Returning to Beijing this week, one of the more resolutely fascinating cities I have ever been to. Been there many times, though it is far too large, too energetic, and too rapidly tilting and shifting for me to claim to know it well. Like a runway fashion model who quickly strips off behind the curtains and then reappears onstage in a blink as a totally different creation, Beijing is continuously surprising. I am fortunate to have great clients there, and they have assigned me to many a wonderful wander with a camera.
Shot the above in 1987 at ShiChaHai, the legendary birthplace of many an excellent Chinese gymnast, and there have been lots of them. I got these laughs by leaving my camera on a tripod, and running a cable to my fingers, and then duckwalking back and forth, tongue out of my mouth, eyeballs popped. Mr. Goofy takes a picture. I look now and wonder a bit at where all these energetic little sprites went to, and how their lives have fared in the drastically different versions of China that have ensued since that time.
The athletes there (not just gymnasts, but weightlifters, volleyballers, etc.) go to school, and train. Go to school and train. It is serious business. They often live there full time, no matter how young.
I’ve covered many other topics in Beijing, of course. You put your camera to your eye there, and pictures unfold. It is a vibrant place, and much of the life of the city is on view, in the streets, as shops spill their wares out onto the sidewalks and people negotiate their own lives in the midst of so many others. A big change of course is that it is now a city of cars, whereas at one point, it was a simpler, cleaner, quieter city of bicycles.
I’ve had a window on different worlds there, which has been an education. I have often witnessed the world of fashion, which is amazing and vibrant. I’ve covered the elegant creations of legendary designers, set in historic and astonishing environments.
And I’ve shot the efforts of young women aspiring to be part of the industry. There are schools in Beijing designed to train models, for instance, and like many things in China, the standards are exacting. It took some negotiation but I managed to witness the weekly weight check! These ladies are monitored for weight stability and results and measurements are marked on a chart.
And of course, the world of dance. Chinese ballet is sublime, rigorous and beautiful.
In between assignments, you are never without your camera in Beijing. There’s just too much in the way of richness and difference to be caught off guard. The moments there are worthy of toting the rig and the glass. A smart phone just doesn’t cut it.
It is a city that is stunningly new, and at the same time, ancient beyond western measure. Last year, I shot several Chinese masters, older gentlemen who have practiced certain types of artistry for many years. In the rush of modernity, the Chinese struggle to maintain traditions, such as jade carving, pottery and the beauty of their style of opera.
To write something like “It is a city of great contrasts, of highs and lows, of etc. etc.” is travelogue. It sounds like a TV reporter on camera, engineering a two minute sound bite. Honestly, this city is unknowable to eyes like mine. I have made stabs at some pictures to be sure, but have always come up on the short side of understanding and the long side of simply being astonished. It’s enough. I will never know it, though I truly enjoy the glimpses I’ve had of it, like a kid without a ticket watching the elephants dance at the circus through a peephole in the tent. I wander there, wide eyed, like a country kid in the big city for the first time.
It’s good. Feeling tilted and out of your depth with a camera is excellent. It fuels your curiosity, and a curious mind is the best lens you can have in your bag.