B&W Magazine Interview - Old China
One camera, two lenses, seven cities, fourteen days, three thousand images, six thousand miles—this is Gary Pullar’s 2012 photographic expedition to China condensed into cold numbers. Seen as a thrilling, soul-stirring experience, the intense outpouring of creative and physical energy provided the “raw material” for his most recent portfolio, the superbly realized Old China, from which seven images are reproduced here.
Pullar, an Australian who lives on a small peninsula of land at the northern end of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, began his love affair with photography as a young boy when his mother gave him a brownie and a developing kit. It proved to be the starting point for an artistic journey that is now going on its fourth decade.
Pullar has no formal training in camera and darkroom techniques. His skills were honed in a self-directed study of the works of Edward and Brett Weston and other masters of their generation. “I have always been enamored by the inky blacks in the photographs and beautiful tonality of the work of the f64 Group,” Pullar says. He also credits his education as an architect for the fine-tuning his artistic senses. “Architecture has obvious parallels with photography in terms of a strong focus on composition and sculpting with light,” Pullar says.
In the early days, he concentrated on street photography, shooting with 35mm cameras. Later, he expanded to large-format landscape work. The digital era brought new challenges and opportunities. His current methodology calls for selecting lenses that optimize the possibilities in the environment he plans to explore (for the Old China portfolio he chose to compliment his Olympus E5 with two SHG constant aperture zoom lenses, a 35-100 and a 14-35mm. .
The China expedition had its origins in Pullar’s desire to explore first hand the visual treasures of the world’s oldest continuous civilization—with emphasis on “oldest.” While a tourist in today’s China may be seduced and overwhelmed by the modern look and lifestyle of its large cities, around the fringes of these 21st-century metropolises can still be found the manifestations of a way of life that has not changed in a thousand years. This is the China Pullar was looking for—the toil of everyday living reflected in the patinization that comes from age; and the human condition mirrored in the faces of the elderly, their expressions molded by generations of upheaval, war and cultural change.
One of Pullar’s most memorable experiences was a journey down the Li River in Southern China. Floating on a barge-like vessel, flowing with the current, he marveled at the same sights seen by the traders and adventurers of ancient times. Away from the river he traveled by air and by foot, making stops in Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Yangzhou, Hong Kong, Hangzhou and Shanghai. Pullar finds a fitting illustration of his experience in the Chinese saying, “To see 100 years of history, visit Shanghai; to see 1,000, visit Beijing; to see 2,000, visit Xian.” And he adds poignantly, “Having visited all three, I can only concur.”
Most of the images in the Old China portfolio were shot street style, using high shutter speeds and large apertures. A wrist strap kept the camera always at the ready. But the capture was only the beginning, the end came at home, starting with the examination of the digital negatives.
“First I strip the color and look at the tonality and contrast. Then I explore what the picture reveals to me. It’s a process of trial and error,” Pullar explains, commenting on his post-production method in a Lenswork interview. “Edward Weston, I feel, was one of the great romantic photographers. His pictures have a level of sensuality. This is what I’m looking for in my work. I like the moody, dark, film noir feeling. I’m really looking for how much emotion I can draw out of an image.”
With his Old China portfolio, Pullar has revealed himself to be an exceptional visual storyteller and a virtuoso communicator of atmosphere—a master of the moody palette.
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