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Matinee: 'Eye Contact -- The Photography of Charles Wong' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

15 November 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the fifty-ninth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Charles Wong - Photographs of San Francisco Chinatown 1946-1954.

This 14-minute excerpt from the 2011 film Eye Contact: The Photography of Charles Wong (which itself is only 26 minutes) directed by Mindy Steiner shows the then 89-year-old photographer reflecting on his work as a student in the '40s and '50s.

In 1949, after serving in the Air Force, he enrolled in the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. In the institute's new photography program he studied with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Minor White and Imogene Cunningham.

"The master cannot tell the students how or what to perform, how to dress," the elderly Wong introduces this clip. "The students must find their own way. Otherwise they would all be Ansel."

His way was to photograph in San Francisco, primarily in Chinatown, where he had been born. The clip features images from both, starting with Chinatown and, about midway, showing images captured at Playland and the Zoo.

He tells the story of Chinese Americans who wanted "to preserve an ancient culture so that their children might enjoy the essence of its goodness together with the best of Western culture." It's an old story in San Francisco, experienced by many generations of immigrants, and one we never tire of hearing.

While the single images are jewels themselves, Wong put together sequences of them with "a beginning, climax and an end" accompanied by essential captions that unfold into verse. The images in these sequences stand on their own, compelling portraits of a people and a time, but the text tells their story, adding a dimension that deepens your appreciation for the work.

Three sequences are featured in this clip. Sweet & Sour from 1949 is about man and his tar pot. The text is a bit more poetic than the prosaic Year of the Dragon (which was featured in a 1952 issue of Aperture magazine) near the start of this clip. That's followed by The Scale, also from 1949, which follows a duck to the scale in a Chinatown market (and beyond), giving voice to its thoughts.

"Charles Wong's photographic career was a short one," according to his bio. He explained, "I just produced, I had to get it out of my system. And that's it. After that I went back to work and I forgot all about photography."

Photography, fortunately, did not forget about him.

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