14.05.2021 Mindy Tan

GFX100S: Hair of Power and Grace x Mindy Tan

Mindy Tan

Mindy Tan is a Singapore-based documentary and commercial photographer whose speciality is photographing people.
She began her career in as a newspaper journalist, covering breaking news migrant labour, and community issues, winning the Society of Publishers Asia Award for Excellence in Human Rights Reporting in 2007. In 2008, she swapped pen for camera and became a full-time photographer.

Today her assignments vary from lifestyle to documentary and sports. She has been involved in events like the Beijing Paralympics 2008, the Singapore F1 night race, the Youth Olympics 2010 and WTA Championships.

Commercial clients include Singapore Tourism Board, Microsoft and Uniqlo.
Editorial clients include Reuters Plus, the Associated Press, Die Zeit and Focus magazine.

Her street photography and North Korea images have been featured in The Guardian, The Sun, Ouest France and Hong Kong’s Photonews 摄影⽇日报.

She was recently commissioned an exhibition on Italy’s Motor Valley.

MORE THAN FULL FRAME: RESET AND REDISCOVER

I started cutting my own hair when the lockdown began in April 2020. The world was a tense place. Jobs were cancelled, people were afraid to leave their homes. Businesses like salons were of course shut down for fear of the spread of Covid-19.

At first, a few centimetres would be snipped. Then I got bolder and more impatient. I cut an inch of hair every time I was stressed or bored. Soon, the long hair that fell below my shoulders was at the nape of my neck. I felt lighter. It was if I had cut away the entanglements of the world. It was therapeutic.

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In September when rules were relaxed and my hair a mess, I visited Chester’s salon for a quick fix. It was during that haircut that the idea for a collaboration came. He wanted to be involved in artful projects that were beyond daily appointments. I wanted the challenge of curating and directing a zen and quiet film, reflecting my state of mind. But the stars weren’t aligned as our initial talks never became concrete and the enthusiasm faded away.
An opportunity came a few months later when Fujifilm asked for proposals for their YouTube videos on the GFX100S, I submitted a pitch.

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The concept’s content and intention behind the photograph sets the guidelines for the visual tones of the final image. These intentions soften the technicalities about how an image should be made, because the focus is now on why it is made as such, and so forth.

The starting point of getting better at photography is sharpening one’s intentions, while answering the ‘Why’s and the ‘How’s.

“What’s so interesting about hair?” A few friends asked.
Fujifilm asked how I would bring forth the theme “More than full frame” and eventually gave the go-ahead for the project. 

In my head, ‘More than full frame’ was a mood. It wasn’t the pixels, nor was it the hair, but the triumph of the women who were more than full frame. They were larger than life.

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Jade, Jasmine and Chomar were chosen based on their personalities over their hair.

Jade is an interior designer I’ve been following on Instagram. Through her updates. I knew she had been changing her hair and was going through a period of experiment and trauma. I guessed she would be willing to share her story. Though we were strangers, I dropped her a message and we connected.

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Jasmine I’ve briefly photographed before, as a talent for an advertisement. She left quite an impression on me, coming into the studio for the shoot, though I knew nothing about her. It was the way she carried herself. When we met up to discuss this project, she told me she had been looking to shave her head and this seemed like the right opportunity to do it – on camera. I did not expect someone to propose such a bold idea, and it was a great gift to the project.

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Chomar gets her hair cut with Chester. He told me she had very dense hair that could be styled for a large silhouette. The visual prospect of it all got me excited. I visited Chomar on a Sunday in her home and then met Peaches, Chomar’s pet bird. I probed a little and found out Peaches loves to hide in her hair. What an excellent scene, I thought!

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Dare I say, the 3 women each have their own personalities and stories. Each of them are very different from the other, and have walked very different paths in their lives. But listening to the journeys they have had with their hair says they are facing similar life scenarios, each of them looking to reset, rediscover and tune themselves

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You can take the street photographer out of the street, but you can’t take the street out of the photographer. My approach to making a short film is like taking a street photo – gather all interesting elements in the scene and compose them into one frame.

In this pre-production stage, I have encountered many elements – Chomar’s pet bird, Jasmine’s shaven head, Jade’s home office and style. I wanted to turn these surprises into my advantage and string them all onto the film – my long frame.

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Only, the street photo is conceived in seconds. Planning a video takes much longer.

The story has a direction, but it should have the flexibility to look sideways, from all angles. 

COLLABORATION AND THE CREW

The crew Zechary Guay (shooting wide & movements) and X-photographer Derrick Ong (shooting close-ups and slow-motion) used the Eterna film simulation on the Fujifilm X-T4. I used the Nostalgic Negative film simulation for both photography and videography (shooting straight on scenes) on the GFX100S. The quick switch button between Movie and Still and IBIS worked its charms along the way as it meant I could continue hand-holding the GFX100S without having to reach for a gimbal as I switched between the Stills to Movie.

In Post-production, I then tried to match X-T4’s Eterna’s colours to with the GFX100S’ Nostalgic Neg’s warm glow. The three of us harmonised our colour temperatures as much as possible.

Chester was the stylist and hair director. We sampled images from other artists and bounced ideas off each other.

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The mood-board was important to communicate my ideas to the team so everyone had a similar vision. I set up some specific instructions for camera movements, framing, lighting and slow-motion… all were vivid ideas and the challenge was to explain using words, sketches, or other photos. It was like trying to mould shape from water.

The final pre-production challenge was to set up a shoot schedule that could fit the crew and talent’s availability as well as Fujifilm’s deadline.

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We had to deal with the weather even though we filmed indoors. For example, daily tropical storms and loud thunder prevented us from recording Jasmine’s interview in her home, we had to adjourn.

The project was completed in 5 weeks with the editing taking up half the time and was the most challenging for me, because that’s where fluid ideas get constructed in sequence. A lot was recorded. Not everything could be used. That flow plays a big role in the viewer’s absorption of the content, the story. My first cut after a week of editing ran over 30mins. The final cut was reduced to 13 mins.

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As a photographer, I felt that the process made me go doing deeper into making a photograph, instead of simply taking it. Like a baker who took time to source for the best ingredients for his cake, before mixing it together.

Thoughts on the New American Colour, in the Nostalgic Negative Film simulation

Trying to understand Fujifilm’s new Nostalgic Negative film simulation as one of the first users and testers, I began my research about the New American colour photographers of the early 1970s.

The new film simulation presents a warm glow and vibrance particularly in the orange and yellow tones, making it excellent for capturing skin. I do like how this colour palette is  combined with the fineness of the high pixel sensor. The photographs are saturated but soft, and not pastel. And these tones draw much parallel to William Eggleston’s colours.

To give some context, the early 70s was a time when Black and White photography was the institution of choice because colour pigmentation in film was still unstable.

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“Black and white are the colors of photography,” Robert Frank declared.
“Color photography is vulgar,” Walker Evans wrote.

There was a reluctance to accept colour photography as it was a bad choice for the conservation and preservation of photographs. Photography at that time, a medium used formally for documentation, and occasionally, for pleasure.

I reckon photographing in film colour in the 70s needed a kind of gusto, risk, deviance and belief on the part of photographer. A sort of flamboyance even, of not being too poor to be able to afford the experiment. Such a social status would hence affect the choice of subjects a photographer would bring into his frame.

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Eggleston’s were cars, signages, and sometimes idle people. One of his most famous photos, the “Red ceiling” of a friend’s apartment, came with “some indefinable sense of menace”, as The Observer called it.

It was a time when black and white still was the way the world was captured and printed. And the 70s New American colour marked the turning point, the tip of the iceberg to a decade of the rise of colour – a whole new world. Now in 2021, this spirit is what this film simulation came to be modelled after.

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How does history and context change the way I photograph? 
During the photography and filming of Hair of Power and Grace with the GFX100S, I referenced Eggleston’s portrayal of the Memphis warm glow.

I thought about Eggleston’s first colour negative from 1965, Untitled, of a boy. His skin wrapped in a pink, orange slow, highly saturated and decided to bring in tungsten lights to emulate the style.

In tropical Singapore, light is mostly jarringly white or quickly fading into the greys after a 5 minute sunset. The modern warm LED would have been more convenient (and cooler) for filming, but I believe in the subtle differences an old-school bulb can bring.

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The sense of history in Fujifilm’s colours enhances my joy, and story, when I’m trying to create a consistent set of colour vision for my work. Believe me, consistency can be a tricky thing when shooting under different lighting conditions and locations.

Another way to get to know a new film simulation is through editing images. Shooting and post-processing are processes one must both master when it comes to getting photos right.

For my own studies, I would shoot in both Raw and JPEG. In post-processing, I then pull and push the exposure of both files to match the frame, and discover how the colour tone changes as the exposure stops increases or decreases.

I also compare the difference in richness of the colour if produced in-camera (JPEG file) or by editing softwares.

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The nostalgic negative being a new colour to Fujifilm, I have spent hours playing with the photographs, in a way that I feel I am internalising and memorising the colour palette. A mastery and understanding of each simulation is to visualise and know how that colour will work with different ISOs, different colour temperatures.

Knowing before I press the shutter is important, because reminds me to question the type of light I wish to paint in camera. It helps me to envision a photograph better, before I shoot. That sort of brainwork can be delicious. It can be inspiring because it is passionate.

And I do love that each Fujifilm simulation references a point in history that connects in the present.