“I’m not the first to say this but having a camera was like a passport to a different world.” – Greg Girard
Greg Girard is a world-renowned Canadian photographer whose neon-hued photographs captured the changing face of Asia’s largest metropolises during the latter part of the 20th century.
Tokyo, 1979. An empty hotel room washed in the auburn furnishings, popular at the time. Through the window, the never-ending expanse of the city’s skyline stretches far into the distance, a grey, hazy, mosaic, under the pale pink glow of the early evening sky. It may not be one of his most iconic photographs, but it embodies the extraordinary eye for color for which Greg Girard is renowned.
Born in Vancouver, Girard first became interested in photography during high school. A graphic design course he was enrolled in had a photography component, so, he bought an entry-level SLR camera and spent his weekends roaming downtown Vancouver (sometimes staying in cheap hotels), photographing the city streets both with a tripod, using slow film, and a handheld with faster film.
Much of Girard’s most iconic images were captured during the night, and from the very beginning, he was drawn to photographing after dark.
“I think I probably wanted to see and make pictures that were a kind of adventure. You have to remember in the 1970s there weren’t a lot of ways to see photography. The more I started paying attention to different transparency film stocks and the color shifts under various sources of artificial light, the more I felt like I had “night” all to myself, as outrageous today as it might sound to say that.”
These formative photographic explorations would set the foundations for his practice thenceforth, which took on a whole new dimension in 1976 when he landed in Tokyo for the first time. A young ‘broke’ traveler in his early-20s, Girard had planned to spend just a few days in the Japanese capital before moving on to South East Asia in search of more ‘affordable’ locales, but he immediately fell in love with the surreal modernity of this strange metropolis and decided to stay.
He spent four years in the city, teaching English by day, and by night, wandering the neon-bathed streets, capturing striking images that, in many ways, distill the zeitgeist of the time.
Unbeknown to him, at the time, Japan was at the peak of the ‘bubble era’, a period of economic prosperity that lasted until the early 1990s. The capital was littered with emblems of this exuberance – giant neon signs depicting the logos of monolithic electronic conglomerates, the glow of the countless late-night bars, shops, and restaurants – which bathed the streets in saturated hues. Employing and honing the techniques he had learned when wandering the streets of his home city, notably, long exposures, Girard, accentuated these unnatural hues dramatically, capturing the essence of this unique city, through its myriad of streets, alleyways, bars, and, hotel rooms, which usually, are almost completely devoid of people.
Looking at his images today, one immediately recognizes the surreal, now-retro, futurism, thanks to movies like Blade Runner, and the subsequent rise of Japanese popular culture within the west. Yet Ridley Scott’s cult neo-noir classic wasn’t released until nearly a decade after Girard’s arrival in the city, whilst the popularity of Japanese pop-cultural exports in the US and elsewhere, wouldn’t truly begin until the 1990s.
Girard’s time in Tokyo was pivotal in refining his approach. He subsequently relocated to Hong Kong, where he spent the better part of two decades, capturing some of his most iconic work in the process (including his renowned series depicting the notorious, now-demolished Kowloon Walled City), and later to Shanghai, where he remained until 2011, documenting the city’s dramatic transition to modernity.
He also traveled and photographed other major east Asian cities like Beijing and Hanoi, and returned to Japan on numerous occasions, both to Tokyo, and other urban centers throughout the country. Over the years he also photographed on assignment, working for a host of prominent publications including, National Geographic and TIME.
Yet reflecting on his career today, Girard asserts that, in the process of transitioning to professional photography, he, for a time at least, ‘lost’ the sensibilities that shaped his early photographic practice.
“In a way, I set aside the “personal” work, the kinds of pictures I made when I first started out. The ones that weren’t really about anything, but as you later realize were your “real” pictures. At least that’s how it was for me.”
However, ultimately, he would return to the approach that engendered his most compelling work: those quotidian, urban, scenes, which through his eyes, become truly extraordinary images that stand as important touchstones of their time.
“I had to sort of consciously stop making pictures for magazines and return to that earlier, inconclusive way of making pictures. Pictures that aren’t necessarily about anything. But over time, of course, they are. And they become a kind of world unto themselves.”
All images © Greg Girard