Snapshots on display offer startling images

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 July, 2010, 12:00am

You take a step back. You lean in close. You tilt your head and squint.

Such mild forms of calisthenics are in order for the photographs to divulge the full extent of their subtle visual clues and semantic nuances.

The pictorial at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum's 'City Flaneur: Social Documentary Photography' exhibition - 260 in all - are exquisite, insinuating works that convey layers of meaning beyond what meets the eye at a single cursory glance.

Spanning half a century since the 1950's, the exhibits chronicle Hong Kong's urban and social transformation through the eyes - and optic lenses - of the city's most accomplished photographers.

Some of the photographs on display portray the familiar in-brand new lights in a re-examination of Hong Kong's urban landscape with its quintessential qualities and quaint eccentricities.

'Megafauna' (2009), by Dick Chan Kwong-yuen, for one, depicts unsightly modern high-rises, towering over four-storey homes.

In their relentless burst o organic growth, the skyscrapers - shot from a bird's-eye view - hover over their surroundings with suffocating overbearance.

One of them, still under construction, sports giant billboards depicting a boy and a girl paddling their boats.

Such mega-portraits, whether commercial or political in message, impose their ideological will, for better or worse, on their environment like self-serving 'titans', the photographer explains in his notes.

Other snapshots on display offer startling, often revelatory images.

In 'Me on the Rooftop Scenery' (2008-2009), by Lai Lon-hin, shot in black and white, a single clothes hanger lies forlorn on a cement rooftop beside creeping stains of water.

In its subtle poignancy, the mundane yet striking image imparts an insidious melancholy in a visual style redolent of film noir.

It's an image with 'no antecedent. No consequence', the photographer explains. 'I just watch quietly, taking long deep draws on every cigarette that I light.'

The power of 'social documentary' photography lies in its ability to unravel meaning behind everyday images.

By combing the everyday manifestations of life for hidden or implied meaning, the photographer lends an intimate, often spiritual dimension to ordinary objects and the quotidian rituals of modern life. She projects her subconscious onto everyday scenarios.

Unconfined by the transience and conceptual limitations of daily photojournalism, social documentary photographers are free to experiment with the full palette of visual imagery.

Yet aesthetics are not an end in themselves, but rather serve as a conduit for semantic expression conveyed through visual metaphor.

Take 'Houjie' (2006), by Dustin Shum Wan-yat.

A throwaway image at first sight, the picture shows the empty stand of an open-air festival arena with its regimented rows of plastic green seats massing around a smattering of live trees clinging on to life in their cement boxes.

In bustling urban landscapes, the image implies nature - or rather, what little is left of it - has been reduced to synthetic recreations of casual feel-good greenery comprising little more than potted plants.

Social landscape photography at its best shows up our quirks, foibles, and inveterate shortcomings.

As Susan Sontag, the celebrated American essayist and intellectual, puts it in her 1990 book On Photography, 'the photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes'.