The Photography of Howard French
Essay: Disappearing Shanghai Back

With my first public showing of Disappearing Shanghai, in Berlin in 2006, I concluded the catalog essay that accompanied the images with the following invitation: “Walk these streets with me, if only through these images, and you will see something truly wonderful. Soon it will be gone.”

Much has happened since then. Indeed much has disappeared. The pace of redevelopment in Shanghai, which was already fast at the time, has accelerated greatly, as the city hurtles toward its hosting of the World Exposition in May 2010.

Some of the neighborhoods where I did my early photography have already been demolished and in some cases already rebuilt, their old inhabitants long since scattered.

Fragments of other neighborhoods barely cling to existence, meanwhile, like doomed convicts, knowing the end is near.
I returned to Shanghai last summer to re-enter this world, with a feeling I’ve had each time I’ve returned from an absence of more than a few weeks -- that this was perhaps the last time.

Asked how he chose his subjects, Paul Strand, the great early 20th century photographer had this simple reply: “They choose me.” And so it has been for me with Shanghai. Beyond this, in such matters there are no ready-made answers.

One knows what one feels, though, and one thing I can never forget is the thrill of walking and of engaging my mind’s eye in a world where so much of life seems to be lived in the open; where everything appears to be constantly on display.

In The Ongoing Moment, one of my favorite books on photography, the writer Geoff Dyer described roads as being “an endless invitation to leave.” By contrast, he says, “the best streets urge you to stay.”

Shanghai’s shabby old streets and gnarled lanes, I would venture, take Dyer’s formulation one step further. For five years, some of them have lured me to keep returning over and over. And I mourn over those that have vanished, their names and addresses lost forever to time.

As many times as I have tread those asphalt streets, my mission this summer was altogether different from my photographic explorations of the past. It was inspired, in part, by a suggestion from a friend, the photographer Danny Lyon, that sounded innocent-enough but hit me with the force of an explosion.

Danny had been very generous in his comments about my street work, but something was nagging him. “Howard, I want to know more about the lives of these people. Where do they live? I want to see them at home.”

In the course of four years of street photography, I had been in the homes of some of the people I have photographed, but it had never occurred to me to make those cramped, often ill-lit spaces the focus of any extended work, especially not given my rapture over the streets.

Inspired by Danny’s insight, though, I revisited my old haunts nearly ever day for two and a half months, forcing myself at first to resist the familiar seductions of the street to go a step beyond into the truly private worlds of hundreds of ordinary people.

Walk with me again, please, as I climb the rickety, switchback stairways in near complete darkness, ducking to avoid serious head injury and plunge into intimate new worlds.

Shanghai, 2009. Copyright Howard W. French.

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Copyright 2011 Howard W. French