Photographing Glitz and Glamour in Shanghai, China

A carefully composed image exploring the often facile nature of fashion and celebrity.

While not making the list of my favorite cities in the world, Chinese cities do certainly have their attractions. I’ve been to Shanghai on two occasions. The first trip was as a guest speaker and trainer for Kodak Professional in, I think, 1995. That particular trip also included a presentation in Chengdu, a city I’ve visited many times.

Memories and Metamorphosis

My first trip to Chengdu was in 1988 where I met Shu Lan, one of my very best friends. My fondest memory of Shanghai, from that first trip, was an evening spent in the charming Jazz Club at the Peace Hotel. Situated just off the famous Bund, where you can promenade past stately European commercial buildings that harken back to the days of empire or turn you gaze across the Huangpu River towards Pudong and its futuristic views of modern China.

Explore the City on Foot

Sunset photography from the Bund is an opportunity well worth scheduling should you ever journey to this mega city. And when the sun has set prepare yourself for the short walk up Nanjing Road where the glitzy neon lights offer great opportunities for night photography.    

I travelled back to Shanghai in 2011 on route to the sublime beauty of Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) where I spent 3 days, in the middle of winter, hiking and photographing along the top of the group of mountains referred to as Huangshan.

A Safe Haven

During my 2011 China trip I returned to the Peace Hotel for an evening of nostalgia. The resident jazz band has played here since 1929 when the hotel first opened under the name the Cathay Hotel. Most of the band members have been together for decades and their average age is 75 plus. I see this very much as a metaphor for a safe haven in a time of turmoil.

Just think of the events spanning the early sixties to the early seventies. The USA had the following:

  • Kennedy brothers
  • Martin Luther King
  • Malcolm X
  • Race Riots
  • The Vietnam War (which is referred to as the America War in Vietnam)
  • The Sexual Revolution
  • Psychedelia
  • Nixon

A heady time, I'm sure you'll agree. But the sixties in China was no less eventful when you consider the following:

  • Mao Tse Tung (i.e., Mao Zedong)
  • The Gang of Four
  • The Cultural Revolution

A Day in the Life

Actually that day’s adventure started earlier with a sunset photography session from the Bund and lovely meal in a Western Resturant in the Peace Hotel. I even scored a table with a wonderful view across the Huangpu River. After dinner I made a few photos in the lobby prior to heading out to photograph the neon-lit Nanjing Road. After that I headed back to the Peace Hotel for another lovely evening in the Jazz Bar. What a perfect day!

Deconstructing A Photo

The above photo was an interesting one to make. I wanted to make a compositionally interesting photo that explored the exotic and changing nature of the East. I think the sickly colors of the artificial lighting was perfectly inline with my intentions. But while China is known for its often turbulent history and, more recently, for its modern meteoric economic rise, spirituality, literature and health are also essential elements in its culture.

The circular shape in the foreground does suggest infinity. It also reminded me of the power of opposites so eloquently depicted in the Yin Yang symbol. To be able to explore what I see as the often facile nature of fashion and celebrity I wanted an alternative to balance it with. A common theme throughout my work is duality (i.e., opposites) which is probably why I find the Yin Yang symbol so compelling.

By focusing carefully on the foreground structure and using a shallow depth of field I was able to separate it from the picture in the background. This helps provide the impression that the girls, and their lifestyle, is beyond the reach of many of us. That is, of course, unless you purchase the same make up or perfume they’re wearing.

I mentioned that composition was an important element in this photo. Can you see how careful positioning of the camera has allowed me to include the models eyes. I’ve used the structure to create frames within frames, an important element in composition. Likewise I’ve used the structure to introduce an element of tension as it frames the mouth of one of the models and bisects the mouth of the other.

Notice to how the pink/red of their lips and the above signage is connected with each other and contrasts with the cool green/blue colored light illuminating the picture of the models. Talk about sweet and sour!   

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru