As working photographers, oftentimes we’re essentially guns for hire, executing concepts assigned to us from art directors, companies, or private clients. We may have creative input, but ultimately, the concept still belongs to someone else. This is why I feel it’s important to pursue personal projects whenever possible between paying assignments, as they play an integral part in our growth as photographers. Personal projects allow us to exercise our own creativity, and affords us opportunities to try new techniques and pursue creative visions without the burden of success. As the old adage goes, we learn more from our failures than our successes, so fail, and fail often, but fail on your own time and learn from your experiences.
This is why I started this personal project.
For this image, which is part of an ongoing series I’ve working on called “Dying of the Neon Light,” I drew a lot of inspiration from my childhood as well as my love for cinematography. Growing up, I spent my very early years in Hong Kong, bathed in the polychromatic rays cast by an endless sea of neon signs attached to what felt like every building in existence. Whenever someone thinks of the Pearl of the Orient, as the city is sometimes called, what often comes to mind first is this seemingly undying neon glow which has become symbolic of the city itself. These days, however, the radiance from neon lights grow dimmer by the day across the city, facing inevitable obsolescence and gradually replaced by more sophisticated and energy efficient LED signage. This dying of the neon light is spreading around the world as well, with neon signage going the way of the dinosaurs and disappearing from metropolitan cities like Tokyo, New York, and Los Angeles.
I’ve always been a huge fan of films like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, cinematic masterpieces that helped define the cyberpunk dystopian genre. It’s without question that the characteristic neon glow that was so commonplace in Hong Kong was a major influence to the overall cyberpunk dystopian aesthetic featured prominently in those films. As a photographer, I feel that lighting is the single most important tool in our arsenal when creating images, and I often draw inspiration from the works of renowned cinematographers like Robert Richardson, Dion Beebe, and Roger Deakins. Deakins, coincidentally, was the cinematographer for the Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049, for which he won a Best Cinematography Oscar.
With this aesthetic in mind, I started thinking about how I could create images that would embody the sense of retro-futurism while capturing the nostalgia of the last of the neon lights while they are still around. When I told my friend Chelsie, who is a freelance model, about the concept, she was onboard right away.
- Sony A7RIII
- Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master
- Apple iPhone 7 Plus
- Various crystals I’ve collected over the years
- Blank CD-R
When Chelsie and I were throwing ideas around, I showed her some stills from Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, and luckily for me she already owned the outfit that she’s seen wearing in the image, so all we had to worry about was the location. The first place in New York City that I could think of with that characteristic look was Chinatown, so we hopped into my car and off to Chinatown we went. It had been a few years since I was last in the area, so I was shocked to see that even the neon lights in Chinatown were starting to disappear. It didn’t help that we had gotten to the area pretty late, so most of the neon signage that was left had already been turned off. I knew that to really capture that signature look given off by neon signage, I would have to rely on heavily on ambient light, unlike my usual body of work which features dramatic off camera lighting. We were also doing this guerrilla style with just the two of us, in the middle of one of the hottest and most humid summers in New York City history, so I went back to basics and used very minimal gear.
The image was shot with my trusty A7RIII paired with the 85mm f1.4 G Master, along with my iPhone, a blank CD-R, and some glass crystals I had amassed over the years from trips to various light fixture stores. The reason I incorporated my phone, a blank CD-R, and the various crystals was because I wanted to introduce some random optical distortions to the images. I used my phone and the blank CD-R as reflective surfaces, while the crystals helped distort the light going into my camera. You never know what you’ll get when introducing optical distortions on the fly with these makeshift tools, but this randomness adds to the overall feel of the final image.
We wandered around Chinatown for a while until we finally discovered a small pocket of neon signage next to a hair salon, and just like that, we had our location. I framed up the shot in my camera, and asked Chelsie to pose next to the entrance of the hair salon so that the light from the signage would illuminate her, and tried to introduce some optical distortion into the image for added visual interest. What you see in the lower left corner of the frame is the light from neon signs above Chelsie’s head reflected back into the camera.
I try to get everything in camera whenever possible, so for this image, I did very minimal adjustments in post in Capture One. Since I shot this image with available light during the evening, I made some basic exposure and contrast adjustments, and raised the shadows slightly. I also enhanced the hue and luminance of the colors to bring out that signature neon glow. You can see the before and after below.
Photographer: Pauleth Ip
Model: Chelsie Brugger