DATE: April 6, 2008
The soft-colored photographs of Sze Tsung Leong
capture contrasting landscapes: the verdant green of Germany; the mirage
of shimmering towers in Dubai; the urban geometry of Amman, Jordan; the
red tiles roofs of Italy. But always the eye is drawn to the distinct
line where sky meets earth.
Sze Tsung Leong
Victorville, California, 2006
© Sze Tsung Leong, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery
Leong's panoramic photographs of major cities and rural landscapes
around the world, the horizon line consistently falls in the same place.
So when his images are hung side by side — as 62 of them are now at the
Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea — they create an extended landscape of
ancient cities and modern metropolises, desert vistas and lush terrain.
"The horizon is such a basic way of comprehending the space around us,
comprehending our basic relationship to the globe," Mr. Leong said one
recent morning over tea in Manhattan.
If the horizon seems to offer possibilities, he said, it also
establishes a boundary. "In terms of looking, the horizon is the
farthest we can see," he explained, yet in terms of knowledge, it
reflects "the limit of experience."
For the last seven years Mr. Leong, a 38-year-old Chinese-American with a
British accent and a Mexican birth certificate, has expanded his
experience by traveling to unfamiliar cities, where his first priority
is to find a sweeping view from an elevated position.
"When I'm really familiar with a place, it is more difficult to
visualize it," he said, citing New York, his home, as an example. "But
being confronted with a new situation, I find that I'm more aware of
things visually." He traveled to Amman because he hoped the uniform
construction of its buildings might cast an even pattern and tone across
the surrounding hills, which would offer him distant vantage points.
And the Roman ruins there attracted him as a reminder of the reach of
the Roman Empire across national borders.
He often travels alone to new cities. Asked about his sense of isolation
during his five days in Amman, he referred to his childhood in Mexico
City, where he lived until his family moved to Los Angeles when he was
11. "There's always a sense that was natural to me from the beginning of
being an outsider," he said. "I don't think about feeling foreign,
because that is the natural state."
He studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and
then earned degrees in architecture at the University of California,
Berkeley, and at Harvard. Perspective drawing fascinated him. "I was
interested in figuring out the mechanics of how you represent space on a
two-dimensional surface," he said. "And of course the horizon line
plays a very important part in perspective drawing."
He points out the similarities between perspective drawing — in which
divergent lines extend to vanishing points — and the flattened
projection of an urban landscape against the ground glass of his 8-by-10
view camera. The grid in the viewfinder lets him compose images with
matching parallel lines.
His panoramas integrate broad swaths of natural terrain, urban
architecture and symbols of culture, and Mr. Leong said architectural
history courses at Berkeley had a great influence on how he sees the
built environment. "Their approach was to consider buildings and cities
and their social and political contexts," he said. "Buildings are the
result of social forces and political power."
Before traveling to Egypt, Mr. Leong picked up Max Rodenbeck's "Cairo:
The City Victorious." "I read about this ancient trash heap that had
been in use for several centuries, which had gotten taller and taller,"
he recalled. "From the top you get this view of the old part of Cairo."
He shot his panoramic image of Cairo from this ancient trash heap, now a
park on a hill. He returned three times before the lighting conditions
provided the tonal quality he sought. The best conditions for his
preferred evenness of light occur either at noon, when the fewest
shadows are cast, or when it is overcast. "When things fall into deep
shadow, it is more difficult to capture a detail," he said.
Mr. Leong photographed Dubai because "it is a new city created out of
oil wealth," and he shot his skyline panorama several miles away, from
the surrounding desert. "I was afraid the film might get damaged," he
said, since the outdoor temperature was 110 to 120 degrees in the
noonday sun. "The camera was hot to the touch."
By contrast he went to Venice in January, when the winter sky was most
likely to be overcast and the light would yield the finest detail. His
picture "Canale della Giudecca, 2007" was taken at dusk from the
mainland. The densely packed, sharply articulated buildings hover in a
narrow line between water and sky.
"For this image the exposure time was about a minute," he said. "So
anything that's moving becomes a blur or disappears. The water that is
moving becomes a blank sheet. People sometimes ask if this picture is
Photoshopped because of the blankness."
Mr. Leong still uses negative film and makes all of his prints in the
darkroom. He believes that light projected through a negative onto paper
provides more continuous tone than is possible with the digital
process. "If you blow up a digital scan, you'll see it is made up of
different squares, each one a different color, which corresponds in the
computer's mind to a numerical value," he said. "In analog it will be a
Mr. Leong acknowledges the influence of 19th-century photographers like
Felice Beato and John Thomson, who photographed in China and India using
a view camera. But he also cited the contemporary photographer Thomas
Struth, whose technical precision Mr. Leong admires, as well as his
images documenting cities. "You're not only looking at what is depicted
on the picture plane, but a kind of emotional context he is trying to
describe," he said. Citing Mr. Struth's photograph of the Pantheon in
Rome, he added: "There's a heaviness, the weight of history and the
weight of the light. A certain sense of sadness about it."
It's a sentiment that may come to mind when viewing an earlier series by
Mr. Leong, "History Images," which documents the vast rows of modern
towers in China that are rapidly engulfing the country's cultural past.
The photographs were shown in 2006 at the High Museum in Atlanta, and
Julian Cox, its curator of photography, called the work prescient in
capturing what Mr. Leong has labeled the "erasure of history."
Last year the Yale University Art Gallery acquired 15 of Mr. Leong's
panoramic images, and he worked with Joshua Chuang, assistant curator of
photographs, on their installation at Betts House, the university's
center for international studies. Placed side by side, Mr. Chuang said,
the images juxtapose modern industrial landscapes with those that are
slower to change, like mountain ranges and bodies of water. "We're left
to contemplate, along with the photographer, how much longer these
landscapes will look this way, and why," he wrote in an e-mail message.
Another example of Mr. Leong's interest in contrasting natural terrain
with the constructed environment is "Victorville, California, 2006,"
which depicts suburban sprawl between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
"I wanted to include an image of the new cities in the U.S., cities that
lie outside of the recognizable cities," he said, adding that he was
seeking an image to "communicate this sort of flatness and impending
urbanization," one providing a "counterpoint to the other images I had
of natural landscapes and dense cities."
The cul-de-sac in "Victorville" at first glance could be a pond. Only
some of the newly built houses are occupied, and the picture was shot
before any landscape planting had begun. As in so many of Mr. Leong's
photographs, the natural terrain is visible and vast, even as the
architectural imprint of humanity begins to encroach.
By Philip Gefter
For The New York Times