Q&A: Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze on capturing the blue hour for Vacheron Constantin

Last year, Vacheron Constantin embarked on a special collaboration with legendary photographer Steve McCurry — you’ll know him by his iconic National Geographic cover photograph of the Afghan girl with the piercing gaze — to present “The Overseas Tour: A Unique Perspective on the World.” The series captured 12 stunning far-flung locations across the globe, and allowed McCurry and Vacheron Constantin fans alike to swoon over dreamy destinations that embodied the same adventurous spirit of travel that the watch brand’s Overseas collection was designed after.

This year, Vacheron Constantin is celebrating the release of six brand new references in its iconic Overseas collection by focusing on Hong Kong as a microcosm of travel. For the project, they’ve commissioned acclaimed Hong Kong-based photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze to shoot eight unique locations in an exhibition entitled “An Invitation to Travel: Blue Hour, Hong Kong,” which shows from 15-16 September at KONG Art Space (3 Staunton Street, Central).

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Devil's Peak
An unconventional view of Victoria Harbour from Devil’s Peak, East Kowloon.

The new releases from the watch brand include new models in two-toned styles in steel and a pink-gold bezel, as well as two all-steel references with a rosy beige dial or a brilliant blue dial. It’s this sensational blue hue that Jacquet-Lagrèze is particularly known for, which makes his appointment so fitting for this project. Enamoured by Hong Kong’s dense verticality and the pulse of the city since he first arrived in Hong Kong in 2009, his previous art series, “The Blue Moment,” is an ode to the Hong Kong twilight, capturing the energy of the city during the ephemeral magic hour where sunset just begins to dissipate into nighttime.

We sit down with Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze to chat about his craft, his love for Hong Kong and how it ties into art and photography, and to get some advice for aspiring shutterbugs.

How does the "Blue Hour" project relate to or differ from your existing "The Blue Moment" series?

I’ve been working on “The Blue Moment” since 2015. We did an exhibition and photobook last year, and I still like to work on it, because the city keeps on evolving and there are always aspects that attract my eye. It’s good timing to have this project with Vacheron Constantin because it’s kind of an extension of Blue Moment, but in a more specific way. Here, it’s based on different locations, whereas Blue Moment is based on Hong Kong as a whole, and if you look at any photo in that series, you can hardly recognise where it is. The two series are complementary.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Devil's Peak
View from Devil’s Peak, East Kowloon.

What I wanted to show was that Hong Kong is a place where you can already ‘travel’: Traveling to other countries is always appealing, but a city like Hong Kong has lots of hidden gems. We wanted to express the sense of travel within the city. Even for myself, I discovered new places like the lighthouse on Cape D’Aguilar. It really gives an idea for people to travel within the city. We picked SoHo as well because in my series I usually like to show every aspect in Hong Kong — it’s hard to make a series in Hong Kong without mentioning the city life at all.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Cape D'Aguilar
View of the lighthouse at Cape D’Aguilar.

Of course, the blue very much matches with the colour of the watch dial from the new Overseas collection, and my work is concerned with timing and the colour blue — so it all made sense.

What is unique to you about Hong Kong’s twilight or ‘blue hour’? Is this the time of day you think best represents the spirit of the city?

One thing about the blue hour, especially in the city, is that it’s the perfect time where the artificial light, or city light, is totally blending with natural light from the sky. It’s the only short moment in the day where this can happen, when you can see everything clearly and everything blends perfectly. Visually, it’s something that I feel brings up the surreal aspects of the city, making the city feel more unfamiliar, even though it’s somewhere you’ve already been. It’s a different feeling altogether. It was important for me to express this feeling of ephemerality.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Peel Street
The glow of the city from Peel Street.

In Hong Kong, you can easily just focus on how crowded the city is, or you can do the other way around and only focus on nature. But if you want to show them together, it’s really the magic hour that allows you to do it. You have the city life blended with nature, so only in this twilight can you get artificial light and natural light at the same level.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Tai O
Tai O as seen from above.

One thing that makes shooting the ‘blue hour’ even more special is that it doesn’t happen all year round. It’s between April to September or in November. In the wintertime, it can happen but somehow the position of the light is different. This means that you have to take these photos in these places during the hot months — which means I have to suffer. Beauty has a cost!

How do you personally like to travel? What kinds of places do you find the most photogenic?

I’ve been living in Hong Kong for seven years now, and I’m from France so I travel back to France quite often, but I’ve found that the places I like to travel most are in Asia. China and Japan have been most appealing, especially Tokyo and Osaka. I’m a photographer who likes dramatic sceneries in the city and nature, so China and Japan are perfect for that. Hong Kong itself is also the place to be for that.

Do you typically travel to a certain place knowing exactly what types of scenic shots you want to take, or do you let the location surprise you?

As my focus has been on Hong Kong quite clearly for the past five years, and it takes time to build an original way of showing a city, I need to go there back and forth for a long time to discover places and things that interest me. If I just travelled for a week to Japan, what would I be able to do? I think you can only build a good collection for a series if you dedicate a lot of time within one place.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Cape D'Aguilar
A glimpse of the waters under the natural stone arch at Cape d’Aguilar.

Specifically for this series with Vacheron, I had to go back many times to the eight locations (Devil’s Peak, Cape D’Aguilar, Peel Street SoHo, Shing Mun Reservoir, Tai O, Big Buddha & Wisdom Path at Ngong Ping, Ha Pak Nai and Tamar Park). This particular moment of the day is really short — 30 minutes if you’re lucky, and you need good weather conditions, and different points of view. For each location, we also did some shooting with models, which we had to clear in one day, but the landscape shots can hardly be taken all in the same day. The best way to discover good points of view is to go many times. If I was there just once, I wouldn’t be able to discover all the great angles.

In this collaboration with Vacheron Constantin you’re photographing people as well, which is outside of your norm. How did you feel about that, what emotions did you want to convey?

I’ve done a series before that was focused on old Hong Kong shops before they were demolished, which was more related to heritage, rather than lifestyle and travel. But for this series with Vacheron we really wanted to focus on the experience of travel, so it was a very different approach as you really have to make sure the model understands what is in your mind. With shooting heritage, you just let the person be as they are. Actually for this series, I just made sure the models could enjoy the place — because the photos are all about discovering these lesser known spots in a new way.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Peel Street
In the midst of SoHo on Peel Street, this couple wears the Overseas Chronograph (him) and Overseas Small Model (her) both with a stunning blue lacquered dial.

The romantic feeling you get from the resulting photographs is also to do with the ephemerality of that blue light as well. It just lasts for a few minutes, so it makes everything look more treasurable. It’s really all about the instant — so when you mix that with the connection between a couple, it can create good memories and romance in the city.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Ha Pak Nai
Known as Hong Kong’s own ‘mirror of the sky,’ Ha Pak Nai is ideal for couples.

Did you encounter any particularly unique challenges while shooting this series?

There are always different dangers when shooting. What’s also tricky about shooting the blue hour is that when you arrive at the location it’s daytime, but when you’re done it’s nighttime, so you have to make sure you have enough light getting back.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Devil's Peak
Standing at Devil’s Peak, wearing the Overseas World Time.

When I was shooting at Shing Mun at nighttime there were a lot of monkeys out, and they can be quite aggressive. So as soon as you leave a plastic bag they will run to you. It was a bit tricky to handle them. There are no monkeys in the images, but they were all behind me! That was the challenge of the model, to look peaceful while surrounded by monkeys. Shing Mun is really a beautiful place, but you have to make sure to not bring any plastic bags, then the monkeys won’t care about you — they’re not interested in cameras or watches, they really just aim for the food.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Shing Mun Reservoir
A view of the old trees surrounding Shing Mun Reservoir in the twilight.

You first came to Hong Kong in 2009 -- what in the city has visually changed the most? And has that changed the focus of your photos at all through the years?

Visually, you see more and more newer residential areas, with new residential towers replacing the oldest buildings. Many districts have changed a lot, especially the areas of Yau Ma Tei and Sham Shui Po. For my own series, “The Blue Moment,” I take photos about the city in general, and what I love about these districts is that they’re totally not standardised — every building is so different from each other. I think that’s something very treasurable, charming and unique in Hong Kong. This tends to be disappearing, so I’ve placed more and more focus on these areas. And on nature as well — although there’s a good system of national parks, you can definitely feel that the buildings are getting closer and closer to them.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Tai O
Along the main canal at Tai O, the model wears the Overseas 41mm in crocodile leather strap.

Is there something you typically focus on when you’re composing your photos?

It’s all about composition — and the right vantage point to get it is essential. Like my series ‘Blue Moment,’ they’re all photos of the city, but they’re actually taken in the jungle, probably very far away. The main point is to move around and discover the spot that works for you. And of course, the timing is very important. That’s why I always go scouting first, so I know exactly where the vantage point is.

What are your essential gear, tools and accessories?

It’s usually two steps: First, every place I usually just go by myself with very light gear, just my camera and a few lenses, and this is just for scouting. This is when I spend the most time there — around two hours even for a small area — because I want to make sure I’ve found all the good angles. Then, I come back with all my pro gear. I usually like to use a mirrorless camera, like my Sony a7R, which I use for most of my projects.

With a mirrored camera, it means the view through the lens is reflected into your eye through a set of mirrors. But this takes up a lot of space. Nowadays, Sony and many other brands have removed the mirror, so what you’re seeing through the lens is a digital display — what you see is what you get, according to your settings, such as your colour balance, luminosity, exposure. It’s a clever system, and the camera is also much smaller, so it’s more lightweight. I already bring a heavy tripod, so it’s good to save weight on the camera. I also like to use a Prime lens — the kind of lens where you can’t zoom in or out. So this forces you to move around the subject much more, to find the best way of showing it, instead of staying in one point. I think it makes you bond with your subject much more.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Collection - Blue Hour - Ngong Ping
Wisdom Path and Big Buddha exuding an air of spiritual ethereality.

Do you have any tips for amateur photographers looking to get serious?

There are usually two kinds of photographers — there are people who love camera gear, and actually don’t really love shooting much, and those who really love shooting. With my very first series, “Vertical,” I did it with an even more simple and cheaper camera than this. You can only have better photos if you go shooting a lot. Of course, better gear can help give you better photos, but only technically better as in better colours or you can print it larger. But for finding new angles and new ideas, it’s all about shooting more. Don’t rely only on the gear.

Also, shooting with only prime lenses is also a good idea, because they are optically almost perfect, and they don’t have distortion since there’s just one gear. It forces you to really explore the angles of each location, so it’s helpful for beginners.

What’s next in the works for you?

I’m focusing more on the blue moment but purely in nature — such as what you see in my photos at Shing Mun Reservoir or Ha Pak Nai — because there’s still so much country park to explore.