15 November 2023

The Compressed City

Mengting Matilda Zhou reimagines the
architecture of trash


by Kate Mothes

In 2017, Mengting Matilda Zhou was moved to capture a snapshot of a crushed pack of cardboard boxes, sandwiched between two wooden pallets. The image spurred a series exploring the connection between garbage and human existence, symbolizing what she describes as “the pressure and constraints of modern society.” While the first image was captured with a Minolta film camera, she became increasingly interested in the idea of fabricating “synthetic imagery and symbolism, (urging) viewers to address environmental concerns and handle psychological stress in a healthier way.”

Zhou’s portraits of architectural stacks of boxes are drawn from various sources, starting with her own archive of images made over the years. She then edits files in Photoshop and gives cues to AI tool Midjourney, combining the results into new images. “I capture the initial images, then apply my own aesthetic sense to adjust composition and colors to achieve the final result that I intend to express,” she says. “I’ve gone through more than 200 rounds of compositing.” The idea of compression, in The Compressed City, relates both to a physical sense of compaction and the digital manipulation of files.

The cubes of packaging are ubiquitous around New York City, as deliveries are unpacked and the masses of material processed for pickup by waste management companies. The longer one looks at Zhou’s images, the more their synthetic nature reveals itself. She removes the grime and disarray of trash, replacing it with repeating colors and patterns, and neatly stacked cubes carefully tacked into place with wood, to create satisfying—even wishful—compositions in defiance of the subject.

Explore more of Zhou’s street and portrait photography on her website.

All images © Mengting Matilda Zhou

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