Getting Over The Wall

All panoramic pictures, taken with my Hasselblad XPan and its 45mm f/4 lens, were definitely one of the goals of this, my third trip to the Great Wall of China.
Photos © Jack Hollingsworth, 1999

I'm a landmarks guy. I'm fascinated by their grandeur, and I never get tired of photographing them. No matter how many times I visit Machu Picchu, the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, or the Great Wall of China, I never lose my enthusiasm. When I recently took my third trip to the Great Wall, I had the same childlike anticipation I had on my first visit. I guess it has to do with my love for photography and my passion to take pictures, as well as the beauty and fascination of the subject.
The thing about photographing a world landmark, though, is that it can seem overwhelming simply because it is a landmark, and has been photographed countless times before. Then there's the factor of its sheer size. So the problem is not only how to capture the landmark in a different way, but how to capture it at all.

My plan for photographing landmarks is to have a plan--one that breaks the task into manageable pieces and recognizes that I won't be able to get everything that's fascinating and beautiful into one frame. In a way I'm fortunate--as a professional, chances are I'll get to go back and try different approaches. For the photo enthusiast who may get to a landmark only once, a plan is even more important.

Here's how I work. When I travel to any destination, I'm very clear about what I want to accomplish. I go armed with an agenda, a photographic goal and a strategy. I'll decide, for example, that I need more wide shots or more intimate views. I might need to concentrate on filtration or magic hour photographs or silhouettes of people. Those will be the overriding themes in my mind, the things that keep me focused. Without that focus, any landmark location becomes immense and overwhelming.

Why is this man smiling? Because although snow wasn't part of my plan for photographing the Great Wall of China, it made for some very dramatic pictures.

Once I know what my specific goal is, I'll devote 60 to 70 percent of my efforts to achieving it, leaving the rest for my normal coverage and whatever may happen spontaneously. On my recent trip to the Wall I photograph-ed for three days, and on each day I had a specific mission.
The parts of the Great Wall that I visited on this trip were the Pass of Badaling, which is something of a tourist carnival at times because of its accessibility (it's the section most easy to get to from Beijing); and Muti-anyu, which is 75 miles north of Beijing. Restored a few years ago, Mutianyu is as imposing as Badaling, with spectacular scenic settings.

The element of spontaneity that I always allow for appeared in the form of the weather. On my previous visits to the Great Wall I got very little cooperation from nature--cloudy, cold, nasty days were the rule. This time I was hoping for a break, and I got it: one beautiful, sunny day, one partially cloudy day--and one day that started out looking like a failure but ended up just fine. We'd set out to visit Mutianyu, and about two hours out of Beijing it started to snow. As we drove farther north, the snow got heavier, and I thought, we're going to get stuck, this isn't going to work. There were so many "don't go" signals that it would have been easy just to turn around and go back. But I was still excited about the day and the prospects for photography, so we continued on, and when we got to our destination I found the snow had given me the most unbelievably picturesque scene I think I've seen in a decade. The snow made the scene magical, and all my photography that day was aimed at shooting snow on the Great Wall.

Another advantage I have as a pro is never traveling with a tour group. For this trip I had hired a bus and driver for myself, my assistant, and our interpreter. (If you're going to do any serious work in China, you need someone who can speak the language. Fortunately, I'd come to China from an assignment in Hong Kong, and I'd hired the production coordinator from the Hong Kong job, who spoke both Mandarin and Cantonese, to be our translator.) But although I never travel with a group, I have many of the same photographic problems any serious photographer is going to have when visiting landmarks--or any well-known, well-visited location. In a word, tourists.

There are only three to four parts to the Great Wall that are fairly easily accessible to the public; the rest of it is pretty much backpack-and-donkey-ride territory. So, as you can imagine, those accessible parts are well-trafficked by tourists. In addition, there are a number of vendors and hawkers--a great number--whose only purpose seems to be to aggravate and get in the way.

How do I handle tourists, who are less serious about photography than I am? I do a lot of sitting around and waiting. And I make them work for me, including them in photographs for a sense of scale and a touch of drama or color. But mostly I prefer to hang out and wait for the best time of the day and the opportunity for the cleanest shots. Now, I know that most amateur photographers, no matter how serious they are about their photography, don't always have the luxury of waiting, but the hard truth of it is you have to make the time if you want to get the good shots. I'm always, always, the first one at the gate in the morning and the last one to leave. I'm the guy being ushered out by security guards or park rangers or police and being told, "I'm sorry sir, we're closing and you'll have to leave." Or, "Sir, I'm sorry, we closed half an hour ago."

On this trip I had three Nikon F4 bodies and a full complement of lenses from 16mm to 300mm, plus converters and my favorite filter pack combination of 85B and 85C--which are color conversion filters but which really warm a scene up. And I brought something special--my Hasselblad XPan panoramic camera (24x65mm format). I spent almost a whole day shooting with the Hassy and getting some incredible views of the Wall; now, there's a subject made for that camera! I shot a ton of Velvia, a handful of Kodak infrared E6, a bit of Agfa Scala black and white 200, and some Agfa 1000 speed that I bought up in tons before it went away. I wanted to see what that high-speed grainy look would do for the Great Wall in photos I took not for stock, but for personal use.

That film, those cameras, and the views they captured--all part of the plan. The snow was a bonus.

Bold compositions and vivid colors mark the work of our new columnist, world-traveling photographer Jack Hollingsworth. His images have appeared in "Condé Nast Traveler," "National Geographic Traveler," and "American Way," among other publications. His clients include American Airlines, Renaissance Cruises, Four Seasons Hotels, American Express (Asia), and numerous tourist and visitors bureaus. Beginning with this issue, Passport will appear on a bimonthly basis in our magazine.

Film Facts
One of the questions I'm always asked is, "What's your formula for film? How much do you allow per day?" Well, I'm a little obsessive about film, and I'm not frugal. I'd say on non-lifestyle shoots, where I'm shooting only for travel, I'm usually in the 60 rolls a day range. If I've been hired for lifestyle images and there are people in my plans, it's probably in the range of 80 per day. That's an average, of course; a slow day could be 20, a real good day with bright sun, lots of color, excitement and emotion, maybe 60 to 70 rolls.