The uniform architecture of Hong Kong finds unexpected majesty in the hands of Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze. Photographing near the end of civil twilight, his latest series, The Blue Moment, presents the city’s residential high-rise apartments as places simultaneously chaotic and at peace. The deep blue of sky reflects off the concrete, painting the buildings with the hue of the twilit sky and the gold of the city’s electric light. Though no individuals are visible, each scene is alive with hundreds of glowing windows. Jacquet-Lagrèze presents Hong Kong as disordered and disorienting, yet beautiful and entrancing.
The so-called blue hour has long captured the imagination of photographers and other artists. Lasting about 45 minutes before sunrise and after sunset on clear summer days, the sky casts a rich cobalt veil over the world. This phenomenon occurs because the shorter wavelength of blue light is able to enter the Earth’s atmosphere at dawn and dusk more easily than other visible light. Jacquet-Lagrèze finds this brief time of day to be when Hong Kong’s splendor is most uniquely displayed. With the sun below the horizon, this light serves as a coda to the day; a period of peaceful transition when the city takes a breath from its perpetual urban bustle before descending into night. But rather than pointing his camera at the city’s famous skyline, he gives us an unexpected and more deliberate view of the city.
A native of France, Jacquet-Lagrèze found himself in Hong Kong in 2010 after meeting his wife, a local, while working in Japan. Fascinated by the city’s unique blend of East and West and its incredible urban topography, he felt compelled to pick up a camera. He wanted to depict these contrasts and to capture the rapid architectural changes that he saw taking place around him. The Blue Moment is Jacquet-Lagrèze’s fourth body of work, and the one in which he appears most acclimated as a resident of his adopted home. A book of the series was published in 2016 by AsiaOne Books, which also published books of his series Wild Concrete (2014) and Vertical Horizon (2012).
The Blue Moment captivates us even if we have never been to Hong Kong. Jacquet-Lagrèze indulges our innate fascination with both long-exposures and infinite depths of field. But instead of presenting landmarks or recognizable locations, he photographs unremarkable buildings in compositions that intentionally conceal their identity. By sidestepping the predictable and familiar, we are encouraged to look deeper. It is not the particular buildings themselves that matter in these images, but rather the visual space that they occupy.
Many of these urban scenes are punctuated with the lush greenery of Hong Kong’s country parks, the pale shimmer of Victoria Harbor, or the solitude of a hillside cemetery. The depth of field brings the entire scene into a single plain, presenting the buildings and their counterpoints as equals. Ships float behind buildings as if the placid water were the sky that Jacquet-Lagrèze so studiously avoids, and emerald foliage stands alongside the buildings to cleave the towers from their urban context.
Where these natural spaces are absent, the torrent of buildings is nearly overwhelming. By flattening these images, the buildings appear as though layered in a collage: piled atop one another and their surroundings. This perspective is accentuated by Jacquet-Lagrèze’s decision to present only the midsection of the city’s verticality. Streets and ground floors are wholly absent, while the tops of buildings are presented only where others protrude from behind. This permits us to believe that the buildings and the city continue indefinitely, and that Jacquet-Lagrèze has presented only a small portion of a larger scene. We are left with a city without a beginning or an end, with only the negative space—the greenery, the water—to grant us reprieve.
Jacquet-Lagrèze wants to share his city with us—as a place of incredible urban activity, but one that is capable of tranquility and beauty. Though it is one of the most photographed cities in the world, he creates images of Hong Kong that avoid the predicable skyline and expected compositions. Doing so forces us to reorient ourselves visually, to the concrete, to the density, to the seeming impenetrability of this massive city. But the light of evening presents us with something that is innately familiar. Washed in the cool palette of dusk, we recognize the repose offered by the end of the day, regardless of the surroundings.
W.G. Beecher is an editor of Don’t Take Pictures.
This article first appeared in Issue 9.