Tag Archives: photographs

The Beauty of Lillian Bassman

I hadn’t previously heard of a fashion photographer called Lillian Bassman, yet when I came across some of her images in a Saturday Times Magazine a few months back, I wondered – why the hell not?! (Shown above: Anne Saint-Marie, Chanel advert, 1958)

Her work is simply exquisite. When I think of the golden age of fashion photography, I think of names like Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Lord Snowdon. Now I’ll also think of Lillian Bassman.

More Fashion Mileage Per Dress, Barbara Vaughn, 1956

Her photographs manage to feel both of their period, yet timelessly classic, yet also startlingly modern; it’s almost impossible to distinguish some of her earliest work from some of her latest. Working mostly in black and white, some have a noir-ish feel to them, others feel like they could be stills from an old movie or as if you’re intruding on an (immaculately-attired) personal moment.

It’s A Cinch,  Carmen, 1951

The underwear series is breathtakingly erotic, and you can barely even see the models’ faces; there’s something unbelievably wraith-like, ethereal and sensual about how the lines have been softened and blurred. And all this without distracting from the stunning beauty of the couture outfits photographed in her work, especially from the 50s (cue obligatory Mad Men reference), which are simply stunning.

Barbara Mullen, 1950

Bassman achieved many of the effects in her photographs by post-procesing manipulation in the dark room, blurring, burning and bleaching them, adding some details by hand later on (as in the photo above, hand-painting all the polka dots back in!). The use of shade and light is just phenomenal – after all, it has to be to get noticed and raved about by an art novice like me!

‘There are things that I think are marvellous and there are also pictures where I look at a particular crop and think “How awful. I couldn’t have done that. It’s mediocre”. But are you ever completely happy? No, thank goodness, or you’d stop. I think I’ll go on for ever’.

Incredibly, Bassman trashed many of her negatives in bin bags in the 1970s; they re-surfaced in the 90s, along with a greater appreciation of Bassman’s art. Even now, in her 90s, she continues to work, using digital technology and Photoshop to manipulate and make something new out of her old photographs.

Fantasy On The Dance Floor, Barbara Mullen, 1949

I love how she combines art with fashion – ‘For me, it was about the gesture, the neck, the throat, the arch of the back’. Here are just a few of my favourites (remember to click for enlargements) and hopefully now a few more of you will discover the beauty of Lillian Bassman!

Lingerie, 1951

Olga

The Line Lengthens, 1955

The Dressing Room

Wonders of Water, 1959

Paris: Dinner At Nine, Barbara Mullen, 1949

Barbara Mullen wearing Jean Patou, 1949

Across The Restaurant, Barbara Mullen wearing Jacques Fath, 1949

Barbara Mullen Blowing A Kiss, c.1950

The V-Back Evenings, Suzy Parker, 1955

Black And White, Mary Jane Russell, 1950

Golden Fox, Blue Fox, Marilyn Ambrose, 1954

Eve L Tripp Las Vegas, 1948

Dovima, 1954

Night Bloom, Annaliese Seubert, top gown Givenchy by Galliano, bottom by Christian Dior, 1996 (can’t believe these are so new, they’d fit right in with the rest, right?)

Silk Organdie, Embroidered And Printed, Barbara Mullen, gown by Irene, 1955

Untitled, Model in Gloves and Pearl Earrings, 1950

Betty Threat, 1957

Mary Jane Russell, 1950

Outtake, Harper’s Bazaar, November 1948

Polka Dots On The Run, 1960 (love the expression in the model’s eyes)

Back, Barbara Mullen, 1950

Touch Of Dew, Lisa Fonssagrives, 1961

Chanel advert, 1963 (despite the manipulation, there’s no mistaking that jacket!)

Untitled, 2008

And ending with one of my favourites… just captures a mood and movement so perfectly…Untitled, Model with Raincoat and Umbrella, 1950

For more of Bassman’s work, check out: http://f56.net/kuenstler/lillian-bassman/lillian-bassman/, http://blog.daum.net/sooy0098/7706383 (which makes my Antivirus have a fit but doesn’t seem to do any harm), this Lillian Bassman Flickr album and this Lillian Bassman Facebook fan page, from where many of these photos were taken from.

Quotes taken from Saturday Times Magazine, 17 May 2011.

You’re history! (Like a beat-up car!): Hong Kong Museum Of History review

‘The History Museum perpetuates the myth that Hong Kong has no culture by providing a sterile and clinical retelling of Hong Kong’s rich past.’

History geek boyfriend (shown above) on Hong Kong’s History Museum

This review of Hong Kong’s Museum Of History was a long time coming. You may have seen my review of their special exhibition The Evergreen Classic: Transformation Of The Qipao but I actually managed to check out their main exhibition, The Hong Kong Story, twice in the space of two weeks. Not through scholarly enthusiasm but on a trip with my kindergarten class and again, when my boyfriend and I showed up a month early for aforementioned qipao exhibition – and I’m afraid that I wasn’t too impressed.

The Hong Kong Story contains a lot of what I brand ‘fake history’ – lots of replicas and not many authentic artefacts. It traces Hong Kong from its beginnings as a barely-populated jungle filled with tigers (apparently) through its time as a British colony via displays about traditional Chinese folk culture before reaching modern-day HK. But given it opts for building replicas of trams, boats, fishermen, puppets, a tower of buns, schools, banks and practically everything else you can think of, the true authentic visceral sense of history is forsaken. Most of your information is gleaned from reading the placards beside each replica (or listening to your audio guide!) and looking at blown-up reprinted old photographs, meaning that you’re not really getting that much of a different experience from reading a history textbook, except you’re getting to stretch your legs and battle snap-happy visitors in the process.

In my opinion, the most riveting part of Hong Kong’s history is wartime and the Japanese occupation – parts which are dealt with much more effectively and movingly in the Museum Of Coastal Defence, which at least has some genuine bullet-strewn walls, cannons, caponniers and torpedoes to make for a more well-rounded experience (plus there’s currently the amazing Escape To Wai Chow exhibition – check out the full review here).

Elsewhere, it’s only interesting to those who have absolutely no working knowledge of Hong Kong’s history and given the plastic-ness of most of the exhibits, it doesn’t really reward repeated visits – although obviously I overdid it a bit! It’s certainly not an essential tourist stop nor, speaking from experience, is it much fun for very young visitors.

My photos illustrate the few parts that, not being too bothered by models of Neanderthals making fire in prehistoric HK, I actually did find interesting. And oh dear, déjà vu, it includes some vintage calendar prints of girls wearing qi pao. Moving on…

This is the interior of one of HK’s oldest traditional Chinese medicine shops. A REAL interior, not a fake replica. When it closed its doors for the last time, the LCSD managed to procure its décor and stick it in the history museum. There’s also an audio recording from the shop’s owner (plus English translation!). It’s interesting because it feels real and what with Hong Kong’s record in demolishing sites of historical interest, the sort of thing the government should be doing much more of. You’ll find it in a street filled with less interesting replicas of other early Hong Kong shops.

Social history inevitably has a lot more to offer than a plastic model. The section on Hong Kong’s early schooling system has glass cases filled with old exercise books and report cards. and, if you can decipher the spidery handwriting, being basically quite nosy is always absorbing!

I know it might sound like my bugbear, having gone on about it at other tourist destinations (like the Museum Of Coastal Defence and the Botanical Gardens), but the eating facilities here would be the laughing stock of any Western cultural hotspot. The Museum Of History’s school cafeteria may be cheap, clean and offer an abundance of chicken wings, but it could be so much more. Flogging a mix of instant noodles and junk food (not in one dish… although I wouldn’t put it past them), it mostly serves as a last resort or for people looking for somewhere quiet where they can crab free Wifi for as long as possible. It did, however, have beautiful lamps made to look like birdcages.

Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by having “real history” in practically every back garden in the UK, but I found the Hong Kong Museum Of History’s Hong Kong Story exhibition rather uninspiring. I’d rather pick up a history book from Page One and hop across the way to the Science Museum, which is a LOT more fun. And hopefully you’ll believe me when I say that I’ll review that museum very soon – i.e. sometime before 2012, fingers crossed!

The Hong Kong Story, Hong Kong Museum of History, 100 Chatham Road South, Tsim Sha Tsui East, Kowloon, 2724 9042.

Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday- Saturday, 10am-6pm, Sunday and Public Holiday 10am-7pm, closed Tuesdays. Admission $10 (free on Wednesdays). For further details, visit their website here.

Pawn Again: views from The Roof Garden @ The Pawn

When I used to work in Wan Chai, my colleague and I used to dawdle about the streets until the dying seconds of our lunch hour, bemoaning the lack of pleasant public spaces in the area where we could sit and avoid returning to the office for as long as possible. Little did I know that one such place did exist and could have saved us from being harangued by strippers and grimacing over grotty tattoo parlour displays in the streets of WC.

The Roof Garden (and yes, those are real plants and they’re gorgeous), on the third floor of The Pawn restaurant, is a quiet haven from the heaving hubbub of Wan Chai. It offers spectacular views over the city, a chance to drink in the different styles of architecture and savour the fact that somehow, a little piece of old Hong Kong has been preserved. Admittedly, preserved by becoming a set of swanky restaurants, but preserved nevertheless.

Photo contrasting the old Woo Cheong Pawnshop with the new development, from HK Man’s Flickr, which you need to check out like, now. Hundreds of amazing photographs like this comparing old and new HK.

The Pawn occupies the former premises of century-old Woo Cheong Pawnshop (hence the name), a set of four tenement houses (known as “tong lau”) originally built around the turn of the 20th century. “Tong lau” were unique to Hong Kong and Southern China, balcony-type shophouses featuring a mixture of Chinese and Western architecture, where the ground floor was usually devoted to a family business whilst the upper levels were residential. These ones have four stories, with high ceilings, French windows to the balconies, verandahs facing Johnston Road and other typical Tong Lau features that you can see in some of my photos, like the balustrades and decorative urns on the roof, which have been restored and revitalised. Columns on the ground floor supported the upper levels, forming a covered pedestrian arcade – a feature more HK buildings today could do with, saving us from the beating sun and dripping air cons!

Another nice little detail – the shophouses did not have toilet provisions. Instead, the “nightsoil” was collected by government scavengers at night from the pail latrine (i.e. a bucket). How do I know all this stuff? Well, upon visiting the Roof Garden, you’re met by an attendant from the Urban Renewal Authority (who bought the building in 2003 and helped restore it), bearing a pamphlet snappily entitled “Welcome to The Pawn Roof Woo Cheong Pawnshop Building Cluster”, full of such interesting facts and photos! Apparently, this was a response to The Pawn not exactly encouraging non paying-customers to enjoy the Roof Garden but I certainly had no such problems on my visit. Sadly, the attendant didn’t speak much English so couldn’t answer any of my other questions – like whether some of the racks on the roof were actually from the Woo Cheong Pawnshop itself (they definitely looked rusty enough!).

The preserved terrazo front sign for Woo Cheong Pawn Shop

It’s easy to get frustrated with Hong Kong’s attempts (or lack of) at historical preservation. Many old buildings have ceded to anonymous modern developments already and it always seems to be an uphill battle to prevent sites of historic interest from being ripped apart and swiftly following suit. Although it isn’t exactly ideal that these century-old tenements have survived as a luxury commercial development sold to the highest bidder (with Woo Cheong shunted out elsewhere in Wan Chai to make way for them), I’d rather concentrate on being happy that it’s survived at all, that a stunning part of it is easily and freely accessible to all and that The Pawn has put real effort and thought into making the most of its setting and history (review of the restaurant itself here!).

[And what with The Press Room Group paying homage to the pawnshop, having previously done so with The Press Room itself (its name references the Overseas Chinese Daily News / Hua Qiao Daily newspaper, the 1920s residents of that building), perhaps they’re getting a taste for this kind of thing?!]

View showing the orange lift going up the side of the Hopewell Centre, which at the time of its completion (1980) was the tallest building and first circular skyscraper in Hong Kong

As for the Roof Garden – well, the pictures speak for themselves, don’t they? (As ever, click for enlargements.) It’s a spot of serenity with absolutely breathtaking views and a humbling sense of heritage. (And it would be absolutely great for a private party as well, they have a bar and everything!) There is also a small computer screen attached to one of the columns downstairs as part of the Wan Chai Heritage Trail (quite how it hasn’t been carted off by some hobo yet I’m unsure) which details some of the history of the area – including jaw-dropping maps showing how much land has been reclaimed. Basically, I’d have been standing in the sea!

Whilst we were enjoying having the place to ourselves, my boyfriend wondered when Hong Kong’s legion of “helpers”, who swarm in the thousands upon HK’s various public spaces every Sunday in a sea of fried chicken, hip-hop dancing and piercing babble (making many such areas impossibly crowded and near inpenetrable to the average pedestrian… never mind the amount of debris and mess left at the end of the day – will save that rant for another day!), might discover it. So get down there before they – or anyone else for that matter – does and savour this hidden oasis set in the midst of our concrete jungle. Enjoy.

Ding-ding!

Photos showing the redevelopment and restoration

The instantly-recognisable HK pawn shop logo. Wikipedia reckons it represents a bat (signifying fortune) holding a coin (signifying benefits). The character in the middle is the symbol for pawn shop, the two upper characters the name of the family who own the shop.

Roof Garden, 3/F The Pawn, 62 Johnston Road, Wan Chai.

For more information and photographs about the restoration and preservation of 60-66 Johnston Road, check out the Urban Renewal Authority’s website here.