In his search for Asia’s most striking urban landscapes, French photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze began in Tokyo, Asia’s largest city. He felt sure no other city could top it – that is, until he set foot in Hong Kong’s Jordan district a decade ago.
“The city looked even more developed and futuristic than Tokyo,” says the 32-year-old, who has since made Hong Kong his permanent home. “I was so impressed and overwhelmed by the density and height of skyscrapers that I started taking photos to share with family and friends.”
Young Post sat down with Jacquet-Lagrèze at the Blue Lotus Gallery in Sheung Wan, where his latest exhibition, City Poetry, is on display. We discussed the new series, and the photo that inspired a generation of Instagrammers.
When Jacquet-Lagrèze first took a vertical snap of Montane Mansion, a residential complex in Quarry Bay, it was not yet the Instagram hotspot it is today.
“I didn’t even have a tripod with me at the time – I just left my camera on the ground and pointed it straight up,” he says.
Soon, visitors were flocking to the district to recreate the Frenchman’s iconic image. “A lot of people have seen that photo, and I was quite naive at the time and gave out the location in interviews– even [the 2014 film] Transformers shot some scenes in the exact same spot,” he laughs. “In retrospect, I shouldn’t have made it that easy for others to copy, because they will.”
Jacquet-Lagrèze has since moved on to a new project. He started capturing streets signs around the city a year and a half ago; the result is City Poetry, a collection of street signs grouped together to make Chinese idioms, or chengyu.
“I was intrigued by the characters in handmade street signs,” he says. “You can see the style of the calligrapher in these characters, which are most likely sculpted by hand; and for neon signs, you’ll need a master to bend the hand blown glass.”
Photographing street signs is more challenging than you might think.
“I wanted the characters to look similar, so I used a very long lens as it helps to ‘flatten’ the objects,” explains Jacquet-Lagrèze.
“Some signs were higher up, so I had to go all the way across the street to be at the same level as the signs so as to not distort the images,” he says. “I once had to take one in the middle of the street; I waited for cars to pass and quickly put my tripod in the middle of the road and snapped a shot.
“Neon signs are the most difficult to capture,” he adds. “Your camera needs to be perfectly stable; even just the wind or vibration caused by traffic makes your photos blurry.
Fascinated as he was by the signs, the photographer found the traditional Chinese characters very difficult to learn.
“Before I started this project [City Poetry], I knew fewer than 20 Chinese characters,” he admits. Luckily, with the help of his wife – a linguist and native Hongkonger – he was able to understand what they mean.
“The goal was to not just photograph beautiful signs, but to make art out of them,” he explains. “So I came up with the idea of combining characters from different signs to give them meaning.”
For some of his pieces, Jacquet-Lagrèze already had an idea of what he wanted to create. For others, he would start with an image, and work with his wife to decide what other characters he could combine it with.
“For ‘香港文化’ – which means ‘Hong Kong Culture’, I started with a photo of the third character ‘文’,” the Parisian explains. “After taking the photo, I imagined what I could create with it. The faded colours and the way the first two characters are peeling away mirrors what has happened to the spirit and culture of Hong Kong over the past decade.”
Jacquet-Lagrèze fears the essence of Hong Kong, which he has dedicated his life to capturing, may be slipping away.
“More schools are teaching Mandarin in classes, and perhaps one day, simplified characters will replace traditional ones,” he says. “But traditional characters are meaningful … It’s important to preserve them.”