I crouched at the edge of Mai Xuan Thuong Park shooting photo after photo of the traffic streaming past. It was six in the morning, and traffic was still pretty light. Hanoi gets rolling at seven, right after the playing of the national anthem at Ho Chi Minh square. Before seven, people dance, play volleyball or badminton, or do calisthenics en masse in squares around the city.
Years ago, when living in Washington, DC, continually amazed by the clogged highways and streets, I’d read about a study of traffic motion and ways to ease the chaos. The authors described roadways as pipes, and traffic as water, with cars playing the role of water molecules. Because roadways are built with nothing to create micro-turbulence, what you end up with is actual turbulence, or traffic jams. With this design for perfectly smooth flow, one molecule (or vehicle) behaving erratically, bouncing off its surrounding molecules, creates chaos.In this metaphor, the cars don’t necessarily have to collide with each other, but if the personal bubble of one car impacts the personal bubble of another car, by cutting into a smaller space than is expected, or by slowing down or speeding up in a surprising manner, the nearby affected cars will slow, causing the cars behind them to slow a little more, and the cars behind them more than that, and so on. The event that causes the back up often occurs hours before the critical mass of vehicles arrives on the scene. In other words, your rush hour traffic jam results from someone swerving into the personal space of someone else at two in the afternoon. The study further found that the affected vehicle didn’t actually have to slow, just the appearance of brake lights from a quick tap is enough to cause the following cars to tap their brakes a little harder, which causes the cars behind them to perceptibly slow, and now it’s six pm, and your twenty-mile commute is an hour long.
The solution proposed was micro turbulences. A shark’s skin isn’t perfectly smooth, which creates an almost imperceptible space of chaotically moving water, around which the rest of the water is extremely hydrodynamic, allowing the shark a slight edge in speed, so it gets to prey just fast enough to be evolutionarily valuable. As sharks are one of the oldest known life forms, who can argue with their success? If traffic had minor hindrances, the argument went, it would flow overall more smoothly than it does, probably even close to the speed limit.My morning with Hanoi traffic was meant to capture that sense of traffic as water. I treated the city and roads like a landscape with a brook or a river running through it.
When you look at a photo of the ocean or a waterfall, usually in black and white, where the water looks like cotton batting or gauze or fog, and the rocks, trees, piers, and lighthouses are solid and normal looking, it’s a safe bet the photographer has used a neutral density filter. A neutral density (or ND, in our acronym-loving society) filter is a perfectly colorless, translucent gray filter that blocks a significant amount of light. Some are so dark that bright daylight can become night to your camera. It can take what would normally be a one-second exposure (which is itself a fairly long exposure) and make it minutes long. It creates a radically different style of photography from normal photography, which is made in tenths or hundredths of a second. It’s similar to the difference between a four-hundred-meter sprint and a hundred-kilometer ultramarathon.
I didn’t have a neutral density filter, and I needed long exposures to turn the cars, buses, and scooters to ghostly streaks, so I had to shoot before the sun was fully up and bright. Another option would have been to work on the project in the evening, when the traffic is heavier, and rather than the world getting lighter as Earth spins it gets darker, but that would mean missing dinner with my wife and friends, and peace in the marriage is more important than most photos (and allows me the freedom to do a lot of my work).
Some photographs are made singly. They appear in the mind fully formed, what Ansel Adams called previsualization, and can happen in the studio or in the world. The photographer sees a scene in the world and knows exactly what is needed to bring that vision to life, or in the studio she builds the scene from models, toys and sets, or fruit and flowers, or works with people to make such a thing happen. The previsualization may happen in an instant, making use of the millions of images that constantly bubble up in the mind, the memories or fantasies that lurk in the corners, waiting for their moment to shine. It may also be a slower process, with memories and fantasies pushing themselves gradually into the forebrain, starting as a piece of grit, niggling at the artist, who works the idea over and over, until it becomes a pearl of obsession that demands to be made real.
Very little of Adams’ work is of the instantaneous sort. He would go back to a place many times over, sometimes making a few dozen exposures, one large sheet of film at a time, until the view matched his vision. One of his most dramatic photos, though, is “Moonrise, Hernandez,” a picture of a sort he’d been looking to make, but knew the conditions had to be exact. As he drove across New Mexico, he saw the moon rising above the village of Hernandez and knew in an instant he needed to stop and shoot. The village was tinged by the last glow of the setting sun; mountains on the horizon caught a few rays of sunlight, and the clouds were bright against a darkening sky. His camera was an 8×10 monster, wherein the sheet of film he used was the size of your high school portrait hanging in your parents’ living room, and required a lot of set-up time, careful framing, inserting one sheet of film into the camera, and opening the shutter. Most of the time such a camera requires several minutes to set up, but Adams knew he had very little time from the moment he saw the moon and village before the light went bad. He leaped out of the station wagon, got his camera and tripod together, and yelled to his assistant to get other necessary equipment ready as he framed up the picture. He didn’t have time to wait for the light meter, made an exposure estimate based on decades of experience, and shot his one frame. By the time he was ready, three seconds later, to make a second, back-up negative, the light was gone. Night had come; Hernandez was fully dark, and the mountains looked dull against graying clouds.
Adams would have liked to make a second sheet, because he knew that with his estimated, rather than measured, exposure, the negative wasn’t going to be perfect, making it difficult to work with in the darkroom. He had built his exposure time around the brightness of the moon, consequently Hernandez was dark, with little detail in the negative to make it stand out. He called “Moonrise” one of his most challenging negatives to print.
My traffic photos were definitely not made singly. Starting from the corner of Hung Vuong, where Hoang Hoa Tham becomes Phan Dinh Phung, I made dozens of exposures of cars, scooters and buses heading through the intersection into a tree tunnel on Phan Dinh Phung. I was not at all certain that what I’d find in processing was what I’d been looking for.
I moved back and forth in this area, for about 20 minutes, until a guy across the street in a military-looking uniform yelled at me to stop taking photos. He started out in Vietnamese. Besides “pho” the only word I know is “cam on,” which is a version of “thank you,” and I’m sure I slaughter its pronunciation every time I try. I’d love to live there for a few years, because I think it’s a beautiful, liquid-sounding language, which shares some characteristics with the sound of Chinese in the variety of its tonal inflections (what we often call “sing-song”), but is distinctly its own. I pretended not to understand what he was yelling, but after years of getting yelled at, threatened with arrest, and once kidnaped,in dictatorial regimes, I can pretty easily tell when militarially turned out guys with batons or Kalashnikovs are telling me to put away the camera. After yelling at me beautifully for a few sentences, the guard shouted in English, “No photoooooo…” where the final “o” became a long tonal inflection.
I moved across the park, dodging a badminton game that had broken out, to a very busy intersection where traffic coming down Thanh Nien, a causeway across Ho Tay (West Lake) meets Thuy Khue, Quan Thanh, and Hung Vuong streets along the northern edge of Mai Xuan Thuong Park. I tried several angles and points of view, hoping that though the rainy sky was relatively bright, and my exposures were far shorter than I wanted, down to about a half-second, there would be gold in all the mud I collected. I spent a little over an hour and made nearly 550 exposures at my several shooting locations. The panning for gold would turn out to be a long, laborious process.
Certain that shooting more would only lead to an even longer, more boring editing session, I headed for one of the streetside pho cafes for breakfast. These shops have three or four long, low tables, and stools that force the sitter to mimic Asian crouching. It’s diffi-cult to get used to, but the payoff is pho, my deserted island food. As a reasonably large American man, I take up a tremendous amount of space in Asia, and I’m always painfully aware of that. With a camera bag and tripod, it was like parking a full-sized SUV in a compact-car parking space. My own need to be unobtrusive was severely tested, but I sat next to a wall, so I could keep my gear as much out of the way as possible.
One of the best things about being from a country that’s unabashedly a nation of immigrants is that American food is the food of the world. Though for most Americans of European heritage the diet’s base is in solid English and Germanic foods, with a lot of meat, root vegetables, and grains, even those of us who grow up in small towns have favorite Mexican, Chinese, and Italian dishes. City children also get Japanese, Greek, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indian food, and if you’re from the right city or suburbs, you might have fond memories of Ethiopian, Korean, Moroccan, Lebanese, or Afghan dishes from childhood. We are gradually getting broader in our representations of national cuisines, but often, especially at the small town restaurants, just a few dishes make it to the regular repertoire, and our Mexican food is Tex-Mex heavy with enchiladas, tacos, fajitas, and chiles rellenos. An Italian food list would include a wide range of pasta dishes, pizza, tiramisu, and … um … chicken parmagiano. The American pho experience is very much like that. We’ve latched onto one region’s style, and don’t appear to have another.Vietnam has three distinct pho regions, with some features consistent across the country, but very different finishes. It starts as beef broth infused with ginger, garlic, cinnamon, anise seed, and cloves. The spices in the broth are distinct, but usually not overwhelming. The bowl is filled with rice vermicelli, thinly sliced onions, and pieces of beef from a range of options including meatballs, tripe, tendon, well-cooked beef slices, or thin slices of raw beef. As the steaming broth pours into the bowl, it poaches the raw beef, and in the twenty seconds it takes to get the bowl from the cook to the table, the raw meat cooks to medium, and by the time one starts to eat, it’s fully cooked, but deliciously tender. Plates of bean sprouts and basil always come to the table for the customer to add for his own particular balance of crunch and slightly bitter mintiness. The primary regional differences show up in condiment usage.
In the north, around Hanoi, condiments are spicy, though not unremittingly so. At your table you’ll find jars of pickled garlic, pickled hot peppers, raw Thai chilis, and pepper sauces. On arrival at the table, the bowl of soup has a fairly mild spiciness, and it doesn’t take much pepper sauce, or pickled pepper, to get it to very spicy. My wife likes her food very lightly spicy, while I like my tongue to go a little numb, and sweat to break out. She doesn’t add any pepper to the pho, whereas I’ll use several slices of the pickled garlic for their bitter bite, and add a small spoon of pepper paste to the bowl. I have watched locals add six, seven, eight, nine spoons of the paste. I would probably contract a terminal case of hiccups if I did that, and I certainly wouldn’t enjoy the taste of the food.
Central Vietnam, in the Hue region, serves a hot and sour variation. They rely a lot on limes and peppers for the flavor. I have not yet experienced their pho, but I look forward to eventually going to that part of the country.
I’m told that Saigon, in the south, officially called Ho Chi Minh City after the communist dictator, but still known amongst the Vietnamese by its original name, serves the spicy-sweet pho that we know in the US. The broth itself is made with the addition of rock sugar, which lends a surprising unctuousness to the soup in addition to sweetness; the basil and sprouts come with lime wedges and raw pepper slices; a bottle of thick, sweet, brown hoisin sauce nestles amongst the collection of pepper sauces, and there’s no pickled garlic on the table. I add a little squirt of sriracha, or a small spoon of pickled red pepper paste, a larger squirt, about a tablespoon, of hoisin, a squeeze of lime (and after squeezing it, I drop the lime wedge in to the bowl, to get a slight spike of bitterness from the oils in the peel), and one or two slices of jalapeno. I have found after years of eating my pho in this manner that the jalapeno slices make for an interesting dining experience. At the top, the soup has a mild spiciness, but as I get deeper and deeper into the bowl, the jalapenos make it increasingly bitter and burningly spicy. If I add jalapenos, I probably won’t finish the bowl, because the last few slurps of broth are so painful that I lose all sense of pleasure.
I ordered my bowl of Hanoi pho with all the meat options, which in this shop was meatballs, precooked beef, and raw beef, along with a few deep-fried bread sticks. I doctored it up with some pepper paste and garlic. As I ate, I thought about my morning’s photography and other ideas I could explore. I wasn’t satisfied that I had captured the feeling I was going for, and I looked forward to seeing what photos I had, and trying to learn from them. Throughout the trip, whenever my wife and friends were shopping, or looking in at stores, I’d set up my tripod and make a few dozen frames of traffic passing by.
Later, when I uploaded the pictures to my laptop and started editing them, I found a several that had a general look that I liked, but I couldn’t push them into the image I had in mind. My exposures were far too short and only captured light streaks from a few cars each. I needed film and neutral density filters, so I could make exposures of five to ten minutes. The thirty-second exposures left too much detail too clear.
Amongst the advantages analog photography has over digital is in the realm of hyperlong exposures. There are two reasons such photography can’t be done digitally. The first is that the analog nature of film and photo paper is such that they have a great deal of tolerance for overexposure, and will nearly always have at least a little detail that can be brought out by a careful, experienced darkroom printer. The grains of silver that make up the exposedsurface always hold a bit of their distinction. Digital sensors, however, are made up of pixels, which can be metaphorically viewed as rows and columns of buckets, each capable of holding 255 units of light. Once the buckets are full, the light is pure white, with no details to recover, and as larger areas are filled the white becomes a solid mass, like looking at a field of snow at noon on a sunny day. Secondly, digital photography being an electronic process, electrons continually skitter across the sensor leaving their marks. In exposures up to about a minute, it’s virtually unnoticeable, but as exposures get longer and longer, the marks become increasingly apparent, showing up as spots of light in dark areas, which we call noise. The longer the exposure, the more visible the noise, like static in a radio or TV broadcast, and it’s nearly impossible to get rid of.
Over the next year or so, I struggled with the pictures, trying to find ways to make them work for me, and they just didn’t. I tried various contrast adjustments, conversions to black & white, darkening and brightening various areas of the frames, and nothing came together.
I stopped working on them, and turned to other pursuits. I had a book about Hungarian wine making to write and layout, an exhibition to assemble, and other photography projects to work on. In turning away, though, I didn’t forget. The idea remained at the corners of my mind, and unlike other projects I’ve started, put away, and long forgotten, this one stayed with me. Every time I dove into the photos from that trip, which included visits to Ha Long Bay, Siem Reap, and Bangkok, where I had shot more straightforward photos that had worked out, I’d see mytraffic pictures. Sometimes I’d get distracted from the photo of a boulder on a beach that looked like the Ephel Dúath that run along the western edge of Mordor in Lord of the Rings (Frodo and Sam crossed them through the tunnel into Shelob’s lair), and try to make the traffic come alive again, and at other times, I’d just look wistfully at the naive idea and patronizingly tousle the hair of my inner youth.
Somewhere in the midst of this, I learned about Matt Malloy, a photographer who had developed a technique for making crazy looking streaks of clouds and other motion, using an interesting layering and blending technique in Photoshop. They were beautiful, and outrageously weird. Alien skies loomed out of his clouds.
It’s interesting to see which techniques, in any endeavor, come easily, and which take years of struggle, or never come to fruition at all. The concept of depth of field, which a lot of beginning photographers struggle with, came easily to me as soon as I learned about it. Essentially, shutter speed and lens aperture work in tandem to allow light to reach the film or sensor. When the lens aperture is wide, the shutter speed is fast, because a lot of light pours in through the lens. When the aperture is narrow, the shutter speed is slow, because much less light trickles in. One of the very interesting things about light rays is that when they come in through a wide-open aperture, they’re very unfocused, and the layers of glass in the lens do all the work of providing focus. The only thing that’s sharp is the exact point that the photographer has designated as the focal point. The narrower the aperture gets, though, the more of the scene that’s naturally focused by the aperture. The early literalist photographers, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and a few others, used the smallest aperture available to them, f/64, where the aperture is 1/64 as wide as the lens is long, and in so doing, everything from less than a meter away to the edge of the universe, or at least the mountain range across the wide valley, is in focus. It’s a beautiful property of physics, and I understood the concept as soon as I read about it and played with it once. However, I’ve taught a lot of amateur photographers, and this is one point that causes many to have fits of incomprehension.
On the other hand, there’s the HDR technique in digital photography, where the photographer layers together several exposures of one scene. The framing, composition, and lens aperture are identical, but the shutter speed is different in each image. At one extreme, everything is washed out, so detail in the darkest part of the scene is visible, and at the other extreme, everything is dark, so detail in the brightest part of the scene is visible. The idea behind HDR is that by layering together these exposures, the range of visible light in a photo mimics that of the human eye. I have read books on the technique, studied on-line tutorials, practiced, practiced, practiced, and I cannot consistently make photos I like. It’s frustrating not to be able to do that, because it’s incredibly useful when doing photography of a deep forest with a bright sky, or indeed any other scene where the dark is very dark, and the light is very bright.
The new layering and blending technique was like HDR for me: I couldn’t get a picture I liked out of it, and I couldn’t understand it. I tried to get the strange clouds on a set of night pictures I’d shot a few years before, and nothing came of it. I followed directions as exactly as I could, and earned only frustration for my efforts. So I stopped, as any sane person would, and left the technique to others who better understand how to make it work.
One morning, more than two years after shooting my traffic pictures, I woke up thinking about them, and realized that the answer was obvious, and existed right there in the layer blending modes in the software. All I had to do was stack all the exposures together, and play with the various layer blends until I found the key. The idea was that the streaks of light would each be visible. Rather than trying to make them appear as one stream of light, I’d make them appear as dozens, hundreds of streaks of light, and in doing that, they would trick the eye into seeing them as one stream, or they would make something completely new, which might be even better.
I was both excited and embarrassed. I went back and reread the tutorial on Malloy’s alien sky blending technique, and realized that what I’d woken up thinking about was exactly what I had read about and couldn’t make work before. Embarrassing. But at the same time, I get a new tool!
When you look at a river, where’s the interesting part? It’s in the waterfall, or the rapids, where boulders and trees and logs break up the flow of water and make it tumble over itself, fight with itself. I needed to do that with my streaks of light.
The idea worked, almost immediately. The largest set was 150 frames, or 1.2 gb of data, and it takes a long time to get all those pictures loaded into the software – I can start the process working, make some coffee, read my email, play a few minutes of a video game, and finally work on the layers. Once I have the layers blended correctly, it takes several more minutes to flatten the image, so all the layers become one 40 mb file.
It works so well that I know I’m going to use it again. I’ll look for trees in the wind, rivers and streams, and anything else that moves, and make more of these stacks of streaks. The satisfaction of finding a great technique like this runs deep. It has reinvigorated my love of photography, after a long lull, in which I’d begun to fear I’d lost all desire for making art.
Thanks for following this experiment in long-form photo essays. I have another one in the hopper, an exploration of religious buildings from many places and times. It took me months to write this one, but I’m hoping that with practice, the next won’t take so long.