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Photo pioneers capture urban life, ordinary people

FOR many years, Chinese mainstream photography was about landscapes. In 1986 bored shutterbugs broke away and began taking pictures of urban life and ordinary people, writes Nancy Zhang The details, ironies, the grittiness and incidental moments of urban life have inspired photographers worldwide. But in China, it was only in the past two decades that ordinary life became a valid subject for photography.

Before then, it was landscapes, landscapes and landscapes.

"Trace: Urban Photography in Shanghai" displays the start of the urban photography movement in 1986 and its continuing influence on young photographers today.

The exhibition at the 1933 creative hub runs through April 4.

The movement started with an informal group of photographers who called themselves "The Northern Stream Collective" based in Beijing. These photography students and teachers were brought together by their shared boredom with mainstream taste for sweeping landscape photography.

Landscapes were the usual candidates for photography prizes. Chinese landscape photography has often been linked with traditional Chinese landscape painting.

They were also disillusioned with the limitations photojournalism, and proud of being unaffiliated to the media.

"In the 1980s, Chinese photography was about taking photos, but we tried to find expressions of feelings with the camera," says Gu Zheng, one of the best-known members of the collective.

Against the backdrop of rapid urban development and intellectual ferment, the photographers found plenty of material. But they broke new ground not by addressing the big issues of the day, but by capturing the meaning of everyday life in its countless, transient moments.

From their first humble exhibition (on the walls of a friend's cafe), the body of works went on to be featured in respected photography journals such as Young Photography and Modern Photography. There were Beijing exhibitions.

Eventually what started as counter-mainstream became accepted by the mainstream as a significant new direction.

Highlights of this exhibition include two previously unpublished photos by Gu. One shows a pair of twins against the backdrop of Shanghai's Nanjing Road E. It reveals what Gu calls the "mystery of photography."

Not knowing that he had photographed the twins, he only realized after developing the photos that there was perfect symmetry between the twins and between the twins and the background.

New and emerging photographers are also featured.

Zhu Hao's color photography is a vivid contrast to the black-and-white photos of the 1980s. Zhu has a rare eye for moments that are striking and yet completely incidental, accidental. His explorations of the real and the fake in urban life are rich in humor, and provoke thought as photographic puzzles.

The impressive exhibition space, 1933, is a converted abattoir in ornate, art-deco style with a glorious dome. The photos are displayed in a space of curving stone staircases and columns in the creative space dedicated to promoting art, design and learning.

Address: 2/F, Bldg 3, 10 Shajing Rd

Tel: 6501-1933

For more information, check


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