prefers not to use tripods), which he likes for its brush-like quality.

An image of the Bank of China Tower rearing up through heavy mist is as haunting as it is alluring. Although the casual observer may think the image represents Beijing's tightening grip on the city, Clarke says: 'Losing it in mist is like taking away some power of that influence.'

It's clear that, 20 years after arriving in Hong Kong from London, the city still holds Clarke in thrall. Being a long-term resident yet not locally born gives him an unusual viewpoint. 'I'm not quite an insider, in the sense that you can never be,' he says. 'But, in another sense, I'm not an outsider, either.'

As a result, he strives to move beyond cliched images. 'I don't like all the commercial stuff of Hong Kong. I want interest in the image, but I don't want it full of suppressed glamour.'

He could be referring to a shot inside Pacific Place that's disorientating yet beguiling, because it juxtaposes mirrors at odd angles. Although the image arguably has a commercial flavour, what's memorable is how the shot has been assembled.

Humour is in evidence, such as in the image of a girl taking part in the June 1 2005 rally. The girl holds a huge green bow-tie in front of her - a reference to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's sartorial preferences - but more eye-catching is the way in which she's cheekily sticking out her tongue out.

What does Clarke have on his walls at home? 'I don't have any photographs,' he says. 'I don't collect art either - probably because I write about it. What I do like are the Vermeers of this world, but I take those images around in my head.'

A Year in the Life of a City, David Clarke, University Museum and Art Gallery, Hong Kong University, 54 Bonham Rd, Mon-Sat, 9.30am-6pm; Sun, 1.30pm-5.30pm (closed March 16 and public holidays), free.

Inquiries: 2241 5500. Ends Mar 18