35mm, Film, Street Photography, Travel

Wu Da!

Photographer Montague Fendt Documents the Air in Beijing with Film

Photographer: Montague Fendt (montagu.ch/photography; IG: @monty_fendt)
Location: Beijing


Montague Fendt on Wu Da!

Wu Da! (雾大!) translated from Chinese means ‘Heavy Fog’.

It is also the answer you get from most people in the Chinese capital if you ask them what’s wrong with the sky. However this ‘fog’ has little to do with water droplets in the air.

I was born in the crisp air of Basel, Switzerland and since 2003 I live in Beijing. What initially started as an exchange year of film-making studies ended in a long term stay and a love/hate relationship with this intriguing city. For the last years I have continuously documented the dramatic changes that happen in China’s controversial capital with my trusty film cameras.

Most mornings I wake up to the humming of the air filter in my house. A very common item for people staying in Beijing over a long period of time. As one would check the daily weather or temperature, here we check the air quality on our phones. The AQI (air quality index) is measured at various parts of the city and gives a detailed map of the dreadfulness of the smog.

On bad days we take necessary steps, close all windows, get the pollution masks out and turn our filters to the maximum setting. Still the little icon on the air filter’s LCD usually shows a frowning face. I cannot but ask myself, is this our world’s future? It already is daily life in China’s capital. The AQI is a scale from 0-500 measuring pollutants in the air. An average day in my hometown Basel reaches around AQI 10/500, a heavily polluted day in Los Angeles will reach 150/500. The yearly average in Beijing is around 179, with some record values of 879/500, cracking the scale. On such a day, a surreal array of colors fills the sky. Acidic orange, eerie green, faint yellow and lots of shades of gray.

From a visual perspective, there is a strange beauty within the smog. A soft light that covers everything like in a winter storm. The PM2.5 particles do make for quite interesting photography. ‘Wu Da!’ series is not only documentation, it is also a study of colors, textures and contrast. Vast cityscapes and modern architecture drowning in the mist, a whole palette of interesting shadings and layers.

I spent months climbing around on rooftops, sneaking around office hallways, bribing elevator operators, finding vantage points of interesting architecture to create the series. All of the photographs are shot on 120 film, none of them are graded or tampered with. I wanted to achieve a very pure look and show the smog in a realistic and documentary-photography way. No filters, cropping or adjusting in any way, just classic photography. All photographs are named after the AQI of the moment and location they were taken at.

It is foremost a personal project of mine but some of the prints have been exhibited on climate change related forums and in a couple of galleries.

(Shot on a Mamiya 7II with a 43mm and 80mm lens. Film stocks used: Kodak Portra 160, Fuji Velvia 100RVP, Kodak TMax 400 and Fuji Neopan Acros 100)