More than a lover, photography is like a life partner for photographer Matthias Meyer, as he has been close to cameras for around 50 years. His deep passion for the craft and the chance to travel around the world as a diplomat inspired him to create new frames for old places.
His recent solo exhibition, ‘Disorientation - A Small Paris in Hanoi’, certainty ‘disoriented’ audience members familiar with both cities. It was Hanoi. It was Paris. It was both but also neither. Like a magician, his creative arrangement and the effect of double exposure brought a new Hanoi and a new Paris in a second-to-none combination that showed how strongly the two cities were related to each other. Women in conical hats watched a fountain in Paris but the lake behind them was Hoan Kiem, while a number of cyclos waited in front of Parisian buildings.
Born in Germany, Matthias has a straightforward documentary style and focuses on street photography and photojournalism. In addition to several group exhibitions in different countries he also had two solo exhibitions in Hong Kong in 2010 and 2011. He spoke with The Guide about some of his ‘magic’.
What inspired the idea of ‘A Small Paris in Hanoi’?
After moving to Hanoi I decided to get connected with the city and the people through photography. I wanted to portray the city in a different way from what I usually saw in popular books and pictures. When I first came here a lot of things reminded me of Paris, where I lived for five years. Then I thought it might be a good thing to compare and combine Paris and Hanoi.
I couldn’t see my Hanoi - Paris connection right away, in front of me. But already at the start I could feel that secret parts were looming around the corner and were just waiting to be appreciated and discovered.
Did you get lost in some corner, so you named it ‘Disorientation’?
Ha ha, you could say that. In my eyes, Hanoi’s charm is not the modern Westernised lifestyle but its old heritage. Most of the French buildings designed in late 19th and early 20th centuries give a feeling of nostalgia to many foreigners. A lot of the old Hanoi is gradually vanishing under the rising tide of modernisation and it’s getting harder to find the connection. The present day cityscape creates a strange interaction between different cultures. So in some of my pictures you have to look twice to see the meaning or what’s going on, to avoid getting lost in them.
Why did you choose double exposure for the exhibition?
There are a lot of pictures about Hanoi and Vietnam. As I said, I wanted something new by my own way and I thought the effect of double exposure could help me do it. This is also a challenge. Because even if I know what to shoot, I can’t know what it will be after developing it with this effect. It can always surprise me. It’s a magic of light.
Is it difficult to control this kind of magic?
It’s not difficult, in my view. But to be good at anything you have to practice a lot. In three years I took around 500 images with my camera to get 20 pictures for the exhibition. Many of them failed because of too much bright, dark or overlapping.
When did you start practicing shooting pictures?
A long time ago, when I was about 14.
How did your love of photography begin?
My grandfather was not a professional photographer but he had a good camera with a twin lens. When I looked at things from the lens I could see different frames compared with those from my eyes. I could also see what I wanted and could exclude other things. I was deeply fascinated by it.
What is your favourite style?
My style today is straightforward and simple. I tend to create vivid images that have a ‘documentary’ look. But I also love to experiment, as this is where I get an opportunity to explore and push myself.
Furthermore, street photography and painting with light seems more appropriate in my approach to photography than anything else.
To have the best moment for street photography, do you have to hunt for it or do you catch it by chance?
To be honest, it’s both. Sometimes, when I’m in the mood, I wander around to find nothing. I just see what’s happening, what people are doing, or anything interesting, by chance. Other times I have some idea. I go out and choose people and things. Sometimes I also have to wait for the right moment, like hunting.
Do you spend all of your free time on photography?
I usually have free time on the weekend. I spend a few hours out either walking around Hanoi, like in the Old Quarter or parts of the Red River, or outside of Hanoi, like artistic villages of pottery or silk, to take pictures. It’s usually in the morning when the light is best. Obviously, it also depends on the weather.
Other times I read a book, listen to music, practise some sport, mostly Iaido, a Japanese martial art, walk and watch sunsets in West Lake and discover Vietnamese cuisine. I love bun cha (grilled pork with noodles), pho and banh my (bread).
What else in Vietnam are you most interested in discovering for your photography?
It’s the beautiful landscapes and calm and peace you can catch in many places, at parks, lakes or little alleys where the crazy traffic is absent.
Additionally, together with its diverse culture, Vietnamese people are very nice and friendly to me even though I can’t speak their language. I have a lot of friends through photography here. Photography is a good way to make new friends. So many people are photographers here. They are eager to share new ideas and experiences. It’s very easy to connect and make a network.
I also have a deep interest in music and fashion. Besides enjoying shows, I also have some friends in these areas. I took photos for Mr Tetsuji Honna, the Director and Principal Conductor of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra, for magazines, and some local fashion brands. That’s the connection between my other hobbies and photography.
I also organize the Hanoi Photo Club, a good community for us photographers.
What are the club’s activities?
We meet twice a month or weekly, depending on the free time of the members. People can bring their pictures to discuss what could be done better or how to make nice photography.
We also give free lectures on photographic techniques to people, from beginners to the more advanced level. Together with lessons on the idea of what to do, how to work with the exposure, or how to use the shutter speed, we also go out to practice by shooting and analysing the images. Our members come from different countries, such as Vietnam, Argentina, Canada, the US, Germany, and France, but all share the same passion in photography.
Will you soon have a new exhibition to continue showing your passion?
Yes, for sure. I will relocate to Mumbai. It’s really exciting and challenging for me because the city is very colourful and has a rich culture. I will definitely have an exhibition there. But I have no idea about it now. I will see what’s going on.