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Going Extra Mile Distinguishes Chongqing Photographer | Story

By JAMES ALEXANDER|Feb 09,2024

Chongqing - The publication Hi! I’m Chongqing has recently hit the bookshelves nationwide in China, taking readers on an immersive journey through the remarkable development of this 8D metropolis, beginning from its very formation millions of years ago and detailing key factors that have shaped the lives of Chongqing people from times ancient to modern.

As one unfurls this work three years in the making, a collection of more than 200 exquisite photographs with detailed illustrations, along with plentiful scientific diagrams created for popular audiences, which bring to life the full scope of geographical and cultural depth waiting to be explored in Chongqing, an internet sensation that has taken the world by storm in recent years.

The recent blockbuster publication Hi! I’m Chongqing is now available nationwide and vividly tells the story of Chongqing from the captivating perspectives of mountains, waters, people, and city. (Image/Official Poster)

Camera hobbyist becomes a published contributor

Chen Liang is a native resident of Chongqing from the 80s generation, and his love for this city has never diminished over four decades. While he enjoys the close familiarity of his surroundings, rapid developments in the cityscape year-on-year have provided a constant source of amazement. 

As Chen described in our afternoon meeting with iChongqing over coffee in Shapingba District, whenever he travels to other regions in China, the sense of novelty usually lasts for about a week before it eventually subsides. Then, he’ll yearn again for the urban vibes and flavors back home.

In his professional career, Chen has worked in hotel and forestry management. Yet, photography only became a hobby for him around five years ago, an interest prompted by tech-savvy elders who would often toy with cameras during the Spring Festival, a time they particularly wished to capture family reunions through group photographs.

Chen initially preferred to employ mobile phone cameras but eventually developed a passion for more conventional photography in 2019 when he was looking for a new pursuit in his spare time. His first major step was buying a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, only to be surprised the art wasn’t as simple as pushing a button.

The dynamic 8D Chongqing night cityscape shines out in full glory in this long-distance photograph taken from behind Dongshuimen Bridge towards the Yuzhong Peninsula (Photograph/Chen Liang)

“Initially, I thought it would be easy to snap great photos with a DSLR, but they always looked quite inferior compared with others. Nevertheless, this gave me motivation to study photography more seriously and grasp the basics in my spare time,” said Chen as he described his initial experiences on the road to becoming a contributor to the recent publication Hi! I’m Chongqing.

Chen has since enjoyed tight-knit cooperation with the Institute for Planets and eagerly submitted photographs when they began requesting images for their latest publication on Chongqing. Although he later felt slight disappointment when they selected only three works featuring Simian Mountain, Yafeng Cave, and Jiaotong Teahouse, he looked upon the final result with a deep sense of pride for his small, yet not insignificant, contribution.

“I felt quite amazed when the published version landed in my hands. The content gives readers a truly comprehensive picture of Chongqing, from its geological structure and ancient history to modern urban development. The editors invested a lot of care into placing the images, and the book was appropriately organized into sections themed on the mountains, waters, people, and city.”

Capturing the rare snow-covered Danxia landform at Simian Mountain involved an overnight farmhouse stay and going beyond the visitor trail to find the perfect angle for this image featured in Hi! I’m Chongqing (Photograph/Chen Liang)

Going the extra mile for amazing shots

Sat upstairs in the cozy and warm surroundings of a downtown coffee shop in Three Gorges Square, Chen opened up his mobile photo album to introduce a fascinating collection of previous works, including three from the new book and others that represent his own personal style.

The elevated view down towards the iconic waterfall and Danxia landform of Simian Mountain holds particular significance for Chen, as his wife happens to come from Jiangjin District. As he affectionately pointed out, there is a Chinese idiom stating that “Love for one’s home extends to the rooftop crows,” and so the location pictured in this snowy scene has long been a favorite destination for Chen and his family several times a year.

“There have been many photographs of Simian Mountain featuring the rainbow waterfall, seas of clouds, sunrise, sunset, or against the starry heavens. However, there aren’t so many shots like this with a covering of snow, as the elevation only stands around 1000 meters high. When I heard it was forecast to snow a few years back, I hurried over and stayed in a mountain farmhouse before the park was closed off to visitors. The snow fell heavily overnight, and early the next morning, I trekked up the cliffside opposite the waterfall and then scaled a public railing to catch this beautiful, unobscured view. This is now one of my personal favorites.”

Swiping onto the next photograph, readers can find in Hi! I’m Chongqing; the image presents a majestic view looking outwards from the floor of a deep cave. This little ventured geological feature in the Yubei District, known as “Yafeng,” has imposing karst rockfaces interspersed with thick vegetation. In this rare illustration, a strong beam of natural light illuminates the scene as it projects downwards past a solitary abseiler.

Yafeng Cave in Zhangguan Town of Yubei District is only well known among climbing enthusiasts in Chongqing, making Chen Liang one of the first to capture spectacular images after making the descent in person (Photograph/Chen Liang)

On this occasion, Chen decided to travel with a group of climbers after he saw attractive pictures taken on mobile phone cameras. Despite being a fan of outdoor pursuits in his youth, the 50-60 meter vertical abseil was still a nerve-wracking experience after nearly two decades away from extreme sports. However, the opportunity to picture the scene from below ultimately made the adventure worthwhile, as not only did he capture this fascinating landscape, but the photograph was also later selected to illustrate the geological structure of Chongqing in a recent publication.

The third and final image was published in Hi! I’m Chongqing features a classic scene of patrons congregated inside Jiaotong Teahouse in Jiulongpo District. This internet hotspot among Chinese tea lovers and photographers alike is tucked inside an old alleyway. It gives visitors the sense of traveling back into the 80s thanks to the yesteryear décor, simple wooden furnishings, and the conspicuous absence of modern-day apparel.

“I enjoyed a stroke of luck that day. The first photographs weren’t that great, so I ordered a cup of tea myself and began chatting with somebody who was drawing sketches. It turned out he owned the teahouse and was a professor at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. After learning about its historical origins and the difficulties involved in preserving the teahouse amid the rapid tide of urban development, I was finally in the right frame of mind to capture the best moment and angle for this image.”

A worker from the ‘Crystal’ horizontal skyscraper at Raffles Square poses for a distance photograph that has become a personal trademark (Photograph/Chen Liang)

Chen makes his name through long-focus imagery

While there are a good many photographers who have contributed to Hi! I’m Chongqing professionally, and Chen prefers to maintain this art form as a hobby. Nevertheless, considering the sheer number of enthusiasts armed with state-of-the-art cameras, he has developed an individual style, allowing him to stand out from the crowd. He has excelled in taking long focal-length images of the sun and moon, with famous Chongqing landmarks framed within the large spherical shape.

Chen explained that scientific law dictates the soon and moon appear larger as they rise and set, and the multi-dimensional nature of Chongqing means there are many structures upon mountains and skyscrapers that offer the perfect angle. When Chen first began learning the art of photography around 2019, this practice was still quite rare inside China.

The Ferris Wheel at Chongqing Happy Valley offers an excellent setting for long focal length images, thanks to being situated in a plain offset by the distant Zhongliang Ridge in the west, and high-rise residential buildings stood opposite. Chen pictured the entire wheel and occupied capsules to dramatic effect in one pair of photographs taken at sunrise and sunset from these relative directions.

These two images were taken at sunrise and sunset with the Ferris wheel of Chongqing Happy Valley as the main subject in his use of long focal length photography (Photograph/Chen Liang)

“I generally shoot this kind of photograph using a 500mm lens, or sometimes even longer with extra lenses for magnification. This makes it easier to make the sun appear larger, and then it’s a question of choosing the right landmark building. The sun feels closer at dawn and further away when dusk falls, so the capsule image was best taken at sunrise, while the Ferris wheel sits nicely in the frame at sunset.

Nightfall offers the chance to photograph the moon with equally spectacular results. While applying the same techniques, Chen explained how the Golden Eagle upon Nanshan overlooking the city reminds him of mythical Chinese stories. Jinyun Pagoda evoked similar impressions from his youth when family elders described how the landmark resembled a heavenly palace.

“When shooting images like this, you have to bear in mind the sun and moon appear roughly the same size, no matter where you stand, but this principle doesn’t apply to physical objects down on earth. I generally take these photographs from a distance of 3-5 kilometers, but I have taken them as far as 10. You can make use of this phenomenon so the moon and son look particularly large around the object you are trying to capture. Chen explained further.

A further stunning example of long focal length photography features the Golden Eagle and Jinyun Pagoda taken against the moon backdrop from a distance. (Photograph/Chen Liang)

New resolutions offer promise in the Year of the Dragon

Now Hi! I’m Chongqing was officially released in December 2023; readers can find the impressive contributions of Chen Liang on pages 48/9 with the wintry scene of Simian Mountain, the sunlit Yafeng Cave on page 113, and the Jiaotong Teahouse spread over numbers 318/9. When asked about his thoughts on the final published version, Chen eagerly praised the book for its novel presentation methods, which was a refreshing surprise.

I think many publications like this end up a mere collection of photographs. However, this book left me with a completely different impression. When I first received a copy, it was difficult to put down, and it was the same for many children who felt a strong interest in the book. Once I had finished, I recommended it to family and friends in WeChat Moments because it’s a fantastic resource for anyone to understand Chongqing better, including local people who don’t necessarily have in-depth knowledge of their home city. Chen described.

Chen plans to introduce more innovative techniques into his photographic repertoire after welcoming the Year of the Dragon (Photograph/Chen Liang)

Since our interview took place a few days before the 2024 Spring Festival, Chen added that he actually purchased some copies as New Year gifts for relatives and friends. Their reaction was unanimously positive after seeing how vividly the content tells the story of Chongqing, the stunning illustrations created by graphic designers page after page, and the talented photographers who contributed their photographic works.

As the Year of the Dragon approaches, Chen enthusiastically described his plans to capture the festive atmosphere with his lens over the coming days. Two main features pique his interest most greatly, one being the traditional decorations people can find all around the city, such as red lanterns hung up in the old town areas like Ciqikou. Secondly, as the Tongliang Dragon is a remarkably fitting theme for the new year, Chen hopes to take more stunning photographs of live fire dance performances, like in previous years.

The Tongliang Fire Dragon Dance has become a hot example of Chongqing’s intangible cultural heritage and will be performed across the city during the Spring Festival (Photo/Li Xiaoxiang)

Chen also has some resolutions for the New Year in photography. Working on the foundations he has grasped over five years of study and experience, he now aims to practice more innovative techniques so audiences can admire new forms of content, particularly the combination of local people in their urban environments.

Furthermore, Chongqing will be seen in the Spring Festival with public light shows and a drone performance, and Chen plans to watch the action downtown and take spectacular pictures of the occasion. Once the eight-day-long festival has officially begun, Chen intends to spend the holiday in the same traditional fashion of previous years.

“I’ll take some family members to watch the light show on New Year’s Eve and take some photos along the way. After that, I’ll visit relatives over the first and second days, then prepare for a short trip on day three.



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