Street Photography Book Analysis: Modern Times by Patrick Tsai


One of the best things about photography is it gives us a view of places we otherwise won’t be able to visit. Street Photography ups the ante by actually heading to side streets, roads not taken, and places that won’t appear in your usual travel guide. In Patrick Tsai’s modern times, he shows us a China devoid of media’s prejudice and how this diaristic photographer tries to prove that he can document his surroundings as well.

Is he successful? Let’s analyze his book to find out.


Tsai first got noticed in 2007 by the photo world for the project he and his girlfriend, Madi Jung, called my little dead dick. It is a visual diary of their relationship. When the relationship ended, he found himself in pre-olympic China. After documenting the four corners of his personal life, he decided that perhaps it was time to point the camera to his surroundings instead of pointing it at himself. Patrick puts it best with his own words:

One day I came up with the idea to document the madness and wonders of China leading up to the Olympics. Behind the dirty, rough exterior, which most visitors only seem to notice, was actually something very beautiful and exciting, which I wanted to share. At the same time, I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a serious photographer. I hung a rangefinder camera around my neck and even bought a camera bag. In the end, I looked like a dork, but I was ready.

About the book

The book welcomes us with a quirky cover illustration by Tsai. The bright yellow book is a far cry from the black or gray staple in most books.



Modern Times jumps straight in to the photos. The readers will be treated to a flurry of colorful and lively photographs. There are pauses of a white page against a  photo. Tsai does not hesitate to show people smiling at the camera or noticing his presence.It makes me imagine a very cheery and highly active photographer roaming these streets.

Tsai also has a fascination with animals in this book. They are depicted as friendly creatures that are reliable and loyal. They play with their own species or accompany humans going about their daily lives. Tsai shows that animals are a part of our society. If the animals in Tsai’s photos can talk, they will probably greet us with a “Hello friend!”.




There are two things that jump out with the book: the spreads and the sequences. The spreads invite you to move the book near to your eyes so that you can examine every single detail in the frame.



The sequences on the other hand highlights a series of events throwing everything we know about the decisive moment. I don’t think Tsai wants to challenge Bresson’s philosophy. Tsai just wants to show that these successive events happen after the photograph was taken and will continue to happen. Even his sequences have smart juxtapositions. After showing a sequence that shows people trying to prevent a man commiting suicide, he follows up with photos of perhaps the most happiest girl in the book. This contrast delivers his aim that there is more to China than what the media perceives it to be.








Similarities from other works

I found Tsai’s approach to his project is similar to that of Elliot Erwitt. Known for photographing and animals and interesting sequences. Erwitt has Woof and Sequentially Yours as a testament to that. I think the difference in Tsai and Erwitt is that Erwitt has a sense of comedy you would get from a stand up comedian pointing out odd realities whereas Tsai’s is a good sketch, many things happening at the same time until it builds to a punchline. Both have the same approach but are equally good and effective in their execution.


In Closing

Based on the the book, I infer that Tsai is shooting based on interest and instinct without hesitation. The small mistakes in composition which online photogroups will dismiss was embraced openly by Tsai giving his work a certain degree of frankness and attitude. His photographs doesn’t feel that he is an invisible photographer bobbing and weaving in the crowds of people but rather someone who seems like he himself is a character on the street. He went out and about in a place dear to him, made photographs, organized them, and presented his work to the world. Photography at its most basic and in my opinion, most beautiful.



However, in his next project, he did something different. Patrick Tsai combined the intimacy of diaristic photography he did in my little dead dick, the candidness of street photography as shown in modern times, and added a journal of daily vignettes posted in a blog in the form of Talking Barnacles.

I suggest everyone to take a look at that work and let’s have a discussion on talking barnacles in an upcoming analysis article.

Patrick Tsai made a quirky animation on his website about the origin of Modern Times which I recommend for you to check out

For more photos from the book check out the slideshow over at Invisible Photographer Asia

The book is available on this link: (UPDATE: Before publishing, I got an email last night that The PH photobook store in Japan is winding down their operations and having a final sale. Orders above 8,000 YEN will have an extra free book. One of them is Modern Times. I suggest you all take advantage. For more info, contact them at
The book also got into Time Magazine’s list best photo books of 2012

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