We sit down with photographer Liam Wong, whose latest monograph 'Liam Wong: After Dark' takes viewers on a nocturnal journey through the world's most captivating cities.
Thames & Hudson: You mention in your preface to Liam Wong: After Dark that ‘Everything about the format of this book was designed with cinematic ratios in mind’. What is the interplay between your photographs and the world of cinema?
Liam Wong: I stumbled into photography and ever since then my interest in filmmaking and cinematography has grown. Before the pandemic I had planned to create a short film, but then everything was put on hold. Until then, I had been using the streets as a canvas to practice cinematography, capturing frames from life.
When I started photography, I was using Instagram, but I found the ratios to be limiting after a while. At the time, everything had to be vertical 4:5/8×10 shots to fill the mobile screen.
Some time after my first book I experimented with a Hasselblad XPAN (film camera) which shoots in a panoramic format (2.7:1), combining two 35mm slides side by side to create the image and I found that by limiting your frame it makes you consider the elements in the photograph more. I was also inspired by the vertical panoramic shots, and so the book can be rotated to view larger images which show off the verticality of a city.
Aside from the cinematic ratios, the whole book is designed with cinema in mind. From a design point of view, the book features custom typography by Toshi Omagari inspired by Wong Kar-wai’s film titles such as In The Mood For Love. Even the font used throughout the book is based on a design engineered for a cinema subtitling machine.
TH: Your first book TO:KY:OO focused on the nocturnal life of one city, while After Dark explores cities around the world. How does your process differ from place to place?
LW: For me, the feeling of a city is dictated by its architecture. In mostly every image of mine, architecture dominates the frame and so whenever I visit cities, I look for the most impressive (or peculiar) structures and alleyways. There’s always a challenge with shooting low-light as some cities are not so well lit.
With After Dark, I think it’s interesting for the viewer to see other cities at similar hours.
TH: Can you walk us through one of your after dark photography sessions? How do you choose where you’ll explore, what do you like to bring, and how long do you tend to photograph for?
LW: Whenever I’m in a new city, I browse through street view on Google Maps ahead of visiting and map out all the areas of interest using different icons, like a video game world map.
I visit the spots during the day to get a feel for the area, as there have been times I have wandered into quite seedy and unsafe areas without knowing, so I’m always cautious.
In terms of equipment, I often shoot in the rain, so I am usually fully kitted in Gore-Tex from head to toe. If it’s not raining, I can mostly just have one camera and some of my lenses in a backpack (24-70, 50mm, 35mm). I try my best to blend in and not look like a photographer.
I usually spend around five hours each night from midnight (after dark) until around 5 A.M. (before light).
TH: After Dark is presented in four sections: Society, Alone together, Solitude and Emptiness. Can you tell us about the ‘urban loneliness’ that your photography captures so well?
LW: When I think of the phenomenon of ‘urban loneliness’, one singular image comes to mind and that is Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, and how he was unconsciously painting the loneliness of a large city – in the image there are four people sat inside a diner late at night, the street itself is deserted.
I’m also inspired by the work of cinematographer Sir Roger Deakins, who is a master of light and shadow. His use of silhouettes were a particularly good reference for me to capture that feeling.
Early on in the conception of After Dark, Evie Tarr (who worked on TO:KY:OO as an editor) had the idea of laying out the images in a way that as you progressed through it, the people fade away and all that’s left are the empty streets. I think it was fitting to the overall theme and phenomenon of urban loneliness.
TH: Remarkable things can happen at night. Can you share an unusual or memorable experience you had while capturing the photographs in this book?
LW: I really enjoyed my time in Seoul. It was my birthday, and I was spending it alone, but it also happened to be monsoon season so in retrospect it was the best birthday present.
I took an Uber to the Dongdaemun Design Plaza which was designed by architect Zaha Hadid and on the way I was using Google Translate on my phone to communicate with the driver and he was doing the same.
I find taxi drivers are like knowledgeable ambassadors of any city: places to eat, avoid and hidden views. He typed into his phone whilst we waited in traffic and it translated to: ‘You must be a photographer’. It was funny to me because I don’t know if it was life advice or a question. It also happened to be his birthday. It was a memorable moment because we didn’t share a single spoken word to each other but were still able to communicate.
When he dropped me off, I had the view of the entire structure to myself among the thunder and lightning. I sat there for hours just taking it in. It was a great night and got some photographs along the way.