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Artifacts: Fritz Hoffmann’s Mojo Bag

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March 1996 - Painted signs suggest an emerging market for cinema in Shanghai.

Artifacts is a series about physical items that have meaning to photographers in the field. The items are styled, shot, and described by the photographers themselves.

Photographers are optimists. One has to be, when setting out with camera in hand, to believe that a picture waits around the corner; to meet the ordinary and look for something extraordinary; to board a plane, land on foreign soil and overcome cultural, political and psychological barriers for the gift of a photograph. It’s with this that I sold everything, shouldered my camera bag and moved to China in 1995. It was August 8 and I knew so little about China and Chinese culture and history that I failed to recognize the significance of the double eight. When he picked the date, my travel agent on Pell Street in New York’s Chinatown explained how eight is the most auspicious number. How auspicious? You may remember that China scheduled the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing to open on 08/08/2008 at 8:00 p.m.

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September 1997 – A former farmer from Zhejiang province, now a scaffolding installer on the Jin Mao tower under construction in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, pauses to take in the view of the city and Huang Pu river.
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May 1996 – Modeling western wedding gowns on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road draws the attention of a large crowd of mostly men.

I planned to stay in China for five years. Five turned to 13 there as a full-time resident photo correspondent. On August 8 for each of those years, wherever I was, I sat somewhere alone—sometimes only for a few minutes—reached into my cotton camera bag and found, tucked into the bottom of a pocket, a four-inch black silk sack with drawstrings pulled tight. A “mojo” bag filled with keepsakes, mementos, charms and notes of good wishes placed there by friends and family, and a few tokens I added too. It was given to me at my send off in Nashville, Tennessee, my home base for four years before my move across the Pacific. There is no item of greater personal significance that I carried in my camera bag across all corners of China, from balmy Guangzhou to the high altitude Tibetan Plateau, throughout Asia and into Europe.

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February 1997 – An elderly resident of the Lujiazui neighborhood in Shanghai’s Pudong New Area burns personal items at the site of her family’s home that was razed to make way for development. The area is now often referred to as China’s “Wall Street”.
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April 1998- A one-year old boy gets a lift from his father in his below-deck berth on a Yangtze River boat to Shanghai where the family of farmers was headed to find work in the construction boom.

Of course, as a photographer, I have an affinity with cameras. But there are only two that I have cherished: my mother’s Voitlander, which became my first camera; and my first Leica, an M6 that was my companion during formative years. It was stolen in Shanghai. I have other Leicas but that one was smoothest, like butter. And it had a few scars that reminded me of places and people I had photographed, obstacles I overcame, all for the photograph. As the years passed in China, with picture stories told and roads traveled, a piece of me became Chinese. I learned Mandarin and dreamt in Mandarin too. Some close Chinese friends don’t even know my English name. I am He Fujie, as was printed on my journalist accreditation. When I paused to open that satchel, I was reminded of the distance traveled, my family, old friends, and my optimism for the pictures that lay ahead.

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Fritz Hoffmann’s “mojo” bag. This bag is stuffed with notes and small items from friends and family meant to bring inspiration and good luck..

The contents of Hoffmann’s “mojo bag,” listed clockwise starting with the black and white proof prints.

Black and White Prints: I clipped these from 35MM contact sheets from my time in the South. Nashville was very good to me. I have many musician friends there and I was always plugging into their gigs and sessions from which I drew much creative energy. The images you can see here are of: bass player Roy Husky Jr., singer/songwriter April Barrows in Nashville, and midnight at the blues joint called Red’s in Clarksdale, MS.

Tennessee State Pin: This is pinned on a note from Helen Corn. After returning from assignments on the road, I would often end up at the Corn’s for cornbread, sweet tea and long conversations about photography with Jack and Helen.

Note Wrapped In String: From photographer Mary Entrekin with a piece of amber inside taken from the keyboard of her husband songwriter Kent Agee.

Notes Wrapped In Survey Tape: From Joe Glaser and April Barrows tied with a piece of survey tape from their farm with a new house that I occasionally helped them work on. Joe is a guitar maker and, when he and I built the kitchen cabinets, we resawed boards of birds eye maple at the Fender guitar factory.

Stone: A small stone from the beach on Puget Sound where I grew up, collected and wrapped in seaweed by my wonderfully creative sister Maureen.

Dog License: The license of Nathan, the pet dog we had when I was a kid. He was a stray that my brother and I met early one Sunday morning on our paper route. When we found Nathan he had a broken rope around his neck. That’s a vision that has stayed with me. Nathan followed us that morning. We kept him after we learned his owners had left him behind when they moved. I was probably around ten.

Keith Richard’s Guitar Pick: From the Bradley Barn sessions with George Jones. I photographed the sessions for MCA Records. Each of the eleven days there was a different guest artist. Keith arrived to the Barn bright and early, excited to sing with George. A memorable day that was.

Courage, Concept, Heart, Vision, Resolve: Words to create by, stamped in copper by my sister Maureen.

Puzzle Piece and Gold Angel: The puzzle piece is from my dad and the gold angel pin is from my mom. My parents have been incredibly supportive of my adventures throughout life.

Photo, Goat Seed, and Steer Head: “Three points of good wishes – A photo talisman for mystery and intrigue, eye of a goat seed for growth and rich color, a steer head to stay in touch with American roots.”

Acorn: A lathe-turned acorn of Tennessee red cedar by my photography mentor and good friend, Jack Corn.

To see more of Fritz Hoffmann’s work, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.

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