Language of light
Photographer Greg Girard brings together remarkable images of Asia and Canada
By Beverly Cramp
"Commercial Rooftops #1"
Greg Girard, "Commercial Rooftops #1," Richmond, 2014, archival pigment print, 40” x 50”.
It’s dusk outside as Greg Girard discusses photography techniques in the café at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He describes how a camera would capture the bright orange ceiling in the incandescent glow of the dining area, in contrast to the cooler fluorescent light pouring in from the door to the kitchen.
“Film was made to reproduce daylight, so night pictures were going to look a little unnatural,” says Girard, known for fascinating images of social and physical transformations in Shanghai, Tokyo and Hong Kong. “In daylight film, this ceiling is going to be quite yellow and the kitchen is going to be green. You can predict a bit, but there is always going to be a surprise because you can’t predict exactly. And there’s that thrill of seeing something a little unexpected.”
It’s a favourite time of day for Girard, who spent three decades in Asia before returning to Vancouver in 2011. His work, mostly done with film, typically explores the possibilities of dark light. He rarely adds his own lighting to the mix, preferring to work with ambient conditions, whether natural or artificial.
"West Side Street (with Overhead Pipes)"
Greg Girard, "West Side Street (with Overhead Pipes)," Kowloon Walled City, 1990, archival pigment print, 24” x 16”.
Girard’s upcoming show at the Richmond Art Gallery includes recent images of Richmond, where many immigrants from China have settled in recent years, as well as older work that documents the Kowloon district of Hong Kong, including its Walled City, a densely populated community in what was originally a Chinese military fort.
“Kowloon is a lesser-known part of Hong Kong,” says Girard. “Richmond, like Kowloon, is a lesser-known part of a greater conurbation. They’re both cities within cities. And Richmond has a high-rise vertical look, like much of Hong Kong. Richmond is moving to that model, and the way that Hong Kong combines transit and residential and commercial activities.”
In essence, the show, which runs April 18 to June 29, is an opportunity for Girard to bring together his two worlds.
He has published a number of books based on his time in Asia, including City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City, which pictures people in tiny rooms, businesses and alleys, always with an interesting use of light. The Walled City, a largely unregulated enclave jammed with some 300 highrises, was home to more than 30,000 people. A cordoned-off area that belonged to China inside British-run Hong Kong, it was “the result of a wrinkle in history” and had a tough reputation, says Girard.
“It was a den of iniquity, drugs and prostitution – the kind of place that parents tell their kids: ‘Don’t go there.’ I discovered it wasn’t such a bad place. It was like going into a maze and easy to get lost in. Pipes and cabling ran overhead in the narrow laneways linking the buildings. Places were built up against each other. Factories were side by side with residences and commercial outlets. There were no laws governing health and safety. It was where new immigrants who had little to nothing could get a toehold. It offered cheap rent with trade-offs – no windows, no air and no light.”
"House on Huashan Lu, North View from Phantom Shangai"
Greg Girard, "House on Huashan Lu, North View from Phantom Shangai," 2006, chromogenic print, 72” x 84”.
Girard photographed the Walled City from 1986 until 1992, when the demolition process began. His book has been reprinted 11 times since 1993 and is a favourite with architecture students and film buffs interested in set design. Girard recently released a related book called City of Darkness Revisited.
Girard’s other books include In the Near Distance, which presents images from his early travels, and Hanoi Calling: One Thousand Years Now, a project to mark the city’s millennium. Phantom Shanghai, which looks at that city’s fast-paced growth, was named one of the top 10 photography books of all time by Britain’s The Independent newspaper. Futurist William Gibson, who coined the term cyberspace, contributed the foreword. He noted how Shanghai is destroying its own history in its bid to redevelop. “It’s almost more than I can bear to contemplate, though the images themselves are so gorgeous, so extraordinary, that of course, I look and look,” he writes.
Girard began taking pictures as a teenager in Burnaby, B.C. Inspired by a high school teacher, he read photo magazines that published work by American legends such as Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.
“I started going downtown on weekends when I was 16,” he recalls. “I would check into a hotel, places that are now SROs (single rooms only) but were cheap hotels then. It was like $3.75 a night. I was too young to go to bars and I would walk around the streets and go into cafés. I would try to take pictures of people in their rooms. Often they let me because I was just a kid and so unthreatening.”
Girard was drawn to the unusual qualities of the people and places. “It was interesting to me at the time, otherworldly. It was like going back in time. These places were stuck in the ’40s and ’50s – the pool halls and the way people dressed. Chinatown was very alive, restaurants open until 4 a.m. And there was lots of great neon, of course.”
Girard sometimes shot on colour slide film to capture more detail. Even then he was interested in how film registered artificial light. “A darker sky helps as a backdrop to things,” he says. “My skies are usually never black, they’re usually the colour of the last bit of daylight, or the city’s luminescence reflecting off the clouds.”
Meanwhile, Girard was reading novels by Britain’s Graham Greene and American writer Paul Bowles, feeding his interest in other cultures and historical eras. Greene’s anti-war novel, The Quiet American, made a deep impression. “It reflected American hubris in the post-World War II world,” he says. “Greene had seen his country’s star fade, and America’s was on the rise. The setting was a backdrop to world events that, for some reason, appealed to me. And also the way Greene created a work of art from what he was observing.”
Bowles’ detached attitude while observing himself and people in his milieu also intrigued Girard. “The characters in his novels were these foreigners who believed their foreignness was going to protect them. Of course, it doesn’t. You get swallowed up by a place and, sometimes, spat out. Also, I liked that darkness he portrayed behind the jolly times.”
When his friends went backpacking in Europe, 18-year old Girard took a freighter to Hong Kong. “I was contrarian, even then,” he says. “I took a suitcase.”
While driving taxi in Vancouver to earn money for more travels, he met an art student making espresso in a café. It was Roy Arden, later to become one of the city’s renowned photo-conceptualists. “I used to stop in his café to have dinner. Roy started talking to me when the place was half empty one night and we became friends. That’s how I met him and we started hanging out.”
Girard moved to Hong Kong in 1983, and Shanghai in 1998. He fell into photojournalism as a day job, picking up assignments for Time, Newsweek and National Geographic. Eventually, Arden introduced him to Monte Clark. It was a pivotal moment. Girard has shown at Clark’s gallery since 2005, and his images are now in the collections of the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
It was the consistent quality of Girard’s images that first caught Clark’s eye. “It is extremely sophisticated work” says Clark. “His images are not digitally manipulated. You really need to know the language of the camera to do that.”