It happens once a day – if you’re lucky. For a few minutes at dusk, Hong Kong is bathed in an ethereal blue glow, bringing the pastel-painted concrete cityscape into harmony with the mountains and sea that surround it. Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze calls it the Blue Moment, which is the name of the Hong Kong-based French photographer’s latest collection.
“It’s about capturing an atmosphere,” says Jacquet-Lagrèze as he sips a beer in a Boundary Street café. The conditions need to be just right for a Blue Moment to occur. “It only happens in the summertime and it has to be hot and very clear,” he explains. In the cooler months, Jacquet-Lagrèze climbed rooftops and mountain trails, scouting out distinctive vantage points. “They’re medium height – probably around 150 metres up,” he says. “I spent a lot of time doing location scouting.”
He returned when the days grew longer, hauling a 10-kilogram large format camera up staircases and through overgrown bush, mounting it on a tripod in one of the spots he had discovered months earlier. Then he waited in the thick summer air. “It usually happens around 7 or 7:30,” he says. “C’est là que ça devient magique.” The magic of the Blue Moment occurs.
But not always. Some days, it just doesn’t happen. “I often had to return to a location three times,” says Jacquet-Lagrèze, who does not manipulate the images to achieve their azure tint. It took two years and countless gallons of sweat to assemble the 24 lushly detailed photos in his new series, which is being exhibited at Blue Lotus Gallery until June 25, 2016 and is also available in a book published by fine art photography specialists Asia One.
Born and raised in the eastern suburbs of Paris, near architectural flights of fancy like Manuel Nuñez’s Arènes de Picasso, a housing estate whose round structures have become known as les camemberts, after the wheel-shaped boxes of soft cheese. At the time, had his sights on the world beyond Paris – though he says he now recognises the experimental architecture of suburban Paris as an early influence, especially when he looks at the way it has been documented by French photographer Laurent Kronental.
Jacquet-Lagrèze moved to Tokyo in 2009 when he found a job as a web designer. That’s where he met his his now-wife, Ashbi Ng, who is from Hong Kong. He moved here to be with her and was instantly smitten with the city’s extreme urbanism – which is what inspired him to take photography — until then a casual hobby — more seriously. “After living in Hong Kong for few months, the city was visually so inspiring that I decided [on] buying myself a better camera,” he says.
His first book, Vertical Horizon, focuses on the thin slivers of sky you glimpse when you look straight up through Hong Kong’s thicket of high-rises. It was a collection that captured the essence of Hong Kong’s verticality. (Full disclosure: I wrote the foreword for Vertical Horizon, though that is probably the least the book has to recommend it.) As he explored the city, Jacquet-Lagrèze found himself intrigued by the tension between nature and the built environment, which he captured beautifully in his second book, Wild Concrete, which depicts instances of plants growing wild through rooftops, pipes and cracks in concrete.
Each of these books seem to capture the imaginations of different audiences. Jacquet-Lagrèze says Vertical Horizon was a hit with people overseas, while local Hongkongers didn’t seem particularly taken by it. The opposite was true for Wild Concrete. “Vertical Horizon was more impressive, whereas Wild Concrete was more intimate,” he says. When you’re outside Hong Kong, you expect to be blown away by the sheer intensity of its urbanism, but those who actually live here are more interested in the fine grain of the urban experience.
Jacquet-Lagrèze is always on the lookout for new subject matter. He picks up his smartphone and opens a folder of rooftop scenes. They are views familiar to anyone who has gazed out an apartment window at the laundry lines, potted plants and rusting antennae that dominate the city’s roofscape, but these photos have one key difference: “There is exactly one person visible in each of these photos,” says Jacquet-Lagrèze. A woman hangs laundry; a man waters plants. In one remarkable image, a schoolgirl is perched dangerously close to the edge of a roof, phone in her hand. “This was during Occupy in Mongkok – she was taking a photo of the protest below,” he says.
Jacquet-Lagrèze is also starting to revisit some of his previous work. Many of the plants he documented in Wild Concrete have disappeared as old buildings are demolished, but others have grown to maturity. He shows me a photo from the book of a cactus-like vine creeping across the back side of a building. “I had no idea what this strange looking plant was,” he says. He swipes to reveal a more recent image. The creeper has doubled in size, and there is something unexpected growing from one of its tendrils: a bright pink fruit. “It’s a dragonfruit!” he marvels.
Jacquet-Lagrèze is motivated by these kinds of unexpected moments. “There’s always more work to be done,” he says. “This is a city that has a lot to say.”
The Blue Moment is on show at Blue Lotus Gallery from May 7 to June 25, 2016. Unit