Shooting the City with Andrew Rochfort
An eight-year veteran capturing Shanghai’s skyline and streets, Andrew Rockfort’s photography depicts a city in constant movement. Already city-famous for his pyrotechnic shots of Shanghai’s Bund district set against its disappearing back alleys, Rochfort paints a glittering picture of a singular urban landscape and the people who inhabit it therein — blinded by the lights. SmartShanghai chose a taster’s choice selection of Rochfort’s work and got the man to walk us through them.
The Nikon 3200 was my first camera. And then the 8700, which wasn’t quite a pocket camera but it’s light. I was 25. I started on a career path to photography when I got enough positive compliments on my stuff! For money, I work for property developers. Taking photos for their projects. It’s just an easy transition between something I would do in my spare time anyways and something I would do for money. And that was basically how I started. I was shooting this stuff, as much as I could, and posting it on Flickr. Just everything. And tagging the shit out of everything. #jing’an; #shanghai; #bund; #asia; #skyline. Anything I could think of, just hoping that my stuff would pop up in searches. This was 11 years ago even before most people had smartphones. I actually spent more time tagging the photos than editing the photos [laughs.] This guy saw my stuff and said, ‘hey we’re shooting something big in Jing’an.’ That was the Kerry Center. But yes, I came to Shanghai with the idea that maybe I could become a full-time photographer.
Most of my shots are no tripod. Just because they are cumbersome moving around the city. Right now I’m using a Nikon D800E and an assortment of lenses. The eye is number one. It’s a cliche to say, but having your eye trained is the thing. Having a vision. Equipment is unbelievably important of course. But even with technology I don’t think we’re quite there yet to shooting exactly what your eye sees. At the same time, I don’t have a lot of interest in the whole professional culture of photography. This might be lame to say but a lot of professional photographers are dicks [laughs]. I don’t really talk shop on equipment or keep up with the equipment blogs. I mean, my camera is four years old already. For people starting out, just using a digital is fine and then once you’re comfortable with that, you can shoot manually. More important than having the latest camera is knowing how to use the one you’ve got. It’s all there, you’ve just got to unlock it.
I just keep my eyes open walking around the city, looking for shots. A lot of time you have to wait for the conditions to be right. You have to go out and seek it, and then wait. And then the stars will align and you’ll get it. You have to think about it and plan it because a lot of the shots, they’re there for five minutes and then they’re gone. The cityscapes and skylines, they don’t move, right, but you have to be there when the light and weather is right. It takes commitment.
Well, this is at a new place called Banyan Tree out in Hongkou. I wouldn’t have been there usually, but I had some friends in town. But the reason it’s set up like this is because it was Ladies Night. I try to get people in some of my architecture and skyline shots as well, because if it’s just buildings all the time it’s boring. People are more unpredictable. You’re always thinking, ‘oh it would be great if they happened to do this or this.’ But yeah it was Ladies Night and they were all there happy to be drinking for free and I think even played it up a little bit.
I do minimal post production. It’s become minimal. I used to do more. Post-production I just do with Lightroom. I don’t mess with Photoshop. For me, it’s too much of a rabbit hole. A lot of people take their photos and spend hours on Photoshop. This is just for me, and something I read a while ago, if it takes you more than five minutes to fix your photo in Photoshop, it’s probably not a photo worth keeping. So, I color correct. Because I shoot in raw. As apposed to .jpeg. Raw is very de-saturated so I do color correction. I add a bit of clarity and that’s basically it. But like I said, I spend maybe five minutes on it. The shots are all coming from in-camera. This one is about the shutter speed. This one, these clouds are coming towards you at a decent clip — you know that dramatic Shanghai summer sky — and then it’s a 25, maybe 30 second exposure with the clouds being dragged across the sky. One thing I’ll never do it add to a photo. A lot of people add moons and stars, and all that sort of thing. I’m not against that but you should state that you’re doing that. I never walk away from a shot thinking “I’ll fix this in post”. Never do that.
This one came about because I was shooting so much of the Shanghai Tower. I was following it for years while it was being built. I followed the SWFC center as well. This is a shot I’ve shot many, many times from this one area. It’s my favorite area. All three of these buildings are beautiful. And they’re so huge and right next to each other. In any other city just one of these would dominate. And they’re so different in style as well. You’ve got the pagoda-ish Jin Mao, the modern SWFC, and the super futurist extended blobby Shanghai Tower. It’s excessive. But that’s alright!
Yeah, this is that Dragon thing where all the highways come together. What is it about Shanghai that inspires me to shoot it? Well, I guess it’s the shape of the city. And it’s diversity. Shanghai is two different cities right? There’s a Shanghai in the daytime and a Shanghai at night. And the way that you shoot them is completely different for both. There’s stuff during the day that you would never shoot because it’s gray, it’s drab, it’s boring. But at night it’s completely different. There’s so many layers that light up and come to the surface. This is another long exposure shot. I like the two elements reacting to each other — the static versus the movement. The traffic against the concrete. You can tell something is happening because it’s presented against a static backdrop.
This is that gnarly development up in Suzhou Creek where there is like 300 towers. There are like 4 or 5 subway stops there. Apparently, it was the biggest development in history when it was built. I don’t know, maybe Dubai has surpassed it since then. There’s like four fuckin’ bridges running through there. For my shots, the framing is really important, I think. It has to be sensible; it has to be balanced. I’m not a trained photographer. I didn’t go to school for photography. So, I can’t really comment on it. But I’m always looking for that compositional balance. I know the “law of three” and all that but I didn’t study that so I don’t know.
I don’t really do nightlife photography. Actually, one of my first shots — at the time I thought it was the best shot i’d ever taken — we used to go to this place called the VIP Club, which was this sketchy place. Think the owner got busted for something. There was like a gambling den in the backroom and a brothel. But this was after one of those nights. This is back before event the SWFC was build. But it was the Jing’an Temple and this fog was rolling off the top of it. I took this picture and thought, ‘oh man’. I got the rush. There’s this rush when you know you’ve got a good shot. That’s whey you keep going back to do it. I entered that into a photo contest at the Shanghai Talk magazine [laughs].
A lot of my photography comes out of my time at The Shelter. Fun fact: The Shelter is the worst place to photograph in all the world. [Laughs.] It’s just the darkest… it’s just the biggest headache in the world. Back in the day I was a part of ROM [music / arts collective], and we always needed press shots. How did ROM influence my work? Well, by the time I pulled my camera out we were all so inebriated. [Laughs.] But I guess it was more about capturing the debauchery and the photography was the side thing. I never wanted to do club photos. Hated that. It’s hard and the money is not great. It’s peanuts. But we were always going for no flash and no smiles, with different props and shit. I remember we’d submit them into SmartShanghai and we’d be sandwiched between all the people at M1NT and Bar Rouge with their pearly white teeth. [Laughs.]
There’s major differences between shooting in Taipei, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. Hong Kong is probably the easiest city to shoot. It’s got that mix of urban and natural, it’s dense, and it’s just so in-your-face. Hong Kong looks great in the day and great at night. It looks crazy all the time. Shanghai is maybe more of a night city. Taipei is great for density although the architecture isn’t as great. It’s got a tropical sort of vibe.
Well. That’s Shanghai. Right? The people that react most to this photo are the people who live in Shanghai. You know, everyone lives in Xuhui or Xujiahui on street level or something like that and sometimes you don’t realize all these buildings. But then you see Shanghai from the air and it’s like a wake up call. All you have to do is go up in like a 50 or 60 story building and it’s like ‘oh man’. This is from Luijiazui. From the SWFC. I love photographing this stuff because it’s all about humanity. The largeness of it. The entire population of where I’m from in Canada is probably one corner of this shot.
This is that other Bund. That other area behind the Bund that you’re familiar with if you live here but you might not know about it if you are a tourist. I love this area and it’s constantly getting torn down. For this shot, this is no longer there. I love that area though. It’s where all the old textile factories and markets are. At night it gets really busy. And it’s hard to shoot because of all the trucks driving though. I know for this one shot I was waiting there for like an hour to get it. It’s got it all. The “lived in” part of Shanghai against the big future development sort of thing.
These days it’s a little less exciting because a lot of the time I have permission from these buildings to go up and shoot on their rooftops. But I’ve been in trouble before for sure. I almost got arrested once. Just a few days ago actually, I’m in this 34-story building off Line 13 — never go to the top floor because that’s always the penthouse. Go two floors below and take the stairs up. And never go on the weekends. Go on the weekdays when it’s more busy and the security has less time to look on their screens in the lobby. And on the weekdays, the maintenance staff are going up and down from the roofs, so they’re leaving the doors unlocked. I got in quite a bit of trouble once but I’m just like ting bu dong ting bu dong. They were going to hold my feet to the fire. I said I was visiting the Bank of Montreal and then just wanted to see what the view on the roof looks like. Always know another business in the building that you were “going to” and then it doesn’t seem like you were planning the whole thing.
I think I have a body of work. It’s not coherent. It’s not consistent. For the past year an a half though I’ve been looking at specifically the buildings in the Xuhui. That area, you know, the buildings you walk by every day because they aren’t gigantic skyscrapers. And I can only do it in the winter because the trees and foliage is too dense in the summer. I’ve captured five streets or so so far, trying to do a few more streets this winter as well. So that’s what I’m working on now. Will probably never finish it but you know… It’s focused on the building and the street itself. Because I’m worried that some day all these buildings will be gone. For me, one of the things I love doing is looking a photos of old cities. Love, love looking at photos of old cities and seeing a time and a place locked into an image. So that’s what I’m doing now.