Tan Tien Yun, an engineer by training, is a consummate street photographer in the evening light. In addition to this guest post, you can read more about his work in this interview.

“Halllooww!” the undertone on the ending of the greeting underscores the surprise and delight  as her blue eyes twinkle, warm and amiable. “T, its been ages! How are you?” The dame’s name is Emily. Earnest and honest, she’s an entity of pure joy. I give my chipped tooth grin, while Maitland smiled.  John in the background harrumphed and furrowed his eyes in concentration, turning his A minus with a scientific precision.  “T’s been featured on Leica”, Maitland grins. “Oh really?  Are the photographs about us?” Emily’s blue eyes widened a notch, a vibe of trembling excitement and expectation.

“Nope, but they are VERY interested in your story” I gave a weak smile. I’m a sucker when it comes to delivering a little disappointment. “And of course, we are going to give them a fantastic one they will never forget”. One by one, the lenses came out , placed on the table: 35 Summicron, 90 Elmarit, 50 Summilux. All prepared to shoot wide open, at an ISO level of 1600.

Before I get carried away, I should backtrack  a bit. I have known this small group of aspiring musicians for almost as long as I’ve been in Shanghai; and they are quite a combination. Two American teenagers and  a gentry South African, all united through their love of classics, of Celtics, country songs of the Midwest and the occasional wry humor that transcends age and culture. Maitland is a project manager. John and Emily are a brother and sister pair who have hardly seen their home in their 10 years overseas; steeped in Bob Dylan and soul, with a disdain for plastic pop and loud Americana.

Emily pops a violin and gave a squint. Hugs it to her bosom and she attempts to  strum it like a cello. The violin, being a violin, protests by going out of tune. 50 Summilux, wide open, click down two stops to allow her skin to overexpose a little. Snap.

“Hey B flat, what happened?” John barks a little. A hulking form of passionate musical drive, he’s a perfectionist when it comes to tuning.  He strums impatiently, as if hastening his sister to get with the program. You can still see his piercing blue eyes as his locks fall over his forehead. F2, shutter speed at 1/150.  Wait for him to pluck a string. Snap.

“Hey Emily, lets try to let you tune  your violin to my guitar”. Maitland gives a fatherly smile as his experienced hands flick expertly across his strings, sending pulses of high and low notes to Emily as she tunes her recalcitrant violin. Change to 90 Elmarit, F2.8  1/ 80. Back up a bit for close focus. Snap.

The violin squeals and haws and finally, for a minute, sings in harmony with the guitar. John bends down with both Emily and Maitland, examining the final note cut for their classic Celtic song “Fear A Batha”. “Alright … so you just have to follow my pace John and Emily can use both of us as references”. 35mm Summicron, F2, 1/200. Snap.

And so they make their first attempt, as the mics nod to the volume of their voices, guitar strumming and the baby string of notes emerge from a feminine violin. Until a temporary waiver, a lost keynote and then they all burst out laughing. “I couldn’t hold it with that squeaky thing there”, Emily blubbered with tears in her eyes.

“T, you okay? You look out there”, Emily pursed her lips. Whoops, I got caught dreaming. I winced as they picked up and dust off their song books…for the second try. John sings and his eyes gazes at me like a love locked Romeo.

Except, it’s right into my Summicron. F2, 1/200. Blue baby eyes.


-Tan Tien Yun

You can see more of Tan Tien Yun’s work on his blog, Street Photography Of A Shanghai Urbanite, and on Flickr.