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September 26, 2011

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Lu Xun's son a pioneering photographer

ZHOU Haiying (1929-2011), the only child of literary giant Lu Xun, was a low-key scientist, dedicating his life to promoting his father's works and ideas. But he was also a talented and pioneering photojournalist in China.

A current exhibition of around 200 of Zhou's photos vividly and realistically depicts life in China from around 1940 to 1950. The curator compares the works to those of Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), the father of modern photojournalism and master of candid street photography.

Zhou's show is underway at the Duolun Museum of Modern Art through October 9.

There are black-and-white photos of boys playing in a lane, a bride in a white gown, street peddlers and even a body-building coach. He also shot photos of the bourgeoisie, who were denounced for decadence and their photos burned during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). But Zhou's photos survived.

Born in 1929 in Shanghai, Zhou studied wireless technology at Peking University and became an expert in radio communications, joining the state broadcasting administration. He died in April this year.

Lu Xun, a household name in China, especially because many of his essays and short stories, died in 1936 when his son was only 7 years old.

It is hard to decipher the inner world of someone with such a famous father, a leading figure in modern Chinese literature.

When Zhou died, only a few relatives and friends understood his passion for photography. Unlike his peers who adopted salon photography that emphasized posture, lighting and a romantic touch, Zhou was a pioneer in realistic, spontaneous photography that portrayed society at the time.

The exhibit's renowned curator, Zhu Qi, said that in 2009 he found an album of photos by Zhou in a book store on Fuzhou Road.

"I was amazed to see the pictures he had taken. In my view, they are the equal of those of Cartier-Bresson, the master of modern photography known for capturing 'decisive moments'."

After publishing his first book "The Decisive Moment" in 1952, Bresson became famous. His shooting techniques swept the world. He came to China in 1948, but he was unknown at that time.

"Miraculously, Zhou started using almost similar shooting techniques in China," Zhu says.

Zhou quotes Bresson about his approach to photography. "For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. It is by economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression."

The highlight of the exhibition is a series of photos capturing daily life in Shanghai, many of them about the so-called bourgeoisie.

"The zoom-in pictures of that class in Shanghai are quite rare today, because many were burned during the 'cultural revolution' since bourgeois lifestyle was attacked," Zhu explains.

"But due to Zhu's special status as Lu Xun's son, these photos have been kept."

Zhou did not show his own pictures until 2008, since he did not believe they were good enough, says Zhu.

Yang Xiaoyan, a professor at Zhongshan University, commented in a seminar about Zhou's work: "His two crafts are high tech. Wireless technology involves wiretapping and photography relates to peeping. Because of strict propaganda controls, there was no spontaneous 'instant moment' shooting in the 1950s. Zhou was an exception to the rule."

Zhou only had a few small exhibitions.

"Zhou never recognized his talent in photography," Zhu says. "I admire his modesty so much. He was like a lonely witness to the turmoil in politics and society."

Date: through October 9 (closed on Mondays), 10am-4pm

Address: 27 Duolun Rd


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