Fang Tong lenses the dreamlike and cinematic at the Capture Photography Festival

Through shots along Route 66 and her string-happy “Marionette” series, the artist explores escapism

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      Whether it’s capturing a family of five in quiet contemplation, a luggage-toting woman standing listlessly outside SkyTrain doors, or a couple in turmoil at a roadside motel, local photographer Fang Tong’s work exudes a theatrical quality suited to the big screen. The Shanghai-born artist takes great care in producing imagery that straddles the line between the strange and the mundane, carefully sketching scenes out with pencil and paper beforehand, location scouting and dressing her models, and meticulously orchestrating every last prop.

      For one of her more recent projects, however, Tong tossed caution, along with her usual checklist of preparations, to the wind. The formally trained sculptor and painter hit the road with two friends—and a red dress, blond wig, and pair of four-inch pumps stowed in the trunk of a rental car—for a two-week, 3,000-kilometre-plus trip along U.S. Route 66. Beginning in Chicago and travelling through states such as Missouri, Texas, and Arizona, the threesome took breaks to photograph Tong only when they felt like it. “We pretty much followed that road and stopped whenever we saw a location that would be good for a photo,” the photographer tells the Straight by phone.

      In each of the 13 images she and her team snapped, Tong dons the same outfit and wig she brought along, her lips stained a matching scarlet and her face emotionless in the rare occasion it faces the camera. Posing on deserted thoroughfares, in cornfields, and alongside tractors and wind turbines, the artist presents a picture of small-town America coated in a sheen of her signature surrealism. By styling herself the same way in every photograph—the rouge frock and blond bob wig look like a badass disguise any one of Charlie’s Angels would’ve rocked—and employing two portable flashlights as additional light sources, Tong portrays real-life settings in dramatic, cryptic prints that could easily be mistaken for paintings. “The idea is kind of this temporary escape from normal life.…It’s a mental escape more than a physical one,” she says.

      The last shot in the series, which is aptly titled Escape, shows a man carrying a mannequin dressed in the identical clothing and hair on the streets of downtown Vancouver. The photo causes viewers to pause and ask if Tong was a real person or actually the said dummy in previous stills. “There’s a little humour in that,” Tong notes, “and it also adds to this surreal element.”

      Fang Tong's Marionette series transforms people into puppets on the streets of Vancouver.
      Fang Tong

      The former video-game designer, who studied fine arts in both Shanghai and Paris before immigrating to Canada in 2001 and settling in Vancouver five years later, explores themes of escapism with a touch of whimsy in her “Marionette” series, too. In these pieces, figures such as a bearded businessman and a young dancer are pictured midair, their limbs tied to strings as if they were puppets. They’re then Photoshopped onto snapshots of recognizable backdrops like Vancouver’s Chinatown and UBC. “People want to run away, but they have the strain on their bodies from the things in life they have to deal with,” says Tong, who describes the feeling as a “very typical Vancouver city scene”.

      As she does in her other works, Tong plays with and manipulates the lighting to create her desired dreamlike effect. The result is cinematic, combining romance, comedy, and, at times, an unsettling suburban stillness to tell one part of a larger story taking place beyond the lens. “Those photos, when you see them, it’s a totally real scene,” she says. “The location is real, the people are there. But then people ask, ‘Why is it so surreal?’ and I think it’s the lighting I use. I make the lighting soft, a little strange. It’s not totally natural light.”

      Pieces from Tong’s “Escape” and “Marionette” series make up Escape, one of 90-plus exhibitions happening around town as part of this year’s Capture Photography Festival. Curated by Toni Zhang McAfee, the show will also include other works by Tong, each of which demonstrates her ability to depict ordinary people in ordinary settings—staged or otherwise—in a way that demands a second, third, and even fourth glance. “When I did painting, I did lots of portraits. Even when I did landscapes, I always had people in them,” Tong says. “I like the person in the photo because I think the person is adding the mood.”

      Although her work is often described as movielike, Tong maintains that still images cannot tell stories as well as film. She prefers to conjure what she calls a “strong feeling” instead, letting viewers come up with their own imaginative ideas of what may be unfolding in her meticulously thought-out and photographed scenes. Their mysterious, slightly bizarre side helps them stand out from the crowd, too.

      “With a painting, you can do whatever you want,” notes Tong. “But with a photo, you click and a table is a table, a chair is a chair—it’s very real. So I think I just like to do something a little different.”

      The Capture Photography Festival presents Fang Tong’s Escape at the Vancouver Lipont Art Centre from Saturday (April 7) to April 30.

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.