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MOST PHOTOGRAPHS, according to Noel Myles, merit only five or 10 seconds' attention: the time it takes to flick from page to page in a magazine. But with his own photo-collages - huge jigsaws which combine dozens of different images to form the whole picture - he attempts to shift photography closer to painting; towards the intricate, detailed overview usually laid out on canvas, and away from the single snapshot image of a frozen moment. "Photos are micro-seconds of time, cut off and isolated," he explains. "I'm trying to go out and explore, look at things, meet people, and make an image of my experience over an extended period of time."

His collages are composed of interlocking prints, mounted together: next to each other, overlapping each other, under each other. "I call it painting with photographs. I can adjust line, tone, texture and colour just as I can with brushes and paint," says 46-year-old Myles, who initially trained as a painter at the Hornsey and Walthamstow schools of art. "My reference points are more to do with painting than photography. Many photographers like to think of their work as fine art, but the images have to be up to it - we have to find a way of showing photographic images that constantly reveals more and more of the subject."

Creating a work like The Dragon Spirit, shown here, takes around four months. The collage is one in a series of five commissioned by the Soho- based property developers, Shaftesbury plc, to capture the spirit of London's Chinatown. Myles went out into Chinatown with his Nikon and took over 3,000 pictures, which he assembled in his studio into vignettes and then into the final picture. The finished work, he estimates, contains somewhere between 300 and 400 prints.

His work is a far cry from the time-honoured holiday snapper's trick of trying to capture a panorama by taking four pictures and cack- handedly sticking them together. The different subjects melt harmoniously into each other; the yellows and reds of the peaches on a stall blend perfectly into the tail of the dragon mask, which in turn shades into the blue of an elderly lady's trousers. "People think of collages as fragmenting or separating material, but in fact it's more a question of pulling things together, harmonising them," says Myles.

This way of working means that he can create his own reality. The skyline, which shades subtly from night-time on the left into day on the right, was photographed on three different days at different times. Myles can also group people together who have never met, and play with London's topography. Gerrard Street, one of Chinatown's main arteries, is shown flowing directly into Piccadilly. This is a touch disconcerting for anyone who knows the area and tries to take the picture literally - but, Myles explains, the architectural sweeps that he has juxtaposed lead the eye into the centre of the picture.

The collage technique that Myles uses was pioneered by David Hockney in the Eighties; some traditional photographers remain suspicious of it. "I've had arguments with other photographers who say that this isn't real photography, isn't pukka," says Myles. "I deliberately do wrong things: using long exposures and big telephoto lenses on people walking just 30 or 40 metres away. I often deliberately blur the pictures to get painterly brush strokes. It's free, spontaneous, idiosyncratic."

Like a good painting, The Dragon Spirit is full of nuances, references and layers of meaning. The peaches and other fruits are a symbol of abundance and freshness; the dragon a symbol of power, strength and virility. The mask is one which will be used in the Chinese community's celebration of the seasonal festivals popularly known as the Moon Cake Festivals. The private family celebrations of these begin today, and there will be a public carnival in Soho in three weeks' time. !