Fourth Wall is an exploration of some of Asia’s unique cityscapes, presenting them as cinematic backdrops to imaginary narratives. Influenced by cinema and specifically the work of filmmaker Peter Greenaway, this work captures moments that blur the line between reality and the staged scene.
This body of work was developed during my time living and working in Saigon, inspired by its vast influences of architectural styles, vibrant neon lights and rich street culture. For me, photography is a means of exploring and understanding my thoughts and experiences and this project began as a reaction to moving to this lively, busy city from the more sedate and muted cities of the UK. The stark contrast between the two places – the difference in cultures and pace of life within them – lead me to seek structure within the energy and chaos; which in my case began as photographing the tranquil, quiet spaces of the city. I found that with a considered composition and patience I was transforming the bright lights, vast spaces and colorful buildings into backdrops of unknown films and narratives.
The longer I lived in Saigon, the more the city revealed itself to me – the sense of being overwhelmed subsided and I began exploring further under the surface, finding its quirks and character. However, during this time I found that there were still barriers between myself and the city. Fourth Wall is a performance term which refers to an invisible, imagined wall separating the theatrical scene from the audience. Within this series I have placed myself on the same side of the wall as the audience, with us all becoming silent observers looking into the scene from the outside, rather than directly involved within its narrative.
A big influence for this series is Peter Greenaway’s film A Zed And Two Noughts. The surreal and stunning visual aesthetics of this film resonated with me – each scene was so considered in its lighting, space and structure that they felt more like beautifully composed photographs than backdrops. All of their seemingly unconsidered objects worked together to create perfectly balanced scenes.
For this series I developed my own set of rules on how I created the images.
Lighting – I often photograph at dusk or dawn, when the natural light takes on beautiful deep hues of blue and purple and the neon lights are flickering. If photographing in daytime, I use cloudy and overcast days to ensure that the sunlight is still soft. In these scenes I focus more on colour than lighting – searching for places that have a range of beautiful pastel tones… which is generally not too difficult in Saigon.
Architecture And Space – Each image generally has a ‘stage’, a central space where the scene would unfold. This gives the audience a space to imagine the unknown narratives which may take place there.
People – I avoid including people within the works as much as possible, unless I feel that they add to the feel of the scene. For example, ’34’ shows the shadow of a construction worker projected on the back of a building as they work through the night. This whole scene centres around the person being there to create the shadow, however their identity remains unknown so as not to influence the possible narratives.
Structure – I look for layers of depth when photographing these spaces – I want the eye to explore everything from foreground to background. The composition is key for the balanced feel of the images, with objects and buildings considered and lined up flush with the edges of the image.
Surrealism – When possible I try to include an uncanny element to the work, to disrupt the feeling of normality, this can be through the use of floods of colour and light, or the removal of people from what would appear to be a busy cityscape.
Jim Cowan is a British photographer whose previous bodies of work have explored the depiction of the human essence through portraiture and a documentary series of the after effect of the Chernobyl disaster. His current base is in Edinburgh, UK, after recently returning home from living in Saigon, where he managed a contemporary art gallery. He is currently working on producing a book of images from the series Fourth Wall which will be available from galleries and independent book shops in Vietnam and internationally.
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