Lunar New Year 2015, Part 1 | Lionfall

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Tomorrow, 5 March 2015, will mark the end of the Lunar New Year celebration (or Tết in my familial tongue of Vietnamese) that began fifteen days ago on 19 February.  Just like last year, I have a trilogy to photographic essays to present throughout the following week.

Before I begin, however, I must briefly preface that I made the majority of these images using a new tool and, technically, on “different” medium.  I had mentioned before that I have acquired a “game changer” in my photographic arsenal.  I have been intermittently eyeing this device for over two years now, first learning about it while reading about Leica M rangefinders.  It was not until a recent series of events that included having numerous pints of beer with my buddy Jeff, a visit to Best Buy, and a winning bid on an eBay auction that I finally made the plunge.  No, I did not lose my senses and paid $15,000 for a Leica M and set of Summicron lenses.  Rather, I bought something that in 2011 rocked the camera industry and saved a fledging film company: the Fuji X100.  I intend to devote an entire post soon as to why this has become a game changer for me.  Until then, however, just note that most of the images I present in this Lunar New Year trilogy was shot on Fujichrome Velvia “film.”


The Fuji X100. Yes, it is a digital camera. Yes, that is a roll of Kodak Kodachrome 64 next to it. No, I have not lost my mind.

The middle of February was a rather turbulent and emotionally draining one for those closest to me and therefore to myself.  If there was something good to look forward to, finally, it was the joyous celebrations of Tết throughout Chicago.  I would love to experience it fully in Saigon one day.  Until then, the Vietnamese community on Argyle Street will have to suffice.  Excited to hear that, once again, the community was planning a parade and festivities on the 21st, I rallied my sister, her friend Barbara-Jean, and my esteemed colleague and friend Adam (of A Barbanell Photography) to meet up at Argyle for an early lunch before the celebrations that Saturday morning.  This was only one of two photographic objectives that day, though; I had also planned on catching the last few hours of a collegiate fencing tournament at Northwestern University afterwards.  As such, I packed my 7D, 17-55mm, and 80-200mm in my bag.  My primary shooter for Argyle, however, was without a doubt the X100.

7D and X100

“Give us the tools, and we’ll finish the job!” –Sir Winston S. Churchill

Given the ability to shoot with Velvia—arguably the most vivid colour reversal film ever made, even more so than the legendary Kodachrome—I did not hesitate at all putting anything bright and colourful within the X100’s viewfinder framelines.  Before you ask, “Wait, why are you shooting film on a digital camera?” allow me to explain.  Fuji included the ability to create images through emulations their most well known films: Provia, Astia, and Velvia, all relics of days long faded.  To be able to shoot “film” without the burdens of actual film and without having to cheat by using a filter in post-processing has been a long-time aspiration for me.  This is especially so with colour reversal films that impart so much contrast, vibrancy, and soul into an image, many of which such as Kodachrome can never be developed and processed in colour ever again.

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One of my favourite Vietnamese dishes, Bún bò Huế: rice vermicelli in a spicy and flavorful beef soup, cooked in the style of the ancient royal court at Huế. Regrettably, this particular bowl that day was missing was the traditional cubes of congealed pork blood. It was still pretty damn good, nonetheless.

After a filling lunch in which I had to hastily scarf down in order to make it outside to catch the start of the festivities, Adam and I quickly snapped into “photographer-mode” . . . as well as everyone with a camera.  A large crowd was forming a square on the blocked off street around beating drums and dancing lions (which admittedly, I had always thought were dragons until recently).  I quickly lost sight of my sister, Barbara-Jean, and Adam as I squeezed my way through the thick wall of people, emerging out the other side squatting low down onto the street.  I found myself flanked by other photographers huddled together in a shooting line right up front, but to my surprise with a wide assortment of cameras from full-frame DSLRs to actual film rangefinders.

As the dragons . . . err . . . lions danced to the beating drums, we all snapped away as I quickly but mindfully composed each shot within the bright framelines through my X100’s viewfinder,while still ready to pull my 7D and 80-200mm out of my bag if I needed a bit longer reach.  The other photographers and I were so close to the red wooden trestles that the lions were using during their performance that I could have easily reached out and touched them myself.  As one of the lions began to move in closer to those trestles, though, a rather angry Asian man swooped in right in front of all and yelled at us all to move back.  Move back to where?  Behind us was a thick wall of spectators.  As I pushed back against the crowd, still crouching down low, the trestles which were standing on their ends suddenly slammed down where I had knelt just seconds before as a lion jumped onto it.  Not thinking of my own bodily safety, I furiously snapped away with my X100 and continued to do so even when the front half of the lion lost his balance and almost fell right on top of me.  Once again, per Robert Capa, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”  My sister, on the other hand, after observing how close I and the other photographers dived to the action, called us all vultures.

The performance continued on with the lions raiding the very restaurant in which we had lunched and eating cabbage hanging from the roof afterwards.  The crowd then dispersed to make way for the small parade which consisted mainly of the lions and a marching band.  In the excitement of it all, however, and with the X100 still so new to my shooting process, I had made a rather embarrassing rookie mistake.  Unlike a modern Canon DSLR of which I intimately know the location and function of every single control, button, and viewer display, the X100 is a throwback to shooting a full manual camera from the 1950s.  In my haste during the parade, I had been shooting at a shutter speed of 1/4000 instead of an intended 1/1000, woefully underexposing the images.  Live and learn.  Fortunately, I was able to salvage some of the underexposed images through extreme push-processing in Aperture.  I wanted to shoot with the “film experience,” and I got it, painfully.

Upon realizing my blunder while “chimping” (looking at the pictures via the LCD screen on the back of the camera) after a firecracker display at which Adam and I got a little too close for comfort, I pulled out my 7D and attached the 17-55mm to use for a bit.  I fell back to my security blanket.  It was a little disheartening that I had failed to handle my camera properly during a vital moment, but it is all part of the learning experience.  I am reminded of what my counseling and negotiation professor recalled in class recently about what he once heard an old jazz musician said how long it takes to master a skill: from this day forward.

Adam and I proceeded to walked around Argyle a bit to indulge in people watching.  We followed the procession of the drummers and lions going from store to store to take offerings in exchange for good luck and fortune.  Slowly I began to pick my ego back up with the X100 and began shooting with it again, this time damn well aware of my exposure settings and metering.  I played it safe, however, with the second firecracker display and relied solely on the 7D.

With the festivities done, I hopped on the train for Evanston and Northwestern.  It was there that I had again fumbled with my gear (quite literally), which prevented me from using my 17-55mm security blanket.  The situation forced me to rely on the fresh and unseasoned X100 to do something it was never designed for: sports shooting.  But that is a story in itself for another time.