There’s always a bittersweet feeling when it comes to looking at pictures of amusement parks. Something about it reminds you of a simpler time that’s slipped through your fingers, a day out in one of the ultimate spaces for escapism. Despite coming in many shapes and sizes, you just sort of know when you’re in one of them, from the smells, the crowds, and the sounds. But across the world, they’ve also developed their own visual language – from the massive interlocking frames of roller coasters to highly decorated, themed amenities.
What German photographer Paul Hiller has achieved with his ongoing project, Happy Sad Places, is basically a typology of this visual language. For the past 12 years, Paul has been photographing amusement parks around the world, from the famous to the obscure, steadily capturing syrupy scenes in these parks. “I started my amusement park series – or how I call them now, Happy Sad Places, in 2007 on a road trip through the USA,” Paul tells It’s Nice That. “The colours and tones are very important to me, and it is a significant part of my pictures.”
One reason why his photographs feel bittersweet is because more often than not, the photographs show the parks in a rarely-seen light, devoid of the usual density, presenting you with the eerily serene. With passers-by facing away, uninterested and immune to the sights, or exhausted visitors resting and comparing photographs, a looming question remains: what happens when the world’s happiest places don’t have anyone to make happy?
Paul tells us about Space World, an “old-fashioned space-themed amusement park in the south of Japan” that he photographed in 2017 with an exact replica of a US space shuttle as their main attraction as one of the most memorable places he went to. “I loved the atmosphere and the slightly morbid charm there,” he says. “Another important reason why I mentioned this park is that it was demolished at the end of 2017, so all my pictures from this place can’t be replicated anymore.”
This wasn’t the only place that has closed down since Paul photographed them. “My work is always a bit of a preservation of an older time,” he explains. Paul considers his work a mix of landscape and report photography, the pastel style he chooses helping this consistent process of documentation. He chose to shoot analogue after picking it up whilst working as a photo lab manager. “I was fascinated by the many possibilities and materials you can use to modify your own images, just by choosing the right film, cameras, and process for developing.” Even until now, Paul still uses the same set of techniques to produce this aesthetic: a 70 year-old camera, a film that hasn’t changed for about 20 years, and a film scanner that came out 20 years ago.
Paul shows us pictures from the past two years, with snippets from trips to parks in China, Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. While in Ho Chi Minh city, he visited a Buddhism-themed amusement and water park, embellished with dragon and buddha statues between the rollercoasters and the waterslides. “It was very different to all the other places I’ve visited before. People actually go there to pray or to pay tributes, then go on to have some fun on the thrilling rides,” he says. Despite the thematic differences across these parks, Paul’s work always finds the beautiful, the weird, and the fleeting in all these utopias.
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