Film-aged Shanghai is a collection of work by Lu Yuanmin, a street photographer who’s been documenting the city for decades.
Until I came across it in a shop I was killing time in, I’d heard of neither book nor man.
That does reveal some ignorance on my part. It also betrays the fact I don’t spend that much time looking at other people’s work.
I know the advice is to do so, though. And I agree.
But not to fawn over it. Not to simply consume it. Rather to use it for inspiration and education to make what you create better.
So I picked up Film-aged Shanghai for this reason.
To see what I could learn from it and how it could help me – both with my street photography and when, one day, I put together a photography book of my own.
But first, Lu Yuanmin and his book.
Who is Lu Yuanmin?
Lu Yuanmin (sometimes spelt Yuanming) was born in Shanghai in 1950.
According to a Q&A in the back of Film-aged Shanghai, he began making photographs in 1976.
In the beginning, Lu Yuanmin would borrow a camera from the cultural centre where he worked. That was until he won one of his own – a Seagull 300 – in a photography competition in the 1990s.
He put a second-hand 35mm Minolta lens on it and never looked back.
Shooting with Lucky film “because it’s cheap”, you couldn’t accuse Lu Yuanmin of not representing street photography in his country.
Subjects, photographer, camera and film were all made in China.
Now an Executive Member of the Shanghai Photography Association, Lu Yuanmin won the Sha Fei Award for Photography in 2007, has seen his work featured in numerous exhibitions and public collections, and has produced a number of other photography books like Shanghainese and Suzhou Creek that feature his images of his city.
That’s some body of work, IMO.
Film-aged Shanghai by Lu Yuanmin
The monochrome street photography that features in Film-aged Shanghai was shot by Lu Yuanmin with a Lomo LC-A and his (kind of) trusty Lucky film.
The camera had been given to him by a friend in 2005, and he instantly fell in love with its simplicity.
Despite working his way through a collection of Seagull, Olympus, Contax, Konica Hexar and Ricoh GR1, Lu Yuanmin said the Lomo LC-A “was the very camera that I longed for ten years ago”.
It’s not a big book. It is over 140 pages long, but it’s been produced at postcard size rather than as a coffee table behemoth.
I like this.
It opens with an introduction by the photographer, then presents the photographs (I think there are 101 of them), and ends with a Q&A.
The photographs themselves are good. Some are very good. If you’re into that Lomo look, or the whole grainy hi-contrast Asian backstreet photography genre, you’ll like them.
But what I like is how timeless they feel as a collection.
I don’t mean timeless as never ageing. I mean in that it’s hard for me to pick when the project was shot from one image to the next.
I know the photographs must have been made between 2005 when Lu Yuanmin first received his Lomo and 2009 when the book was published.
However, due to the subject matter, I find myself mentally jumping from era to era as I look through them.
Some look older than they are, but turning the page and seeing Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka brings me back to the mid-2000s reality.
Others could have been taken just yesterday, with those on the next page looking neither vintage nor contemporary; instead, they’re just impossible to date.
As someone who knows Shanghai, I find the photographs that look older mainly do so due to the changes in the buildings.
The ones that look more recent do so due to similarities in the people.
I guess Shanghai as a city is changing far more quickly than its inhabitants are.
What I take from Film-aged Shanghai
I could talk about the inspiration Film-aged Shanghai has given me to get out and make more photographs in and of the city myself.
At the time of writing though, I’m already doing that.
So making individual photographs isn’t what the book is pushing me to do. It’s just reinforcing the importance of photography projects to me.
I keep banging this drum but it’s something I truly believe in.
There are photographs in Film-aged Shanghai that I could put on Instagram, tag them #streetphotography, watch the 40 or 50 likes roll in, and sit there safe in the knowledge that nobody who clicked that little heart on the screen actually cares about the image.
Nobody will give them a second thought.
Instead, because these photographs have been put into a book, someone (me) is writing about them and someone else (you) is reading about them years later.
And that’s because photography projects are worth more than the sum of their parts.
Of course, producing a photography book of my own is firmly on my to-do list. In a world with self-publishing and print-on-demand platforms, why wouldn’t it be?
And why isn’t it on yours, by the way?
Film-aged Shanghai is just more inspiration for me to do that. I did pick up a nice layout tip from it too.
Going through the book, I noticed how the photographs had been deliberately paired together. I also noticed how the reasons for the pairings differ throughout.
Look at the images in this review.
Some photographs have been put together based on their subject matter. Others are for lines or shapes, others still for gestures, and others more for mood or theme.
It’s a simple thing that makes a huge difference.
Make, don’t buy, your own Film-aged Shanghai
I’d love to tell you to get yourself a copy of Film-aged Shanghai.
The problem is I’m not sure where you’d get one from. There doesn’t appear to be any on Amazon as I write this.
That’s fine. This is about more than the actual book.
It’s about discovering a street photographer I (and possibly you) had never heard of, checking out his work, and using it as inspiration to continue with your own.
You could be like me. The guy who walked into a shop and picked up a book he’d never heard of.
Or you could be like Lu Yuanmin. The who guy who had his book picked up.
Buying photography books is good, but making them is even better.
So make one.