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Christoffer Relander photographs the disappearing neon signs of Hong Kong

Christoffer Relander
Expressive signs and colorful landscapes melt together in this surreal and fascinating double exposure. (Image credit: Christoffer Relander)

Whilst I was doing my duty in the Finnish marines, I was chosen as a photographer for a magazine that was published by fellow marines. This was surprising to me as I’d only spent two weeks at design and art school! Turns out, I just so happened to be the closest they could get to a photographer at that moment in time…

After just a few months of shooting, I realized that photographs do not necessarily have to just be taken, but they can also be created. This was the real turning point for me, it was when I knew that I wanted to become a photographer! When I finished my duty in 2009 I sold my car and bought my first full-frame DSLR kit. It was a Nikon D700 along with some prime lenses. 

In 2010, I began working on a personal project titled We Are Nature. In this project I combined man and nature using the built-in multiple exposure feature in the D700. Once it was initially published, my website suddenly crashed, and my phone started ringing from abroad – it turned out my project had gone viral! Since then, I have done many projects that all involved multiple exposures. 

Christoffer used vivid flash gels to get the strong lighting he wanted.  (Image credit: Christoffer Relander)

Chasing neon signs

At the beginning of this year I read an article in the New York Times that stated that the government in Hong Kong were taking down neon signs, and that in the past 20 years 90 per cent of the signs had been removed. The signs have been cleared out for a number of reasons, such as structural safety, lack of authorization or abandonment. It was at this point that I knew I wanted to travel to Hong Kong to finalize this project that I had been thinking about for at least the past two years. 

In this personal project, I wanted to leave my comfort zone and intentionally multiple expose the contrasting environments of the Scandinavian nature and Hong Kong city. To explore the two different environments on different sides of the globe and blend them into a fictional and surreal work – a vibrant man-made world called, ‘Neonscape’. 

The Finnish landscape on display here was shot not far from Christoffer’s house in Finland. (Image credit: Christoffer Relander)

Before I travelled to Hong Kong, I started photographing landscapes in Finland and Sweden using a Nikon D800E, and often combined this with colorful flash gels to get the vibrancy that I wanted. When I got to Hong Kong, I began photographing neon signs that were multiple exposed using the in-camera multiple exposure feature. The best part about this feature is that it allows me to work in a Raw-format even when I blend the multiple exposures. I usually finish the manipulation on the go, but I do basic color correction, cropping, contrast and so on using my Macbook Pro. 

My main challenge on this project was therefore color intensity. I knew by experience that saturated colors are both difficult and risky to deal with, especially with an uncalibrated screen. I was chasing and photographing neon signs by night and editing whenever I could find some time in my busy schedule. The light was therefore constantly changing during the different times of day and I ended up calibrating my screen specifically for morning, afternoon and evening lighting. Using Datacolor’s SpyderX monitor calibrator, I was able to create profiles to switch between the different lighting exposures as and when I needed them. 

Both the cityscape and natural landscapes mix together to create an exciting visual feast for the viewers. (Image credit: Christoffer Relander)

What I have learnt from this project is that by not understanding the content of the signs, we convert them into pure color and form. This turns them into shapes that illustrate the standing point of an outsider and of a person that does not belong to this culture. The desire to look past the meaning presents quite the dilemma in itself. As this is what we tend to do, ignore the consequences of our lifestyle and our actions by moving our gaze and focusing on something else. We present a much prettier truth because it is what’s convenient for us at the time.  

View more photos from Christoffer Relander

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