Liam Wong – After Dark

Review by Paul Anderson • 

With more than a small amount of photographic magic, Liam Wong’s photographs in his new book After Dark achieve a remarkable sense of solitude. These are nocturnal photographs taken in the urban cores of major metropolitan areas, well after most inhabitants have retired for the night. Similar to the hiker who seeks solitude by walking well beyond the range of a typical day hike, Wong finds solitude in city centers by moving himself in time to the quiet of the early morning hours. There is a deep stillness to be found here.

In creating this body of work, Wong walks the streets, alleys, train stations, and stairways of the big city. He photographs primarily in Asian cities, especially Tokyo, but other cities are represented as well. The photographs are very sparsely populated and are infused with atmosphere and quiet tensions. 

Wong’s previous photobook was reviewed in March of 2020 by Rudy Vega for the Photobook Journal. That book presented a timeline of nighttime images that concentrate on Tokyo’s nightlife. After Dark can be thought of as a sequel to TO:KY:OO but with a change of emphasis to stillness and quiet.

In After Dark, the photographer pays homage to the film industry by creating scenes with a cinematic look. The photographer notes:

Everything about the format of this book was designed with cinematic ratios in mind and a wider range of lenses, all with their own characteristics, which allowed me to think differently about shaping a scene.”

The high aspect-ratio crops found in the book are designed to push this cinematic analogy. However, these exaggerated aspect ratios are applied to ‘portrait’ layouts as well as ‘landscape’ layouts. Few production films are produced in portrait mode, making this analogy a bit of a stretch.

Alternatively, this design choice can be seen as emphasizing the panoramic aspects of a city scene as much as the cinematic. We typically do not think of the panoramic when seeing city streets at pedestrian level. However, Wong works to bring out the panoramic potential of urban street scenes. He emphasizes the sweep of the eye across a scene, be that sweep horizontal or vertical.

The most successful images in the book are those taken at street level that employ dramatic lighting, and contain one or two people. These images evoke a sense of solitude and peace in a place where this should in fact be very difficult to find. The following quote from the book nicely summarizes the overall mood:

Solitude is a place you can go to. The sidewalks and buildings are familiar but different, as if in a dream. Its inhabitants are shadowy figures, brushing past silently. In a whirring city solitude is sacred, and it can be visited most easily when night falls.

Color plays a prominent role in the photographs, from neon shop signs to floodlights to multi-colored street lighting. A favorite hue found in many of the images is a cold blue. A beautiful example is the image of a lone Japanese ‘salaryman’ standing on the JR Yamanote train platform in Akhibara, Tokyo at 00:00:05. A blue light pervades the entire scene, nicely countered by a green trim line at the top of some railway coaches.

Many images are accompanied by a paragraph or so of explanatory text. The text mimics contemporary social media posts where an image and text often go hand-in-hand. In this case, the text consists of Wong’s well-considered comments on his photographic intentions. As a photographer, I found these comments engaging. Also, every image includes an annotation on the time of day at which it was taken. This is a nice reminder to the reader that they are viewing a moment in the life of a scene and are left to wonder at what may have come before or after.

The book has good print quality, and the images are sequenced and paired well. However, when paging through the book, transitioning from a landscape-oriented sequence of pages to a portrait-oriented sequence of pages is awkward because, to maintain a good image size, the portrait-cropped images are printed sideways across the fold. Rotating the entire book from a horizontal to a vertical orientation to view them breaks the flow and holding the book in this position is possible but not comfortable.

This an enjoyable book containing urban nighttime images captured with high skill and insight. It would be of interest to those looking for urban street photography with a nocturnal twist.

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Paul Anderson is a photographer/digital artist, working in Hermosa Beach, CA.

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After Dark, Liam Wong

Photographer: Liam Wong (born in Scotland, currently resides in Canada).

Publisher and printer: Thames & Hudson, London, copyright 2022

Written contributions: Introduction by Evie Tarr with notes by Liam Wong

Text: English and Chinese

Hardcover, 22 x 31.5 cm, 192 pages, 141 illustrations, printed in China by Artron Art (Group) Co., Ltd, ISBN 9780500025550

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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