Image from Richard Mark Dobson's NEONOPOLIS exhibition currently showing in Hong Kong. All photographs copyright 2018 Richard Mark Dobson
Image from Richard Mark Dobson's NEONOPOLIS exhibition currently showing in Hong Kong. All photographs copyright 2018 Richard Mark Dobson

In another lifetime this reviewer was a photographer based in Hong Kong and frequently at large within China. My least favorite destination was the city of Wuhan, which always made me think of Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic Blade Runner.

Flash forward a couple of decades and photographer Richard Mark Dobson has done for Hong Kong what I only ever toyed with doing for Wuhan – pulling it off with a vision and an eye that lesser photographers can only admire and envy.

In his exhibition NEONOPOLIS currently showing at Hong Kong’s La Galerie, Dobson takes a step away from the restrictions of his more familiar fields of photojournalism and advertising. He portrays a city that already shows all the signs one needs to illustrate tomorrow today.

Albeit with a slant that involves a considerable dash of artistic license, Dobson’s images hint at the city’s future, and make the onlooker wonder if that future might already be here.

Although traditionalists will squirm at the thought, NEONOPOLIS is, in fact, an extension of the work of famous documentary photographers from the heydays of Life or Picture Post magazine.

“It illustrates an idea, a theme, illustrated with photographs of the real world we already inhabit,” says Dobson, in an e-mail exchange with Asia Times.

He goes on: “It’s my dream project, free from the need to follow rules, free to speculate and predict through images that (hopefully) force viewers to conjure up their own stories around the photographs in the gallery. Real photographs of a real world, completely original and with virtually no retouching done in the digital darkroom.”

Dobson’s vision is one of a peripatetic wanderer, forever on the move, always casting a fresh eye on wherever his cameras take him. Born in England, he spent formative years in South Africa before heading to London, where he took his first tentative steps in photography, shooting street scenes. The results both excited him and convinced him of the need to go to what passed then as photography school.

London in the 1980s was awash with celebrity photographers afloat on mountains of corporate cash, producing images that sold everything from cars to cigarettes. And so Dobson went the tried-and-tested route of working as assistant to top advertising shooters on assignments in Europe, the Far East, North America and Australasia.

Since the late ’80s he has lived mostly in Asia, shooting travel and corporate assignments throughout the region. Ever on the lookout for new projects, he fell into NEONOPOLIS in 2017, shooting most of it over a period of two months wandering a city he has loved since the moment he first set foot on neon-washed Nathan Road almost 30 years ago.

Street photography is an art, and Dobson is a master. In his interaction with people on the streets, often subjects who might react angrily to being photographed, we see his talent for rendering himself, or any hint of threat he might represent, invisible. 

In his architectural compositions he plays tricks with light and shade, highlights and shadows, and it is in the blackness of shadows that the viewer’s imagination runs amok. Dobson does this with sometimes confusing perspectives and reflections on city façades and appearances by characters who could be extras who you know would draw Ridley Scott’s eye. The result is a disturbingly cinematic narrative. 

In his address to guests at the opening of the show in Hong Kong, Dobson discussed how his themes are to some degree an interpretation of how society’s notions of science fiction intersect with reality itself. He expressed fears that today’s dystopian thoughts might already be becoming reality.

And yet, so far as the whole project goes, Dobson claims his goals are uncomplicated:

“I am asking a simple question: Is Hong Kong the vision of the future?”

NEONOPOLIS, which runs at La Galerie until November 4, is enough to convince this observer that it may well be.

All photographs copyright 2018 Richard Mark Dobson

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