Walking into Wing Luke Museum's reception hall this past Saturday for the launch of Dean Wong's Seeing the Light: Four Decades in Chinatown, the warmth of Wong's community and its affection toward him were palpable. Wong grew up just blocks from the museum, so he is as much a part of Seattle's Chinatown as it is a part of him. What came across the most during his reading was the sincerity and openness with which he embraces that community and strives to discern and draw out the individual stories that compose its character and strength. He endeavors to reveal the "silent struggles and daily triumphs" of Chinatown's unsung heroes, and in doing so, he has become a cultural hero himself.
We brought a hundred books to the event and sold through nearly all of them by the time Wong began signing copies. The response to Seeing the Light has been excellent outside Seattle's Chinatown as well—on the New York Times Lens blog, Maurice Berger writes that Wong's photos and essays "speak to the cultural nuances, complexity and necessity of Chinatown, well beyond the touristic fascination with swirling paper dragons, countless restaurants and trinket shops."
At the event, Wong described some of his techniques, which he is continually refining. Because he doesn't like to overtly invade people's privacy and prefers to capture genuine, uninhibited moments, he uses a wide-angle lens so that he can capture people's natural behavior at the edges of a frame they aren't aware of occupying. He also frequently takes "pick-up shots," a technique requiring quick reaction time and a bit of luck. Wong sometimes sets up a shot on a windowsill, waits for somebody to walk by, and snaps the shutter at just the right moment.
The theme of windows comes up frequently in Wong's work—windows allow one to see into and out of an intimate space from a semiprivate, reserved distance. This works in both directions; a photograph from inside a room of something outside its window creates a link from the photographer's private world to the private worlds of the people passing by. At its best, a camera functions as a window linking the interior realm of the photographer to the interior essence of the photographer's subjects.
The linking effect of the camera comes through clearly in Dean Wong's photography and essays. At the event, he mentioned that after his wife's passing, he felt the need to take a photography trip to San Francisco to reconnect with himself and with the world. Photography, through its ability to connect Wong with the people and places he finds most inspiring, served as a means of recovery. Wong mentioned that compared to San Francisco, Seattle’s Chinatown is less busy, making it easier for a photographer to "strike out," to work for an entire day without capturing anything of value; but his patient determination consistently leads to stunning moments of rare and intimate beauty.
If you missed the reading and are in the Seattle area, Dean Wong's "New Street Photography" exhibit will be at Jack Straw New Media Gallery starting on June 17th. It's definitely worth seeing his photographs in person if you can, but if you can't, be sure to pick up a copy of his beautiful book here.