Greg Girard

Profile Greg Girard: the colorful night

© Greg Girard

“I’m not the first to say this but having a camera was like a passport to a different world.” – Greg Girard

─── by Josh Bright, April 17, 2024
  • 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.

    Color photography by Greg Girard, cafe, Vancouver, snow, 1975
    Silver Grill Cafe, Vancouver, 1975

    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.

    Shinjuku district, Nara, Japan
    Hotel Room, Naha, Okinawa, 1982
    Color photography by Greg Girard, hotel room Tokyo 1979
    Inside a hotel room at the Hilton in Tokyo, Japan, 1979
    Color photography by Greg Girard, green neon lights on the street, Shinjuku district, Tokyo, Japan, 1979
    © Greg Girard

    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.”

    Color photography by Greg Girard, woman at tram stop, Hong Kong
    Woman at tram stop, Central, Hong Kong, 1985
    Color photography by Greg Girard, Jukebox, Vancouver
    Jukebox, Steams Cafe, Vancouver, 1975
    Color photography by Greg Girard, bar interior in Okinawa
    Bar Interior, Okinawa, 1985

    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.

    Color photography by Greg Girard, Beijing, Airport
    Arriving Kai Tak airport from Beijing, June, 1989

    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.

    Color photography by Greg Girard, Shanghai
    Neighborhood Demolition, Fuxing Lu (From 'Phantom Shanghai'), 2002
    Color photography by Greg Girard, Shanghai Skyline
    Neighborhood Demolition, Fangbang Dong Lu, (From 'Phantom Shanghai') 2006
    Color photography by Greg Girard, Shanghai
    44 Zixia Lu, (From 'Phantom Shanghai'), 2006

    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.

    Photography by greg Girard, platform conductor, Tokyo metro. 1976
    Platform Conductor, Ikebukuro, Tokyo, 1976
    Photography by greg Girard, Parking lot vancouver, 1981
    Unpaved Parking Lot, Vancouver, 1981
    Street photography by greg Girard, Vancouver
    Gas Pumps and Sugar Refinery, Vancouver, 1981

    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.”

    Photography by greg Girard, Hong Kong airport, 1989. Sunset
    Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong, 1989

    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

    Greg Girard was judge of our Color Photography Award in April 2023. You can view the results here.