My best news of the year, and the reason why I’m spending the Spring in China, is that I’m doing a new book on tea. Better still, I’m doing it with a friend, Tim d’Offay, of Postcard Teas in Mayfair, London. Together with his wife Asako and brilliant creative director Lu Zhou, Tim has created a very special tea business. Unique, actually, in the West, because not only are Postcard Teas highly discriminating (small growers farming less than 15 acres, sustainable, no agrochemicals, no pesticides), but they were the first to put the name of the individual tea maker on their packets.
That might sound obvious — it did to me — but the tea business remains strangely anonymous. Unlike wine, for example, where you’d expect to know at least where the vineyard is, and hopefully a lot more about what went into the making of it, with tea you’re not likely to get much further than the brand label, which is more than likely to be Twinings, Tetley or PG Tips. When the Independent in a review of tea drinking in Britain calls Darjeeling and Assam ‘speciality blends”, you know something is seriously wrong. That’s like calling Bordeaux and Burgundy speciality wines!
Photography, of course, is always specific, never general. It’s one time in one place, and so is exactly about provenance and terroir, and that’s what drew me to tea in the first place. The start of it all was my 2011 book Tea Horse Road, which I was presenting yet again a couple of weeks ago at the Emirates Literary Festival. As well as introducing me to a very special type of tea, Pu’er, this book eventually led to Wai Mun Tye, then head of marketing at Barclays Wealth Management Asia, commissioning the book Life of Tea. She also came up with that evocative title.
I was a little coy about it in January-of-last-year’s Newsletter because it was a corporate commission, but what made it highly unusual was that it was also a full-on 288-page large-format photographic book, weighing in at three kilos — the kind that would normally be a trade edition from a big publisher. Such a pity that didn’t happen, but now, in a different form, it will. That’s why I’m here in Shanghai, making arrangements to cover some of the tea mountains that I missed on the earlier shooting.
Apart from the lousy weather (need to wait for the rain to stop for the picking), the two best known teas that I want to shoot are posing problems. They are Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) and Bi Luo Chun (Green Snail Spring), both with massive reputations and history. These two are so famous that they’re comprehensively exploited, on the principle that if you have a good thing, commercialise it to the maximum. Never mind tradition and artisanal care or the soil or plant cover. People are going to buy them anyway and pay high prices because they’re told these are great teas. Which they once were, as my friend Ellen Kong demonstrates when she serves a 30-year-old Tie Guan Yin in her gallery on Yongfu Lu in the French Concession….
As for modern hand-crafted organic tea, Ellen has given up on trying to find a good, traditionally made Tie Guan Yin, as has Tim. One day we visit one of her mentors in tea, and come away no wiser, despite tasting exquisite other teas and having a wonderful dinner en famille. He deals in all the top Chinese varieties, but one of the points he makes is that even if you do find a good small grower, the danger is that this supplier will soon be overwhelmed by other buyers and offers. As he says, a good buyer’s principle is ‘the more secret, the safer’, and that’s pretty well all he says on Tie Guan Yin, although he’s eloquent at length on tea philosophy and its relationship with Daoism. Maybe I’ll have a better idea this week when I fly down to Anxi to see for myself.
…and a look at a new medium
If you’ve looked at my Instagram account in the last couple of weeks, you’ll have seen a few experiments with cinemagraphs (yes, the word’s also new). I’m not quite sure why I became interested, apart from writing an article for my client Manfrotto, but they’ve certainly become fashionable, and are even turning up in advertising campaigns. They’re a hybrid between motion picture and still picture, hence the name, but there’s more to it than that. Being half-and-half of anything isn’t particularly exciting, and easily dismissed as not quite this and not quite that, but cinemagraphs generate a different, and positive response. This isn’t just opinion. The proof is in viewing and engagement rates. Engagement rates are the proportion of people who look at your work online and then do something about it, clicking to find out more or to buy or approve. It’s a flexible definition, and not aways as useful as some people claim it to be, but there’s no doubt that the higher the better. And just by posting a few on Instagram I can see that they easily double the attention that a normal video gets (Instagram videos for me are generally a pan-and-zoom over a still image).
At first glance, a cinemagraph looks like a still photograph, except that some part of it, often quite small, is in constant motion like a video. It’s that slight delay in noticing, and the attendant surprise, that gives cinemagraphs their appeal. The basic principle behind creating one is to take a short video sequence, freeze one frame of it, and allow a small area within that frozen frame to continue playing as motion — in a loop so that it continues endlessly. That’s straightforward enough, but the interesting part is finding or devising scenes that will surprise. This is after all a gimmick, and will be fun for a while, but I somehow don’t see it entering the permanent collection of major art museums. Already, the obvious choice of scenes with flowing water (only the water moves) is becoming a little too familiar. Meanwhile, here’s one you’re not likely to see too often. Though I may look back at this in a year’s time and wince.