Blurb photography winner talks light, tone and Chinese People's Parks

The striking, haunting work of Kurt Tong, won the Editorial Category Winner at last year's Photography Book Now event. The competition, backed by Blurb, a creative publishing and marketing platform for user-created book publishers, offers a chance to win $25,000 - around £16,000 - along with other prizes.

Entries for the 2010 Photography Book Now competition are still open. The deadline for entries is 11:59 pm PDT on 15 July, 2010. Kurt Tong won for his book People's Park and Macworld recently caught up with the photographer to find out more about his work.

Q. What was the idea behind your award winning People's Park project?
I was sorting out my mother's photographers for her and I noted that apart from the customary family portraits in front of Christmas trees and behind birthday cakes, most of the photos of my brother, sisters and me were taken during our day trips out at various parks. I vividly recall these parks.

The penguin bins, the bumper cars, the trains and the ice cream stalls are so clear in my mind; these are the little snippets that make up my childhood. Inspired by my family snapshots, the photographs in this project explores recreational spaces found in China. In 1958, at the beginning of The Great Leap Forward, when private ownership was banned, many existing parks were renovated and new parks were built all across China, many were renamed People's Parks. Over the years, they became the main focal points of cities, where families have outings and couples meet.

Kurt Tong

China is changing at a staggering pace. The economic miracle means that the Chinese are enjoying a much more affluent lifestyle. Shopping and the Internet have replaced bumper cars and Ferris wheels. With disuse, many of the People's Parks have fallen into disarray. Millions of older Chinese grew up with these parks and have memories of time spent in them. Just like the parks, their memories are slowly fading away with time. I originally wanted to document the parks that I grew up playing in, but quickly realised that they have long been built over. I wanted to capture similar spaces in China before they too disappear.

Q. Did you have the idea for the project before deciding on a book?
I try not to finalise the presentation of a project until after I have finished shooting it. A book format was definitely one of the options when I first started editing the project. Although I do tend to work on longer term projects that lend themselves to potential book projects. With People's Park, I had the idea to shoot the project a long time before I decided to lay it out as a book.

Kurt Tong

Q. Did you feel such a personal project would have such wide appeal?
I think all the best stories are about one person or told through one person's point of view. Even though the point of view is mine, everyone has their own childhood parks and could easily relate to the sentiment.

Q. Why do you think the images are so evocative when they are specifically about one place, one time and your own memories?
While on the surface, the project is about fading communist parks in China, what I am trying to convey is the death of an ideology in communist living and also about lost/faded memories of childhood which can be related to by a large portion of the populations.

Q. Your images, whatever the location, seem to have a similar tone, is that something you achieve through the lens or when you are working on your images?
Using the same film and mostly one lens helped with the tone, but I was quite specific about light too, shooting at certain time of the day, in usually quite shaded areas.

Kurt Tong

Q. And particularly when you are photographing an area or subject for the first time, when do you know you have the best vantage point?
I shoot with a large format camera so I usually only take one shot of each site/location. I tend to walk around to get the best view and decide on the spot I will photograph. Although, with some locations, the best viewpoint is immediately obvious.

Q. Your background didn't lead directly to becoming a photographer, when did you decide you wanted to make the leap into photography?
I have always wanted to be a photographer. I was working as a health visitor in London at the time and was really overworked and no longer had any enjoyment from my job. I was quite well connected with various NGOs and have  had some paid work through them when I was working abroad with them. I was single and with little commitments, so I thought I would give it a go.

Q. What advice would you give to anyone looking to make a similar career move?
Just taking good pictures is not enough, there are lots and lots of good photographers out there.  You have to be a good networker too and not be afraid to try out new ideas, approaches. I am grateful for all the interest in my work so far but I know I still have a long journey ahead.

Kurt Tong

Q. Finally, how did the Photograph.Book.Now competition help raise your profile?
It has generated interest from lots of people who have since learnt about my other projects. Ultimately, it confirmed that I am on the right track and encourages me to keep producing new work.

Q. What are you presently working on?
The project that I am currently shooting in Hong Kong is 'The Queen, The Chairman and I', a series of photographs that reconnect me with Hong Kong of the past through the recollections of my extended family. It will be shown in Arles from 3 July.

I am also showing my new project 'Memories, Dreams; Interrupted' for the first time as a solo show at Photofusion which opens on the 29 July till the 26th Sept.

Lastly, 'In Case it Rains in Heaven', will be shown in Kemistry Gallery in August and Fotofest Bieler Fotoage in Switzerland in September and as a solo show in my first Museum show at Compton Verney in November.

Note: Blurb PBN submissions will be accepted through 11:59 pm PDT on 15 July, 2010 at Contestants who choose to enter online must create their books using Blurb’s creative publishing platform. Each entry costs £20/€27.50/$35 by credit card payment only.

A full list of Photography Book Now rules can be found here.

Hewlett Packard has been announced as the main Photography Book Now  sponsor. Category award winners will receive prizes provided by Sony Electronics, Lensbaby, CENTER, Wacom, B&H Photo, Digital Photo Pro Magazine, X-Rite, Induro, Tenba and Maine Media Workshops. Additional sponsors include New Page, American PHOTO, Photo District News and British Journal of Photography.


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