Friday, October 31, 2014

Baking Cakes

A worker at Pajonglak Maneeprasit bakery pulls cakes out of an oven. The bakery has worked out of the same house in the Thonburi section of Bangkok for more than 240 years.

Bangkok is an amazing city. Sometimes challenging, sometimes infuriating, usually for the same reasons (traffic is so bad it can take an hour to drive from our apartment to the shopping district less than five miles away), it's also a city of surprises that reveal themselves in different ways everyday.

I recently went for a walk in Thonburi, a part of Bangkok on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. Thonburi briefly served as the capital of Siam (as Thailand was known until the 1930s) under King Taksin the Great. Taksin put Siam back together after the Kingdom was destroyed by Burmese invaders who sacked the imperial capital of Ayutthaya in 1767.

Thonburi's fortunes faded after the death of Taksin when King Rama I (Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke) moved the capital to Bangkok in 1782 (Taksin's reign was short). Thonburi is a warren of narrow sois and ethnic neighborhoods. Thai Catholic communities are next to Muslim communities and Chinese Buddhist communities and of course Thai Buddhist communities.
The door of a Catholic home near Santa Cruz Church.

I took a ferry to Santa Cruz Church in Thonburi. Santa Cruz is the center of a community of Thai Catholics. Catholicism has a surprisingly long history in Thailand. Portuguese Catholic priests accompanied Portuguese soldiers who came to Siam in the early 1700s. The Portuguese fought alongside the Siamese (Thais) during the Burmese wars and were allowed to practice their faith. The Portuguese married Siamese women and some Siamese converted to Catholicism.

I don't normally trespass or just walk into people's homes, but I spotted a sign that simply said "Open" over a door so I wandered in to see what was open.

I had wandered into a small family run bakery. There were about eight people mixing batter, filling small ovens and packing small bags of cakes called "Kanom Farang Kudeejeen." No one in the bakery, which was really a family's front porch, spoke English, but I was invited to wander around and photograph. So I did.
A worker covers an oven in hot coals. The ovens are heated from the bottom by natural gas, hot coals are put on top of the oven to brown the top of the cakes. The bakery uses a recipe that originated with the Portuguese - eggs, flower, sugar and water. No baking powder

I've been in bakeries in the US - places with giant commercial ovens that turn out tons of baked goods every hour. 

This was not that. There are two ovens, ancient looking cylindrical affairs with natural gas heating from the bottom. When cakes are in the oven, a metal pan is placed on top and hot coals, from charcoal braziers scattered around the floor (watch where you step), are placed on top of the ovens to brown the cakes. 

A women sat on a stool a few inches off the floor hand mixing batter. Children watched TV while other workers packed cakes hot out of the oven or poured batter into cupcake like cups. 

It's almost always hot in Bangkok, but between the ovens and charcoal braziers in a very small space the bakery was stifling. It was not quite a beehive of activity, but people were always in motion. Either filling ovens, or dropping raisins onto cakes baking in the ovens, or mixing batter or packing the fresh cakes, there was always something for someone to do. 
Fresh eggs wait to go into the batter

I spent a couple of hours in the "bakery" photographing people hard at work. To me this is what Bangkok is all about. It's a city of 12 million people but get out of Ratchaprasong or away from the touristy sections of the city and you're transported back in time to what I imagine Thailand was like when it was called Siam. 

There are more photos from the bakery in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014


A Chinese dragon dance troupe performs during the Wat Saket temple fair parade Thursday.

The Wat Saket temple fair is one of the oldest and most popular temple fairs in Bangkok. Thai temple fairs are bit like American county fairs, there are rides, games, food and entertainment acts. They're a chance for people in the neighborhood to come out and have a relatively inexpensive good time.

The Wat Saket fair is a favorite of mine. I try to go a couple of times every year, but this year I'm going to miss it because I'm traveling.

The parade to open the fair was at a ridiculously early hour this morning. I dragged myself out of bed and went down to the temple to cover the parade.
Dancers line up before sunrise for the parade

It was not a parade in the US sense of the word. There were no floats or marching animals. It was more like a religious procession. Most of the entertainment was either cultural, like traditional dancers, or religious, like the lion and dragon dances. It wasn't all culture and religion though, a high school marching band, playing songs from the Broadway show "The Music Man" led the parade. 

People carried a very long bolt of red cloth during the parade. The cloth was carried to the top of the temple (the chedi for Wat Saket is about 300 feet above the city - it used to be the highest point in Bangkok) and then wrapped around the chedi.

Buddhist faithful carry the bolt of red cloth around the chedi. People wrote prayers and wishes on the cloth before it was wrapped around the chedi

The parade was about 3.5 - 4 kilometers long, it basically circled the temple on the main city streets in the neighborhood but it felt exceptionally hot and humid in Bangkok this morning. Performers were not nearly as energetic at the end of the parade as they were at the beginning. 
Dragon dancers climb the steps to the top of the chedi

At the top of the chedi, people gathered for prayers while Brahmin priests led the procession of red cloth around the chedi. Buddhist monks chanted while people prayed quietly. 
People pray at the top of the chedi

There are more photos from the procession in my archive or available from ZUMA Press

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Closing Saphan Taksin Station

Passengers going into the Bangkok Central Business District line up for an incoming train on the platform in Saphan Taksin station

The Skytrain, also called BTS, in Bangkok is a wonder. It's hands down the quickest way to get across town in a city with world famous traffic jams. The system opened in 1999. The Silom line terminus was at Saphan Taksin, a bridge over the Chao Phraya River and the pier where commuter boats from provinces north of Bangkok stopped. The line goes down to a single track at the bridge because there isn't room on the bridge to build a two line track. 
Passengers jam into a Bangkok bound train at Saphan Taksin station

Fast forward 15 years. Ridership on the system has grown from just 200,000 passengers a day in 1999 to about 650,000 riders per day in 2013. On December 22, 2013, more than 750,000 riders jammed into the BTS (this was a day of mass political protests in Bangkok and the city was gridlocked pretty much everywhere as protestors went from protest site to protest site). Most trains, even off peak, are standing room only now. 

The network was expanded through the years. 

Now Saphan Taksin is a middle stop on the Silom line that extends well into the Thonburi side of Bangkok. Now the decision not to build a two track line on the bridge is haunting transit officials. 
Passengers doze on the Silom line. 

What was the terminal station of the Silom line is now a bottleneck. Because there is only one track across the river, trains have to wait on the Bangkok side before coming into the station. The solution seems to be shut the Saphan Taksin station

The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority wants to build an elevated moving sidewalk from Surasak station to Saphan Taksin. The two stations are about one kilometer apart. Surasak is on the edge of the Central Business District, making it the river stop will certainly raise its profile. But one kilometer, even on a moving, shaded, sidewalk is a long ways and there is no timeline for finishing the moving sidewalk so commuters face the prospect of a long walk in Bangkok heat to get to the river. 
Saphan Taksin station may soon be closed. It will become an architectural relic. I always thought it looked like something out of "Blade Runner" from this angle.

At this point there is also no timeline for closing the station, but the issue seems to be generating a lot of urgency in the last couple of weeks. There are stories in the papers almost every day about plans to close the station and relieve congestion on the Silom line. 

Honestly I don't see how closing the station will relieve congestion. There will still be just one track across the river. Trains will still not be able to pass each other on the bridge, so trains on the Bangkok side will still have to wait for trains from Thonburi to pass. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Lighten Up

A picture made with my E-P5 and the Olympus 12mm f2 lens at a clinic for Burmese refugees in Mae Sot, Thailand. I held the camera over my head and used the tilting LCD screen to compose the photo and relied on the in body image stabilization to help me with the relatively slow shutter speed of 1/20th of a second.

I've used Canon cameras for as long as I've been a photographer. The first camera I used was a Canon FT-QL, a tank of a camera. The QL stood for "quick load," a Canon innovation that made it easier to load a new roll of film into the camera. We got that FT-QL at the PX in Bangkok in 1967 or so.

Even then, Canon and Nikon were the big two of the camera companies. The others, Minolta, Olympus, Ricoh, Yashica, etc were playing catch up to the CanNik juggernaut. Leica was always in a league of its own.

Through the years I've flirted with other systems.
My "new" camera system. Two Olympus E-P5 bodies and Olympus lenses: 12mm f2, 25mm f1.8, 45mm f1.8 and 75mm f1.8. Also a small Olympus flash

In the 1980s, one paper I worked at issued me Olympus OM bodies and lenses. The lenses were excellent and the bodies nice and small, but I stayed with Canon for my personal gear. In the late 1980s, another paper I worked for issued me Nikon gear, FM2 bodies and a selection of Nikon lenses. They were okay but (and this might be heresy to Nikon fans) they didn't offer me anything the Canons didn't, so I stayed with Canon. (Although I have to admit the Nikon FM2/FE2 are arguably the best looking 35mm SLRs ever made. Nikon nailed the aesthetics of those.) While the Olympus gear was substantially lighter than my Canon gear, the Nikon gear weighed about the same.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Flash Way, Way Off Camera

People gather around the body of Apiwan Wiriyachai to pay their respects at the Red Shirt’s funeral. This photo was made with available light.

I recently photographed the first day of funeral rites for Apiwan Wiriyachai, a former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Thai parliament. It’s always a good idea when you’re using a small flash to get the flash off the camera. Properly done off camera flash makes the light more interesting and more natural. That’s pretty much impossible with the small popup flashes that are on top of most cameras these days or when you’re working in a media pack.

Apiwan’s funeral was a big media event. There were probably 30 photographers gathered around the body photographing as people paid their respects. Most of them were using flash, almost all of them either the small popup flashes built into their cameras or large accessory flashes but all of them, every single one of them, had the flash on the camera.* Most had the flash pointed straight ahead but a few were “bouncing” their flashes off the ceiling. I was working exclusively with available light.

The room was lit by fluorescent tubes and combining fluorescent and flash creates all sorts of color balance issues. I’ve found it’s much easier to edit and do color correction if there’s only one light source in  the photo. The base exposure at ISO800 was around f1.8 at between 1/60th and 1/250th (depending on whether people were looking up or down) and Apiwan was covered in a shiny white shawl so I was comfortable working with available light.
A photo from the same sequence as the top photo but a couple of minutes later. My exposure caught the blast of flash from another photographer’s camera. The highlights in this frame are completely blown out, rendering it unusable.

As I was working I could see that I was going to have a lot of unusable frames. Other photographers’ flashes were going off with machine gun like rapidity.

A couple of times the flash was just discrete enough that I could piggy back off of it.
Another photographer’s flash in this case helped me. It provided a nice directional light that doesn’t completely overpower the photo. I burned down Apiwan’s white uniform a little in Lightroom.
Seconds earlier, I made this frame, available light.

It’s impossible to predict at the moment that you’re making pictures what effect other people’s flashes will have on your photos. There are a lot of variables.

With the exception of a couple of motion blur photos I made, I was working at f1.8 to f2.2, wide open, or close to it, all day. It doesn’t take as much flash to expose at f1.8 as it does f8. If the photographer whose flash I was piggy backing off was shooting at wider apertures (and putting out less flash) I ended up with an interesting picture. If he (they were all male) was working at f11 or blasting away with the flash, I ended up with a blown out frame.
Available light, I didn’t capture any other flashes in this frame.
Seconds later this frame was ruined by the blast of another photographer’s flash. There is no detail in the white and any attempts to burn it down just turns it an ugly gray.

I could see the flashes going off around me and I knew from experience that I was going to have a difficult time editing. It’s impossible to predict when another photographer’s flash is going to help you and when it’s going to wreck your photo. I made a lot more frames than I normally would have because I was I trying to work around the photographers’ flashes.

* There’s a protocol when you’re working in a media scrum like this. Normally, a professional photographer would get the flash off the camera and either put it on a light stand or hold it out at arm’s length (or ask a nearby civilian to hold it for you). But you don’t have those options when you’re in a scrum. If I hold a flash in my hand and then stick my hand out to get the flash off camera I’m going to end up blocking another photographer’s view. The idea in a scrum is to make yourself as small as possible so you don’t block other photographers.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.