What’s with All the Cityscapes Anyway? (TIA Origin Story)

Occasionally, I take the opportunity to review my photos and evaluate their quality.  I compare photos I created last week to the ones I created 10 years ago or two decades ago. There are times when I look back at my images as a professional photographer and wonder, how did this all start?  What triggered my interest in cityscapes and aerial photography of major metropolises all over the world? (Also, when I see some of my earlier pictures, I wince and wonder, what was I thinking)?  I have often ruminated about these questions, but never took the time to sit down, reflect, and compose an answer. This is probably because cityscape photography has been such an integral part of my life since childhood to today.  Night-time photography was permanently ingrained into my veins as of 2008.

TIA International Photography, for which I am the owner, is essentially an extension of my personality. After a decade in business, I can now delve deeply into my psyche and share how it all started…

Geographicus Nerdus Elementus

Geography was EVERYTHING to me when I was a kid.
(Still very relevant today).

Before I ever had an interest in a camera, I had developed a keen affinity for political geography and cartography from the age of six or seven. I loved maps and atlases.  I loved the different shapes of countries and the bright colors used to feature them on globes. To encourage my interest, either my mother or my father had purchased a jigsaw puzzle of the United States, with most of the pieces shaped similarly to the borders of each state (bar the northeastern states, which were too small to be individual pieces). Each puzzle piece featured the name of the state, its capital city, and an emblem, symbol, or graphic that represented that state. 

The USA map puzzle I had wasn’t as colorful as this one.
Kids are quite lucky today!

After putting that puzzle together hundreds of times, I became acutely familiar with which states bordered each other, and the capital of every state. That knowledge has stayed with me ever since.  My parents often had to correct me when I tried to pronounce the names of the states and capitals as a child.  In elementary school, when I first studied the geography of the USA, I learned very quickly that a number of the names of states and their many cities were not intuitively pronounced as one viewed them in print.  I could only pronounce “Albuquerque” because my teacher insisted that I trust her way of pronouncing it! Some examples of my pronunciations in my early years:

  • Utah was “Ud-dah”.
  • Hawaii was “Highway”.
  • Cheyenne was “Chay-yin”.
  • Boise was “Boys”.
  • Des Moines was “Dez Moynz”.  
  • Phoenix was “Phonics”.

Funnily enough, “See-dle” was how I pronounced the name of the city I have now resided in for more than 12 years, Seattle.  Also, I still do not know if Maryland is pronounced as it looks or “Meruh-lund” or “Marilyn”.  I hear each of them in regular conversation all the time.  When said quickly enough, Maryland starts to sound like “Merlin”, the mystical wizard from the legends of King Arthur.

I think I have lived in Maryland on two or three different occasions in my life!

By the time I was 11, I had already lived in six different states. Moving around was an adventure that helped me to become more familiar with American geography, and where cities were located.  Also, I had made my first international voyage to Europe and Africa when I was 10, so my curiosity for geography had already expanded beyond the national borders of the United States to the world at large.  It was exciting because there was so much to learn about all these different countries and cities. There were so many world capitals to learn. I started to learn them, country by country, continent by continent.  My interest was piqued when I learned that a capital city was not necessarily the country’s largest city by population. Australia’s capital was Canberra, but its largest city was Sydney. Brazil’s capital was Brasilia, but Sao Paulo was the largest city, and Rio de Janeiro was the former capital. Learning that a current capital city was not always the capital (like Washington, D.C.) was fascinating to me because I wanted to know the story behind what had changed in the city’s history and why.

Also, at age 11, I was introduced to what I thought was one of the most phenomenal video games ever made. It was called “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” My dad finally got the game for me after talking to him about it for weeks.  According to his recollection, after getting the game for my Commodore 128 that summer, I did not leave my room for three straight days unless I wanted to eat or use the bathroom! Carmen Sandiego not only exercised my detective skills, but it introduced me to the World Almanac, which often had to be referenced to solve the mysteries in the video game. 

This was one of the BEST video games of the 1980s!

This Almanac accompanied “Carmen Sandiego” when it was initially released to the market.

In fact, the almanac was packaged with the video game when the latter was first released.  If a child did not like geography, or knowing information about other countries, this video game encouraged learning about this underrated subject in a very fun and engaging way. I loved geography, so I was thrilled to pursue villains and solve each case while visiting cities I had never heard of before.  It took a while for my detective status to ascend from “Rookie” to “Ace Detective”, but it was a fun journey, even when I failed and had visited Cairo or Caracas with no leads!  Furthermore, the game showcased animated graphics of what different cities looked like. 

At that time (in the 1980s), those graphics were the latest and greatest.  However, when those graphics weren’t enough for me, I would reference my Encyclopedia Britannica to see printed monochrome photographs of these cities.  (You have my wholehearted respect if you remember what an encyclopedia is and had to reference it for information or research).

When seeing monochrome pictures of world cities was still not enough, I would venture to the library or the bookstore.  Back then, students my age usually spent most of their time at the arcade or shopping mall, playing sports and keeping up with the latest MTV music videos, but I craved visits to the bookstore.  In addition to reading classics by Charles Dickens and contemporary children’s books by Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, C.S. Lewis (Narnia!), and Madeleine L’Engle (“A Swiftly Tilting Planet” is my all-time favorite novel), I discovered a section of the bookstore that fascinated me – the Travel section!  I always had three stops when I visited the bookstore – the children’s books, the reference guides (maps and atlases everlasting), and the travel guides. 

I currently have a bookshelf in my home that contains travel guides exclusively.

At that age, I had quickly become interested in Australia, specifically Sydney. There was something about Sydney, that beautiful, foreign, faraway city with kangaroos, koalas, and scary reptiles that seemed to be located at the opposite edge of the earth from my small southwestern town in America.  The only way I could feel closer to and more familiar with these cities was to read books featuring pictures of them. With my monthly allowance (in addition to constantly coaxing the parents), I would purchase travel guides about Sydney, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and other cities I had never imagined – at that time – that I would visit later in life.  All I knew was that I loved how enchanting these cities were with their jaw-dropping skylines, landmarks, and way of life. (I didn’t fully realize back then that I had already started viewing cities as though they themselves were people with unique personalities, which would essentially transform into the bedrock and foundation of TIA International Photography).

I was so envious of the lucky photographers who could travel to these locations and capture dynamic cityscapes and street scenes of Johannesburg, Toronto, Stockholm, Bombay (presently “Mumbai”), or Istanbul.  I loved them all and, being such an impressionable consumer of this media, I was enamored and thrilled with the fact that I lived on the same planet as these cities.  In my imagination, I was my own navigator, issuing myself make-believe travel visas to visit these foreign metropolises. In reality, however, I was motivated by the fact that traveling to these places was not necessarily impossible.

“It was ALL TRUE!”

That summer, my dad and I took our first road trip together, from Oklahoma to Illinois, with stops in several cities and states in between, and a detour to Wisconsin, where I was born.  My dad had packed a small camera and plenty of film.  I recall that he rarely used the camera, but I did, for the entire trip!  I used the camera to take pictures of the downtown neighborhoods of cities bearing the names of Topeka, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, Chicago, Madison, Springfield (Illinois) and St. Louis. I also discovered that I was attracted to the architecture of the capitol buildings in the state capitals we visited.  Most of them resembled the U.S. Capitol in D.C., so they were readily identifiable landmarks. I was also fascinated by how each capitol was situated in relation to the city.  Was the capitol in the heart of the downtown area, or farther away, or isolated? I found this aspect very intriguing and wanted to capture this on camera. At that time, I couldn’t explain my fascination.  I just enjoyed documenting the appearances of these cities during my travels.  There was something about them.

This was just the beginning.  My blossoming exposure towards photography (no pun intended) became much more intriguing when my dad surprised me with my first single lens reflex camera, a Minolta Maxxum 5000. I would use that camera regularly for the next 20 years.  Her name is “Minny”. (All my cameras have names). She’s retired now, but if I ever decide to dabble with film photography again, I know she is readily available. I can recall the scent of the film and the sound Minny made when automatically loading the film.  For me, this was the bona fide smell and sound of photography for two decades.

My first SLR camera was a Minolta Maxxum 5000. It still works today.

From there, my interest in learning about different cities, including the ones where I would live in the future, became routine to me.  Not only did I want to know about the history and significance of cities across America and the globe, I wanted to know the stories of my friends’ travels to these places during their summer vacations or the holiday season.  I loved when my teachers in elementary, middle, or high school would bring out a film projector to show slides from their travels and share stories about the photos they captured.  That was part of my life’s passport to unfamiliar places, whether they were in the States or overseas.

I figure it was a healthy obsession since my parents never prohibited my quest to find out more. I can’t tell if they would have ever predicted that their son would become a geography-cartography-travel fanatic with an insatiable curiosity about domestic and international locales, cultures, languages, and city centers before the age of 13, but I suppose there were worse things to pursue at that age. I counterbalanced the nerdy stuff with Nintendo or Sega video games and a generous dose of cartoons on weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. (To this day, I might love cartoons and Japanese anime almost as much as I love photography).

SEGA’s “Out Run” used to be another favorite video game back in the 1980s.

Boston’s Calling

Let’s fast forward to the 21st century and make a stop in March 2007. By this time, I had spent my high school years in Stavanger, Norway, attended undergraduate school in Minneapolis, spent almost three years working in New York City, attended graduate school in Denver, and spent some very painful and challenging years in America’s capital city.

While preparing to relocate from Washington, D.C. to my new life in Seattle, I had received a phone call from the Media Relations office at City Hall in Boston.

This call would become a momentous watershed for my career in photography. 

I was informed that Mayor Thomas Menino (RIP, Mr. Mayor) wanted to present a plaque to each winner of the City of Boston’s official photography contest.  Out of more than 400 entries, 35 were selected as the winning images. The distinction I had, apparently, was that I was the only winner who was not a resident of Massachusetts.  The Media Relations office had inquired if I could return to Boston, in person, to meet the Mayor and receive the plaque. Though I really wanted to attend, the timing couldn’t have been more inopportune because I was literally in the middle of packing my possessions for my transition to Seattle. The date of the awards ceremony was two days before my flight to the West Coast.

I explained this to the Media Relations office.  They understood and said they would mail the plaque to my new address in Seattle after the ceremony.

“Aerial Grandeur of Boston” / City of Boston Photography Contest Winner (2007)

The significance of this moment was that my photo of Boston, which was taken from a well-known vantage point with a small Kodak digital camera (with a resolution of five megapixels!) in November 2006, had been chosen by Boston’s City Hall in a contest that I had entered fleetingly, just for the heck of it. I never thought it had a chance, which reflected how I viewed my own images at the time.  I learned that not only would all 35 winners receive a plaque for the accomplishment, the images themselves would be enlarged to poster-size and displayed somewhere within City Hall for the public to see.

The Plaque from City of Boston

The acknowledgement informed me that I was doing something right with my love of photography, and perhaps I needed to upgrade from Minny and my pocket digital camera to something more advanced.  To be honest, the cost of constantly developing film was also becoming overwhelmingly expensive.

Enter the Night

By the time I purchased my first digital single lens reflex (dSLR) camera — the Sony Alpha 100 (I call him “Alphonso”) — I was becoming more curious about how to accentuate my cityscape photography. I wanted to do more than travel to a city and venture to all the popular and accessible places to obtain views that were well known to millions of people. Though that was an achievement in and of itself, I knew I wanted to do something more, and something different.  Additionally, I was curious about how to present a cityscape after the sun went down.  All my previous attempts to photograph cities at night were frequently unsuccessful.

One of my first night-time shots was of San Francisco from Twin Peaks, captured in “Automatic” mode! This image only came out relatively well by random luck (2008).

I started to research the topic of night-photography – fervently. I learned about the necessary equipment and expertise required to obtain riveting images of a city skyline when day succumbed to night.  My senses were stimulated once again. Apparently, I needed a useful gadget known as a tripod. I was also compelled to abandon the “Automatic” mode on Alphonso once and for all. I had to learn the other modes on my camera, such as the Shutter mode, and Aperture mode (my default favorite). 

All the information was helpful, but ultimately, what I learned had to be put into practice.  That meant a lot of trial and error with waking up early in the morning to obtain some shots of the Seattle skyline before the sun emerged above the horizon of the Cascade Mountains.  It meant experimenting with various locations around the city in the evening, with the additional challenge of evading the typical vantages in order to obtain atypical perspectives.  With my love of atlases since childhood, finding unusual or obscure locations on a road map to photograph cityscapes came naturally.  Getting lost on the way to finding a certain spot to photograph yielded other unexpected, serendipitous results (most of the time).  

“Rhythm of Seattle” was the first self-made video of my photography of a major city. (2009)

Although it was true that photographers had to often prevision how to capture their subject matter and be deliberate in its execution, there was also the element of the unknown, or the unplanned, that could be extraordinarily advantageous.  This was reminiscent of the saying, “Life happens in the middle of making other plans.”  This was the part of photography that has repeatedly brought me the most satisfaction – the aspect of not always knowing what to expect even when one has planned out everything in advance.

On a very chilly night in Vancouver, back in late November 2008, all my studying started to yield some rewarding returns.  I had departed from the popular and iconic Vancouver Lookout at Harbour Centre.  A few minutes later, I found myself at the intersection of Richards, Water, and Cordova Streets. This was the entrance to the city’s historic Gastown district, the birthplace of Vancouver. The architecture immediately changed from 20th & 21st century skyscrapers and high-rises to 19th century row houses and brick buildings. Observing my surroundings, I was seduced by the entire scene.  People were walking through the intersection, followed by the traffic of the cars and buses.  The nightlife of the neighborhood was abuzz, energizing, and inspirational.  For no other reason besides the ecstasy of these sensations, I decided to unpack my photo equipment and capture some long exposures of what my eyes saw and what my soul felt.  I was so excited by the results I had reviewed on Alphonso’s LCD screen that I must have stayed in that spot for an hour before realizing that I could execute the same type of images from different angles! 

This was the night that I discovered night-time photography and my life was never the same again afterwards. Retrospectively, I can attest that TIA International Photography was born in Vancouver.  

This image in Gastown was the inspiration and catalyst for my night-time photography. It all started off as an experiment back in November 2008.
This image is near the same location as the one above, captured in 2018. / Purchase

I had found something that thrilled the core of my being from head to toe. I spent the rest of the night going up and down Water Street in Gastown, photographing night scenes.  After that, I went to Burrard Street where St. Paul’s Hospital was brightly decorated and illuminated in holiday lights as the headlights of oncoming traffic sped by in front of the display.  Ah yes! It was new “subject matter”!  I don’t think I went to bed until 2am or 3am, forgetting that I hadn’t eaten that night. 

St. Paul’s Hospital on Burrard Street (November 2008).

In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened had I chosen not to walk towards Gastown that night, but I am so glad that I did because it led me to finally discover a meaningful purpose in my life at last.  That last statement is not hyperbole or bombast.  That night in Vancouver led me to realize, a few years later, that night-time photography, and photography in general, was my purpose in life.  Photography brought me endless hours of pleasure, constructive challenge, and mental stimulation.  I felt fortunate to discover this revelation, and frequently take the time to be grateful for this gift.

Three cities made my cityscape photography and night-time photography a mainstay:  Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver

Next year, in 2009, my dad had proposed that I start my own business for my photography and offer my services as a professional photographer. I was so incredulous that I initially scoffed at the idea, but later gave it some serious thought. I resolved that I would try it for a year, assuming I would likely fail within that same period of time. 

On December 1, 2009, the City of Seattle granted my first, official business license for TIA International Photography.  To date, completely counter to my own power of foresight, TIA has still been in operation and frequently more optimistic for its prospects than each previous year. It is surreal to register that a decade has now passed since that time.

On Top of the World

Manhattan Vista from the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center (2018) / Purchase

Inevitably, another element of cityscape photography became apparent for my exploration. It was one thing to journey to the observation deck of a tall skyscraper or notable landmark like Rockefeller Center or the Prudential Center to behold the metropolis below.  Also, there was the joy of driving to a promontory or well-known scenic lookout, like Victoria Peak or the Eiffel Tower, to see the vast expanse of the city.  However, there was another vantage to pursue, and perhaps the least commonplace – viewing the city from the skies.  Flying a few times in seaplanes over Seattle, San Francisco, and Vancouver encouraged me to research the art of aerial photography.  After a while, I was no longer pleased with the reflection and glares in my images after creating images through the tainted or dirty windows of seaplanes and helicopters.

Additionally, I grew weary of sharing rides with tourists and missing valuable opportunities because I was not seated in the right row or the advantageous side of the aircraft (ooooh, this infuriates me exponentially).

I started to consider what other professional photographers were doing. The resolution seemed obvious, albeit expensive, but paramount if I truly wanted to create an eye-catching portfolio endemic of my photographic work.  I started to independently collaborate with helicopter pilots and request the removal of the aircraft’s passenger door to perform high quality, dazzling, unobstructed aerial photography of major cities.

Here were some results of my aerial photography research:

Been Around the World and I-I-I-I…I Can’t Find My ‘Off’ Switch

Photography has given me a perspective towards life and the people, places, and events we encounter. In my humble perspective, architecture from any era of time is art.  Buildings and skyscrapers are man-made sculptures of art. As a result, many of the world’s city skylines are artistic, unique, and recognizable, similar to people we know in our lives.  As a portraiture is the portrait of a person, a cityscape is the portrait of a city.  To me, cities are like people, each with its own DNA and personality.  When someone says, “Oh, cities are all the same.  You’ve seen one. You’ve seen them all,” I cannot help but to differ with that point of view. 

As close in proximity as they may be, Paris and London are not like one another.  Their histories and cultures are completely different which, in turn, has contributed to their respective transformations over the last one thousand years. They may be sisters who will never meet face to face, but they are not similar in their entities as cities.  Toronto and Tokyo are not alike in their personalities. Neither are Cape Town and Calgary.  Perth and Pretoria are not like one another.  To be clear, there will always be commonalities between cities, just as there are similarities between siblings (such as physical features or mannerisms), but they are not the same entities.  It’s for this very reason why each city deserves its own unique profile worthy of multiple cityscapes showcased through the decades, centuries, and millennia.

Three decades after discovering my love for geography, travel, and photographing the world’s cities, none of these interests have dissipated. I wish there was a new interactive edition of Carmen Sandiego for adults featuring all the graphics and virtual imagery available in the 21st century! My love for photography and exploring cities remains unabated and insatiable.  Many of the cities for which I read travel guides as a kid or teenager are now prominently featured on my official photography website.  If a friend had asked me back then if I ever thought I would visit Sydney, Hong Kong, or Buenos Aires, I would have shrugged ambiguously. 

If I thought my photography business, back in 2009, would still be in operation an entire decade after its incorporation, I would have snickered and rejected the notion with utmost confidence. However, I feel immensely blessed that I have had the opportunity to profile these beautiful cities on camera and recall many of my personal and professional experiences while I was visiting. I am also eternally grateful for the perpetual support and encouragement from my family and friends during this ongoing endeavor. TIA International Photography will observe its 10th anniversary in December 2019.  I hope to continue exploring and capturing cities on camera during the day, at night, and from the air, for the rest of the time I have left on this planet.

Overall, I’m just happy all the pieces of that USA map jigsaw puzzle when I was in second or third grade led me down this course with a chance to contribute my own minuscule part to the wonders of our world’s cities and the phenomenon that is Photography.

If you read this entire article and made it to the conclusion (right here), I would like to genuinely extend my gratitude to you by offering a special discount for any purchase you make on TIA’s official website. When you purchase a print or license an image, enter the code “TIA10YEARS”, when prompted, to receive a special discount on your purchase.

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