John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao's incredible composite images take hours to shoot and days to digitally manipulate.
Anybody who loves to people-watch in New York should get a kick out of Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao. The Taiwanese-born photographer, and current resident of the city, digitally piles so many layers of street life into his images it's like looking at a Where's Waldo? (without the titular candy-cane character, who maybe was incinerated in a manhole fire).
Liao burst onto the scene with a lively series called "Habitat 7," which chronicled his 2004-2006 documentation of the bubbling ethnic stew along the MTA's 7 line. His new solo show, titled "New York: Assembled Realities" and opening October 15 at the Museum of the City of New York, buzzes with similar high energy. But although the madness of his shots seems comparable to a just-poked anthill, each one is in fact a carefully curated selection of tourists, lovers, families, fashionistas, random weirdos, and all the other creatures of the urban menagerie.
For Liao, a single photo can take hours to shoot and then days of finessing on the computer. The museum explains more about his process:
Since 2004, Liao has carefully observed New York City neighborhoods, street corners, and human movement, scouting the perfect sites for his unconventional shoots. After selecting a location, Liao returns with a large-format film camera in tow, capturing multiple shots from the same viewpoint and photographing the changing human landscape and light conditions. He then uses digital technologies to transform these photographs into a single finished image—an enormous, detail-driven panorama of social or urban scenery. As a result, Liao’s photos of quintessential New York City areas, such as Citi Field, Green-Wood Cemetery, and Staten Island, emanate a visual sweep often associated with cinema, encompassing the viewer and providing a strong sense of place.
These images from the upcoming exhibit do slight justice to the cumulative oomph of his work; find some larger examples on his website: