China, with its population of over 1 billion and vast land mass, is one of the world’s modern superpowers. Famous for The Great Wall and The Forbidden City, China also has a rich photographic history which began with the arrival of the first European photographers in Macao during the mid-19th century.
Early photography in China had a uniquely Chinese aspect- inspired by the traditional painting techniques of the era. Some photographers actually painted calligraphy over their photos, in the style of the Literati painters. Since then Chinese photography has evolved to encompass a wide variety of genres and styles, and become an essential tool for expressing dissent and revolt.
1. Bruno Barbey – Chengdu industrial palace, 1980
As an accredited photographer to the French presidential press corps, Bruno Barbey started his long relationship with China in 1973. Shooting on the best colour film of his era, Kodachrome, Barbey’s poetic photos came together in the project “China in Kodachrome 1973-1980.” His work is an important survey of post-Cultural Revolution China and has incredibly compelling aesthetic value.
This image of cyclists around Chengdu industrial palace generates the feeling of the hustle and bustle of rush hour. While a large statue of Chairman Mao looms in the background, commuters travel through the austere and muggy landscape almost in uniform, providing a good commentary on the political climate of the time.
2. René Burri – Dead lotus flowers on the Kunming lake, Beijing, 1964
Rene Burri’s quiet image of dead lotus flowers on the Kunming lake has earned its fame for its stillness. Forming erratic shapes against the muted grey of the water, the stalks of the lotus could almost be strokes of calligraphy in some unknown language.
The lotus flower is one of the most significant symbols in Chinese culture, symbolizing the holy seat of Buddha. It’s growth represents long life and honor. As it rises from the mud and blooms above the surface of the water is represents the purification of the heart and mind. In this sense, Burri’s beautiful landscape has a desolate feeling to it, but speaks of new seasons when when the lotus will bloom once more.
3. Stuart Franklin – Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989
Stuart Franklin, on assignment for Time under Magnum, says that at the start of the Tiananman Square protests, there was “the atmosphere of a festival”. People marched with music and banners and the hunger strikers were obscured in the crowds. The Chinese were protesting for freedom of speech, freedom of the press and an end to corruption. Declaring martial law, the Chinese government silenced these protests by brutally sending the military to control the crowds on June 4th 1989, in what was to become known as the Tiananman Square Massacre, which killed an estimated 10,000 protestors. Recalling religious iconography, Franklin’s image of a student on hunger strike being lifted into the air by his fellow protestors is a powerful image of the might of the individual against an entire regime.
4. Patrick Zachmann – Young prostitute from Henan in a massage parlour, Beijing, 2001
Patrick Zachmann’s long-term project So Long China spans three decades and covers huge events in the nation’s recent history, as well as documenting the Chinese community’s changing culture. Undertaking persistent and thorough documentation of life in China, Zachmann’s underlying themes are those of identity, and its markers at a time of rapid societal change.
On his first trip Zachmann wrote in his diary; “I feel attracted by this country and its culture,not knowing exactly why. I have fantasies and clichés in my mind, bound to this millenary culture, its strangeness, its mystery. Bound to unreachable things.” In this image the woman is presented in a harsh red light, a colour incredibly synonymous with China.
5. Jeff Widener – Tank Man, Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989
One day after the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which Chinese military troops attacked pro-democracy demonstrators on the historic plaza, Jeff Widener was sent on assignment to document the aftermath. As he photographed the victims, a line of tanks began to roll out onto the plaza. Hoping to shoot the tanks, Widener focussed on the machines just as a man holding a shopping bag stepped in front of them, waving his arms and refusing to move.
As the tanks tried to go around him, the man would repeatedly step into their path, at one point climbing on top of them. Surprisingly the man wasn’t shot dead by the tanks but eventually he was taken away by soldiers, his identity unknown. This single act of resistance made “Tank Man” a global hero- his anonymity becoming a universal symbol of resistance.
6. Ren Hang – Untitled, 2016
Ren Hang, one of the brightest stars of the modern contemporary photography scene tragically took his own life in 2017 after enduring intimidation and censorship from the Chinese Authorities throughout his career. The People’s Republic of China has banned pornographic images since 1949, but despite these limitations, Hang made sexually explicit photography to celebrate his own freedom.
Hang was a self-taught photographer who often used flash photography in his work. Usually featuring nude bodies in contorted poses, Hang also used photography as a tool to deal with his lifelong depression. His work helped to break through the taboos of nudity which is highly enforced in Chinese society.
7. Ai Weiwei – Lu Qing at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1994
Ai Weiwei is the most famous Chinese contemporary artist and activist living today. As an activist, he has called attention to the Chinese Government’s human rights violations and stance on democracy. As an artist he has expanded his practice to merge form and politics, acting as one of the earliest conceptual artists to incorporate social media in his practice. He has widely investigated government cover-ups and in 2011 he was held for 81 days without any official charges being filed, loosely accused of “economic crimes”. He has repeatedly been held under house arrest, and subjected to surveillance and police brutality. His art is always angry, humorous and political- this photo of his wife, Lu Qing, lifting her skirts at Tiananmen square is no exception.
8. Greg Girard – Bar Interior, Wanchai, Hong Kong, 1985
“When people were finishing high school, they were mostly going to Europe, and that didn’t interest me” reflects Girard on his decision to visit Hong Kong as an 18 year old. He claims to have been captivated by the neon billboards of Asia, and set off on a journey through the fluctuating landscapes of Asian metropolises that lasted for decades. He has now become famous for his neon-lit, moody and lonesome nocturnal images that casts the ugly modernity of cities in the most beautiful light.
9. Mark Riboud – On the Yangtze, 1971
Chairman Mao, (Mao Zedong) was a Chinese communist revolutionary who became the founding father of the People’s Republic of China from its establishment in 1949 until his death in 1976. In 1957 he launched a campaign known as the “Great Leap Forward“ that aimed to rapidly transform China’s economy from agrarian to industrial. However, it is commonly considered to have caused the Great Chinese Famine in which tens of millions of people died.
This image, in which billowing towers mark the strength of industry, juxtaposed with a fierce and stoic statue of Mao standing with his hand outstretched as if to proclaim the “Great Leap Forward”, has an ironic tone to it. Both Mao and the smoke clouds dominate the sky, but their presence does not necessarily indicate the cornucopia of production that it was intended to symbolise.
10. Burt Glinn – Fishermen using cormorants and lanterns to fish at dusk, Guilin, 1981
For thousands of years, fishermen in the Guilin region (formerly known as Kweilin) of China have used trained Cormorant birds to fish their rivers. By tying a snare near the base of the bird’s throat, the cormorants are prevented from swallowing larger fish but can still swallow small fish, which they can then spit back onto the deck of the boat. While few fishermen practice cormorant fishing now, there is still a large tourist industry surrounding the tradition.
Some fishermen began working with photographers back in the 1970s and have continued a profitable business alongside them ever since. Burt Glinn is one of many to document this ancient tradition, but in his own masterful manner, he captures the dying light of the day and a single cormorant skimming the water amidst a fleet of lanterns.
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