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The Mysterious Charms of Beijing’s Hutongs by Christopher Domakis

June 24th, 2013 No Comments

“‘Hutong’ is the Chinese word for typical old town districts in Beijing,” explains Christopher Domakis in his introduction to his gallery Hutong on Behance. “While Beijing is moving fast, developing new districts and constructing massive infrastructure projects, there are still some Hutongs which provide daily life which you would expect only in villages far away from modern metropoles as Beijing.”

Domakis has produced atmospheric images of these Hutongs, photographed after dusk when all is still and quiet.

Exposure and retention of shadow detail is a major factor behind the charm and mysterious quality of these photographs.

A few of them look no different from the inner alleyways of any old town; in fact, one photograph radiates the quality of a forbidding seam of Victorian London!

A small, well-lit ‘cabin shop’ amidst semi-deserted darkness inspired Domakis into a very unusual composition.  Notice how the main subject is not only centred but also shot straight on, from the front.  The simplicity and forthrightness of this choice combine to make the cabin pop out and also look even more unceremoniously out of place than it is.

Domakis came upon another cabin-shop that is integrated into a low-slung structure.  Notice the radically different composition in this photograph: the cabin is off-centre in the image and it is also shot at an angle to present it in the context of its surroundings – shuttered doors, passers-by, two-wheelers, and more.

Clearly, Domakis’s compositions are no accident.

A few photos are taken at such an angle that, even though the perspective is fairly close and the subject-matter (close-set structures and narrow alleys) deters large fields of view, they have depth.  The photo of the neighbourhood bakery and a man shows three planes of structures and the short span of road causes the eye to move front to rear; thus, the depth of the photo is not defeated by the glowing and lit-up main subject to one side.

Talk about ‘lit-up’, here’s a nice juxtaposition between fluorescent lighting and tungsten lighting with their different colour casts combining to lend tonal interest to a scene that is already interesting to begin with.

The most common props to be seen in this gallery are bicycles and chinese lanterns.  Can you find each in five photographs?

The photo of Super 8 Hotel is the most teasing one.  First, no less than five different patches of differently-coloured light appear in a horizontal band across this night photo.  Second, the very hazy silhouettes of two persons behind a steamed-up window give a hint of human life to a fairly wide scene that is otherwise devoid of any life (except for a man standing under the bridge in the far distance).  Fourth, it hints of the conviviality that may be found behind the hotel’s walls though the street itself is dreary and deserted.  Finally, does liveliness and vibrancy lurk in the background past the left edge of the image?

If Carol Reed or Orson Welles were around and wanted to make a movie filmed in the Hutongs, they would surely ask Domakis to do the storyboarding.


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