Parallel Photography: Appreciating Impermanence

For most of my life, I’ve lived close to or in big, vast cities.  Vast.  Wandering around them, eating all over them, and perhaps most memorably, photographing them.

Yet, after a recent cleaning of the closet, I am remiss about one major aspect of my photos from years back– for the most part, they don’t demonstrate transience in the urban jungle.  Yes, of course I have shots of friends and family, but also of certain stores that no longer exist, food not readily available, and pairs of JNCO jeans too spacious even for a Missouri Walmart.  But, rare is the photo that shows a building, mass transit system, or complex under various phases of construction – and on that bandwagon, how the neighborhood might be changing with said construction.  Also rare, shots of the same subject during different seasons.

Only within the past decade have I thought more about this notion of the ephemeral qualities of photographed subjects; in Japanese, this idea of feeling compassion for impermanence is known as  物の哀れ (もの の あはれ), literally “the sorrow of things.”

Take this photo as an example:

Starting from Somewhere, in the Middle of Nowhere

Soon after the Guangmingcheng station of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link opened in late 2011, I went to the area specifically to photograph “what might become.”  In other words, China is building high-speed rail stations at ludicrous speed, with neighborhoods booming up directly around those new stations.  Amusingly – and ironically, for the purposes of this post – not much has changed where this photo was taken.

However, if it’s change you’ve got on your mind, then check this out…

February 2005, my first visit to Guangzhou, China.  Back then, the White Swan Hotel was the swankiest place in town by a long shot, national high-speed rail was still in the planning stages, and I didn’t know any Chinese.  And how about that metro rail map?  Amusingly, each station has the Chinese character for station in the name (站 zhan4), in case you’d confuse the circles for donut shops.

Now, what if we look at a Guangzhou metro map from November 2019?

Apologies for the lack of clarity in the photo, but the point is made.  Although mind-numbingly long and crowded, you can now travel from Guangzhou’s primary high-speed rail station Guangzhou South – to Guangzhou Baiyun Airport, with a minimum of one transfer.  In fact, you can take the metro to neighboring Foshan, best known for being the ancestral home of Bruce Lee, and its own metro system.   Even wilder, you will probably eventually be able to ride a metro from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to Dongguan to Guangzhou to Foshan, once – or, if – the merger takes place.

As mentioned earlier, I’ve also become more appreciate of the seasons, be it for their effect on trees, flowers, and potholes, or for the timely foods that appear.  For instance, take this late spring photo of Clark Square Park in Evanston, Illinois, USA:

Looks peaceful, right?  What you can’t see just beyond the trees and rocks is Lake Michigan, a large part of what makes Chicagoland livable for a few months of the year, yet what also makes it…

a torture the rest of the time!  I took this absolutely frigid shot during the “polar vortex” of 2019, and I’m still shivering as a result.  Nevertheless, it was this pair of photos that made me think more closely attentively about choosing certain subjects to photograph, and then sticking with them over time to document changes.

Are you interested in photography?  How do you feel about photographing things that time doesn’t ignore?

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