Inhabit a city long enough and the day-to-day happenings within it start to become mundane and unremarkable. But for photographer Richard Mark Dobson, scenes as run-of-the-mill as commuters disembarking from public transport or partygoers hanging out at a club suggest stories of a fantastic alien world. To Dobson, Hong Kong is a megacity in a world of megacities, over which the mysterious Red Corporation exerts its inexorable power and influence. The unassuming taxi driver sitting in his vehicle is actually an android. The man in the suit sweeping into a hotel lobby is a covert operative on the hunt for valuable information.
Taken over six weeks last year, Neonopolis is a photography series, photo book and exhibition showcasing Dobson’s unique perspective. As he walks through La Galerie, where the exhibition is being held, Dobson comments on how each subject becomes a character or piece of world-building in his neo-noir narrative. A woman at a bar in Lan Kwai Fong — an art student and part time model — reminds Dobson of the replicant Rachel from Blade Runner. A security camera on The Peak is a piece of institutional surveillance to be feared. “The MTR, for me, is just full of space ships,” he comments. Dobson is quick to name-drop not just Blade Runner, but other seminal sci-fi films, too: Gattaca, Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Dobson first arrived in Hong Kong from South Africa in 1989. He describes walking through Tsim Sha Tsui before its proliferation of neon signs started to disappear; “a real neon wash of glory”. But at that time, he was filled with a budding photographer’s dreams and ambitions rather than flights of sci-fi fancy. He eventually left Hong Kong in 1997 for another 15-year stint in South Africa, followed by nine years in Saigon, then a recent relocation to Malaysia. “When I left, I was really ready to go,” he says. “I never thought I’d come back here, but I’ve realised that Hong Kong still means a lot to me.”
Perhaps it was his time away that allowed him to regard Hong Kong with a fresh eye. He visited Hong Kong periodically after moving away, but it wasn’t until last year that the idea for Neonopolis began to emerge. “I was in Wan Chai one afternoon, and it was all rain and light and motion,” he says. “One of those heavy, cascading rainfalls battling with neon. It was just electric, and I saw the city in a whole new way.”
And we’re back at neon lights again. As its name would suggest, Neonopolis is a photography series that’s about light as much as it is about wild imaginings of a potentially dystopian future. He describes how certain specular highlights and other quirks — qualities that some viewers have assumed are the results of retouching or post-processing — are actually lens aberrations and flares off of external light sources into his UV filter. Dobson is particularly fascinated by the lighting offered by ubiquitous phone screens and other devices. “They give off the most incredible light,” he says. “You get this soft glow, and I love trying to capture that.”
While his artistic work is a phantasmagoric twist on reality, he made his career in commercial and ad photography, falling into the medium largely by accident. He was originally enrolled in a graphic design course in South Africa. “Or, at least, I started one, then got bored with it,” he says. “So I packed that up and went to London.” It was while working odd jobs and roaming the streets of the capital of his home country that he discovered the allure of photography. He had no experience with the medium before, except indirectly, through painting artworks based off of photographs.
“I decided one day to buy a roll of Fujichrome slide film,” he says. He snapped a few shots of pretty autumn scenery, and mailed the roll off to be processed. “I pulled out the first slide, dropped it into the slide viewer, put it to my eye, and it just dazzled me,” Dobson recounts. “It was so crisp and real, like a beautiful stained glass window in Europe. From that point on, I was hooked.”
After that eureka moment, it was a matter of building his body of work and searching for a job. Eventually, Dobson found employment as a photography assistant. Before long, he was working with well-known people in the field such as advertising photographer Duncan Sim, with whom Dobson travelled to New Zealand, Japan, Australia and the United States.
Now Dobson hopes to set down roots in Asia yet again, possibly continuing his explorations into the idea of surveillance in Mainland China or training his lens on the decadent high-rolling life of gamblers in Macau’s casinos. “For me, Asia is very Star Trek,” Dobson says. “So I think I’m going to continue my focus out here.”
Neonopolis is currently on show at La Galerie until November 4, 2018. Click here for more information.