For over five decades, award-winning photojournalist and fine art photographer Robin Moyer has lived and worked around Asia, capturing a continent in constant flux. His ongoing solo exhibit at Pékin Fine Arts in Hong Kong, Robin Moyer: My China (1976 – Present), is a glimpse into the country’s past and present in 43 signed black-and-white images printed in platinum and archival pigment on fine art paper. We ask the veteran lensman about his storied work and career in this travel360.com exclusive.
What is it about China that keeps you coming back?
My mother was born in Manchuria in 1918 into a YMCA family that stayed in China until WWII. I spent a lot of time in China while working for Time Magazine and travelled all over the country for 20 years. I’m glad I saw it during the transition from Mao’s time to today, though with all the cars and pollution, I’m not there often these days. But it is a great and continually unfolding story.
What are your favourite places in China?
Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu are vibrant metropolises. Dali in Yunnan is special, as is Dalian in Liaoning and Harbin in Heilongjiang.
How did you choose Hong Kong as your base?
My family moved to Hong Kong in 1962 when I was 17. I went to high school for a year and ran a marina until 1964, when I headed off to university. I returned in 1969 for a year, then freelanced in Taiwan from 1976 till 1978 and started working in Southeast Asia for Time Magazine, travelling in and out of Hong Kong regularly. Time made me chief photographer for Asia, based in Hong Kong from 1985 to 1994. My wife, daughter and I lived in Manila for 10 years and then came back to Hong Kong in 2005 and we’ve been here ever since. Hong Kong just seems like home where nearly everything works, food is good, full of friends and opportunities. Of course it means I’ll have to keep working, as rents are a killer.
What do you look for in an image?
I am most interested in the story of the image. If the image is well made, it amplifies the information, whether imparted boldly or subtly.
Why black & white photography over colour for storytelling?
Everyone sees colour differently. After a cataract operation on my left eye recently, I now see slightly bluish with the left eye and warm with the right: the brain interprets something in between. Black & white levels the playing field. Unless the colour is the raison d’etre for the image, I think it can be a bit of a distraction.
Fifty years ago in the pre-digital age, we all started with black & white. There was something satisfying about shooting a couple of rolls of Tri-X or a few sheets of Super XX Pan 8×10 film, going back to the darkroom, processing and watching the print come up in the developing tray.
But when I started shooting for magazines I nearly always shot colour, mostly Kodachrome and Fuji Provia, even when shooting with large format cameras. That’s what the client required.
Lately, I returned to the 150-year-old platinum printing method I had used in the 70s for my large format 4×5 and 8×10 negatives. It is a contact printing process, so the size of the negative determines the size of the print.
With the advent of Photoshop and inkjet printing, it became possible to scan colour transparencies and make enlarged digital negatives that I then print by hand in platinum and palladium. The deep matte blacks, expanded middle tones and delicate high values are unsurpassed. In addition to being subtle, they are the most permanent photographic printing method and will last hundreds of years.
Is there a distinction between fine art and fine documentary photography?
Fine art photography is rarely documentary, but fine documentary photography can often qualify as art.
I would direct you to the work of Irving Penn, Paul Strand and Walker Evans, photographers who I was influenced by when starting out.
How do you select photographs for exhibition?
Most of my exhibits have a theme. Often it is just a time frame: Out of Time was a 2011 exhibit of platinum prints, mostly from large format negatives made in the US between 1971 and 1980. My current exhibit at Pékin Fine Art gallery is made up of platinum prints of photographs made during or in between assignments in greater China: 1976 to the Present.
Or they could be from a single project: In 2011 I shot a chapter for a book titled Water Margin: Hong Kong’s Links to the Sea. It was shot over two months in 35mm digital and medium format digital, then converted to black & white. We made some large archival pigment prints that became a traveling exhibit and are on display at the Maritime Museum in Hong Kong.
Tell us about your favourite photojournalism assignments.
Between 1971 and 1975, I worked in Washington, D.C. It was a never-ending story with seemingly constant Vietnam War protests, Watergate, Nixon’s resignation. In between, I would be on the road in my VW (Volkswagen) bus on assignment for the Appalachian Regional Commission, which stretched from Maine to Alabama, or on Native American reservations for a US Senate commission.
Time Magazine assignments were usually very interesting. I spent many weeks on the Thai/Cambodian border in 1979-80 photographing Cambodian refugees, then the Kwangju Incident in Korea followed by months covering the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla camps. The snap elections in Manila and People Power kept us busy in 1985 to 1986: We had a great team with James Nachtwey, Roland Neveu and 79-year-old Life Magazine photographer Carl Mydans, who had been taken prisoner in Manila by the Japanese during WWII.
In April 1989, around 100 photographers arrived in Beijing to begin shooting for A Day in the Life of China. I was assigned to the ancient city of Luoyang in Henan where I managed to gain access to a prison, a first for a foreigner. My unprecedented one-hour shoot turned out very well. And of course that was followed by months of protests in Beijing that culminated in the Tiananmen Incident.
And in between all the excitement were more thoughtful long-term stories on China’s galloping economy and growing influence in Southeast Asia, pollution and the environment, Vietnam emerging, Indonesia’s Suharto being toppled, (Islamic separatist group) Abu Sayyaf in Zamboanga, Southern Philippines.
Photographing orangutan rehabilitation and in the wild in Borneo was magic.
There are times when I feel like the luckiest photographer in the world.
Amongst the portraits of world leaders you took, whose was the most memorable?
I guess Deng Xiaoping was the biggest challenge, a long distance affair during the Seventh National People’s Congress in 1988. This was the first time foreign correspondents were allowed to attend. Time had shipped me a huge 600mm lens as we had to do most of our shooting from a distant balcony.
Of course I always enjoy photographing former Philippine president Fidel Ramos: we got along well and occasionally played golf, chewed cigars and did push-ups.
I spent a few days with Malaysia’s Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for a Time cover, just as their tiff was brewing, so there was a lot of tension, which makes it fun. And I often shot the late Singapore prime minister Lee Kwan Yew who was fine once he got to know you – he liked war stories.
What story would you like to pursue that you haven’t yet?
I’d like to take a few months and shoot an essay on the Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Highway, channelling Hiroshige.
Robin Moyer: My China (1976 – Present) is on view at Pékin Fine Arts, Hong Kong until 25 August 2018. For more info, visit pekinfinearts.com.
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Hong Kong from various destinations. airasia.com