In this post, I review “Road Work,” by Greg Soone. I met Greg when helping my Yip clan organize our 2023 family reunion. He is descended from my great-grandfather’s brother, Yip Loy Hing, and it was during our genealogy conversations I learned he is also a photographer. Stop the presses! A cousin, family historian, AND a photographer? This was a someone I had to meet. When I asked to see his work, Greg kindly sent me a copy of his book. It’s taken me some time to write this post. Unlike words, I need many elements to appreciate visual art: patience, perspective, and time.
The street photography of Greg Soone
The scenes seem random at first glance. Art is like that.
Subject to interpretation.
It takes time to absorb art, to see it and feel it. People distrust the subjective lens, uncomfortable in a world where there is nobody to explain what’s going on. Years ago, I volunteered at Saskatoon’s Remai Modern. Part art gallery, part creative space, part convention centre, the Remai [pronounced “Ray-me”] is world class art in a world class facility. It’s not only what hangs on the walls and/or adorns the floor that is art: it’s also the ceilings, stairwells, and walls that inspire. As the name implies, much of the art is modern.
There’s nothing like modern art to make people uneasy. But what does it mean? And that’s where things get interesting because art begins with the artist and ends with you, the observer. Art needs you to bring your own perspectives, but it doesn’t need a degree to appreciate. It’s ironic that people feel more comfortable arguing about hard science than they do commenting on subjective art.
Why listen to me?
What do I know about art, anyway?
If you are now thinking, what right do you have to talk about art, I’ll confess. I don’t have an art degree. I am a lifelong lover of art and I have pursued that love everywhere. I have had the privilege of spending days in a handful of the world’s great art palaces: the AGO, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Prado, the Tate Modern, and more. I spent an entire afternoon sketching a Henry Moore. I’ll never forget standing in front of a series of Monet’s paintings and realizing that I had it all wrong. All those hours over books and I missed the point. Monet wasn’t painting haystacks over and over again. He was painting light. The repetitive haystacks were a backdrop to the gorgeous, ever-changing light, from green-gold summer to pinky-blue winter. [Click the images to see them larger.]
It’s hard to see his brilliance when you see a single piece. It took a gallery of his work for me to recognize that his seemingly mixed-up lines were distillations so finely drawn that to change one would be to lessen the whole. They weren’t something a child could do – they were genius. Here’s a short video that illustrates what I mean.
And I appreciate that not everyone gets to travel to see art. So let me help in thinking about what we are seeing.
“Road Work” is a slim volume, tightly curated: the best of one photographer’s vision from two decades. My brain wanted structure and came up with urban versus rural. Then I noticed the cities – New York, Paris, San Francisco, Vancouver – and the countries – Canada, Greece, Mexico, Spain, U.S. My tourist brain pulled up its data bank of doing similar things in similar places, of carrying a camera everywhere and shooting everything.
Street photography is the unguarded moment. It’s the opposite of posed. Subjects are often not aware they’re being photographed, and are most naturally themselves, living their lives, working, dreaming, scheming, and celebrating. Cities are fertile landscapes for seeing more people doing things in less space. In “Road Work,” they are doing the school run, going to church, selling food, and watching pretty girls. In “Drug deal, NYC, 1979,” people are buying drugs so casually it feels uncomfortably intimate. Street photos are candidly real.
In another image, a well-dressed family is travelling together on the subway. Their clothing invites curiosity. Where are they going? What’s the occasion? I can say this now but I once bristled at those questions.
Art asks for comparison and connection. The brain wants to make sense of what it’s seeing, and with art, there’s no predicting what will arise. The well-dressed family on the subway – fine clothing juxtaposed against a gritty background – instantly took me to my Vancouver childhood. Of dress-up clothes and too-tight shoes polished to a shine. Our outfits sparked inquiry from people on the bus: were we going to a wedding? It was impossible to disappear from the adults.
“Aren’t you too cute?” said the stranger.
“What do you say to the nice lady?” said my mother.
“Thank you,” I said, reluctantly.
In North America, there’s a judgement when you’re overdressed for public transit. The car is supreme – why take transit if you can drive? Not so in London or Paris, where the sight of a backpacker beside a bespoke suit is a common sight. Street photography asks, What is different about this scene?
In genealogy we think of the reason behind an image, respecting that photography was for decades an expensive, once-in-a-lifetime occasion that required a studio interior and long-held poses. Why was this photo taken? What was the occasion? Who is being photographed? I think wedding photography is influenced by this historic esthetic. You can almost hear the photographer: Let’s have a photo of the bride and groom. Wonderful. Now with her parents. Lovely. Now with his. Formal wedding images today are not dissimilar from wedding portraits of a century ago.
In “Road Work,” Soone avoids this most photographed of visual events. In “Wedding, Carares, Spain, 1986,” he photographs a bride, groom, and their party walking in the street. None of them are aware of the camera, intent on getting to their destination. In the left foreground is a boy staring straight into the lens. Is he with the party or a random stranger? His position and gaze make him – not the wedding – the focal point. Greg creates an image that turns the day upside down.
The influences: why take pictures?
Simon Sinek teaches us to look for the why. Why do you do what you do?
In the introduction, Greg talks about his why: civil rights, ethnic identity, and self-discovery. “Road Work” is dedicated to “Stop AAPI Hate and Black Lives Matter.” Many of the photos, plus the cover, depict scenes of race. He mentions being influenced by “young Vancouver Asian activists.” I, hungry for stories of my family when they were on the same path, wonder if he knew them: Garrick Chu, Carol Wong, Larry Chu, Suzanna Seto, and their friends including Sean Gunn, Jim Wong-Chu, and Paul Yee. It’s Garrick I think about, seeing Greg’s work.
Again, it’s comparison and connection.
Let me tell you about Garrick. He was the photographer in the family. He was fifteen years older than me, young enough to seem more like an older brother than an uncle. My memories of him all involve photography: the portrait he took of me, aged four. His film drying over the tub. His magical, mysterious darkroom with the heavy velveteen curtain. His rare, riotously coloured slideshows. His cameras.
He was more than photographer for the family. He was photographer for the community. I didn’t understand his why until I grew up. But he died before that happened.
When he died, I was told his widow claimed his work. The boxes of slides, the prints, the rolls of exposed film in the fridge – everywhere one day and gone the next. In his darkroom hung a dusty red bulb over empty trays. I don’t judge her decision – it was more hers than anyone else’s – but to my grieving, fourteen-year-old self, she made it disappear, and with it, my “big brother” also disappeared. Two years later, I took photography in high school (against the vociferous protests of my parents). Garrick’s passion set me on a creative trajectory that began with a borrowed single lens reflex camera and never ended.
In “Road Work,” Greg’s photos from the same 1970s era – a different photographer on a similar journey – are a welcome reminder of a much-loved uncle who died too soon.
See more about Greg’s work at Road Work Photos.
A love of art has enriched my life in countless and unexpected directions. When I remember those long, slow, frequently wet days spent at galleries, it’s with a sense of peace and quietude that is missing from my normal life. Greg’s work reminds me of all of it – from gallery to street – and underneath all of that, to my family.
Today, a part of Garrick’s work can be seen in the Paul Yee fonds at the Vancouver Archives, and a part at UBC’s Rare Books and Special Collections. I visited the Special Collections on 25 Sep 2023 to see the four boxes of the Garrick Chu sous-fonds. In the 348 slides were a few candids but the hunt for the family photos continues.
To Greg, for sharing his family tree, his stories, and most of all, his photos. To Garrick, for his courage in taking a creative path that had such an influence on my life. To Paul Yee, for sharing his life’s work with the City of Vancouver, and me. Special thanks to June Chow, for alerting me to the existence of the Garrick Chu sous-fonds. And thank you to the readers on my email list who wrote to let me know the link wasn’t working! I had a publishing snafu where the post went out before it was ready.