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May 29, 2015

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Portrait masters in focus at new photo center

LOCATED along the burgeoning West Bund museum district, the newly opened Shanghai Center of Photography is shaping up to become the city’s foremost museum dedicated to the art of photography.

Its opening exhibition — “Photography from the 20th Century: The Private Collection of Jin Hongwei” — offers a wide-ranging overview of this continually evolving medium.

The show includes works from ground-breaking artists who helped shape the art of photography from the days of glass plates all the way through to the advent of digital imaging.

All of the photos on display are on loan from Jin Hongwei, a private collector who is also the curator of this exhibition.

Jin started his career as a photo editor for Shanghai Pictorial, but later left China to study in the United States in 1989. In 1992 he earned an MFA degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art before settling in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 2006, Jin began to collect photography works of the 20th century. His collection now contains over 1,600 pieces, many of them classics that defined 20th-century photography.

The show includes a sizable collection of portrait photography, with works from masters such as August Sanders, Berenice Abbot, Yousef Karsh, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Leibovitz, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann and many more.

The exhibition is billed as the first in a series of events that the center intends to present as part of its ongoing exploration of 20th-century photography.

Among the many heavyweight names attached to the current show, American Cindy Sherman is a notable stand-out. Over a career that is now in its fourth decade, the renowned photographer has established herself as a giant in the art world with her evocative self-portraits, many of which explore a range of topics related to female identity and the male gaze.

Sherman’s meticulously crafted photos draw heavily from the Western artistic tradition, and many of her pictures reference specific paintings or the styles of other well-known masters. Others represent re-enactions of the language of popular culture; films stills used to promote movies; photographs that illustrate magazine features; realities that by dint of being re-enacted are made artifice.

For Sherman, makeup is her paint, and her face the canvas she works on. Yet her disguises are rarely seamless. Makeup, wigs, costumes and even prosthetic breasts are often meant to create exaggerated effects.

For example, in “Ancestor” (1985), Sherman dons a fake beard and Bible-age clothing to disguise herself — yet, for all its detail, the viewer can easily read the image as something artificial.

This effect is perhaps more disconcerting with Sherman’s “Madonna” (1975), which combines mascara-laden lashes, moist cupid bow lips and kiss curls evocative of the 1920s, a time when women began to explore the boundaries of their sexuality, with the vestigial white drape of the Virgin Mary’s veil.

“I’m often asked for suggestions about collecting photography,” says curator Jin. “As I have said many, many times before, just focus on two directions: up and down. If you buy an image at the top, one that’s already highly-regarded in the art work, you can always sell it later if you want. But if you buy something from a young artist at the bottom, you should buy it because you like it.”


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