What is Derive?

I am sitting in my apartment in Taipei City. This is a new place for me.
A light rain is falling outside the window and next door a blue neon sign shines above the alleyway as shadows pass in and out of a 24-hour supermarket.

I am here for a one-month sojourn while I print my new photobook, Danchi Dreams.

In this moment I am by myself among a million others. There is a kind of serenity in being alone in a city. I am here because of my photography, and at the core of my photography, is a single word.

That word is DERIVE.

But what does it mean?

A lifetime ago I was a country boy in the quaint capital city of those southern islands.

I had a teacher who talked about the wanderers and poets of postwar Paris. They used the same word, dérive.

For them dérive was a guide through the streets of a changing city, it showed them things new and old, it gave them a way of understanding the urban machine.

I left that city, that country, that life behind. But the word stayed with me.


DERIVE is not just the architecture of the night, or the light of the city, it can not be labeled simply as sci-fi renderings nor cyberpunk cinematics, at its center is one simple idea:

To wander.

To wander the past, the looming skyscrapers of Tokyo were not built today, they were built yesterday. Before them came a city of memories that little remains of. The city of 1989 speaks to the city of 1964 which in turn knew the city of 1923. If you get the chance to meet someone who knew that Tokyo then listen well, otherwise you can always put your ear to the buildings which chatter in a subsonic code of concrete and steel.

To wander the future, to see the shadows of glass and steel piercing the thunderstorms over Shanghai or Singapore, where all things take on the tone of the sky in an infinitely connected map of fractal lane streets and elevated highways. To see hints of places weaving together to form a new narrative, a story of architecture, people, streets and symbols that make up the gestalt of what the city of tomorrow might look like.

To wander what could have been, to walk the hallways of the massive Danchi housing projects of Japan, the subject of my first photobook. To feel the dreams and hopes of a generation in these structures that were the beginning of a future that never was.

DERIVE has taken me on incredible journeys. It lurks around every corner waiting to be discovered. DERIVE is the first sight of a city from a jet airplane north, or the last sight of it from a highway south. DERIVE beckons me to take my camera and tripod into the fine haze of a summer evening in Hong Kong or Kyoto, to explore the architecture of the city with my lens, and though I do this by myself, I am not alone.


I DERIVE through photography, however others write stories and screenplays, they create music, they scan the form of the city into a new virtual world inside the computer, or paint their own version upon it with acrylic.

DERIVE exists for anyone who has a passion for exploring and wandering the unknown, it is for anyone who desires to walk just one block further to see what is there, for anyone who secretly runs their hands along a wall and wonders “who was here before me?”

DERIVE sees the future and the past simultaneously. It is late nights and early mornings in the city, perhaps with a camera or a notebook, sometimes it is watching the people of a new city shuffle by in an alleyway illuminated by a blue neon sign above a 24-hour supermarket while a light rain falls outside…

~ Cody Ellingham

ArticleCody Ellingham