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September 6, 2015

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Reliving history through the lens of time

PHOTOS are windows into the past, a way of reviving history and seeing things the way they looked in bygone years.

The Shanghai Center of Photograph in the Xuhui District is hosting an exhibition of photos tracing China’s development in the past century. It begins today and will run for three months.

It’s well worth a visit.

The exhibition was organized by Liu Heung Shing, a Hong Kong-born American photojournalist, and Karen Smith, a British art exhibition planner. They entitled the exposition “Grain to Pixel: A Story of Photography in China.”

On display are the camera works of 70 artists, spanning decades of dramatic changes in the country.

“China is a very big country with a long history,” Liu explained. “Many foreigners just see a bit of this and that, here and there, and then say to themselves, ‘Oh, this is China!’ But actually, it isn’t. We hope this exhibition will highlight the complex nature of this country.”

The exhibition begins in the era of Mao Zedong, with photos of the revolutionary leader starting in Yan’an in the 1940s and later as chairman through to the end of the cultural revolution in 1976.

“During that period, each photographer had to account for each precious frame taken,” Smith explained. “As a result, each image was produced under the existing guidelines and in the service of the narrative of the New China.”

One photo from that era stands out.

It is entitled “Red Guards’ ‘Big Character Posters’ in Shenyang” and was taken by Jiang Shaowu. It is a visually stark photo, with aggressive political slogans covering an entire wall of a university building.

Jiang is famous for the nearly 40,000 pictures he took during the cultural revolution, an era he himself described as “abnormal” and not likely to last long.

After the Mao era, China emerged as a more diversified country. That change is captured in the photo of a man carrying a picture of Jesus Christ down a country road, the photo of a family holding Buddhist rituals at home, the photo of workers constructing a dam and the photo of a young women participating in a beauty contest.

The rise of artistic creativity is well documented in the exhibition. Artists were allowed to use their imaginations and to try out new techniques in photography processing and in use of mobile phones to capture spontaneous shots.

The photo entitled “Audrey Hepburn” by Zhang Wei looks like any standard portrait of the actress, but it is actually a combination of portraits using parts of the faces of different Chinese people. Zhang searched for suitable eyes, nose, mouth, eyebrows and facial features to frame his collage.

The photographer said he believes that everyone is a performer in their own life, no matter whether they are well known or not.

Many photographers in the exhibition focused their lenses on social issues in modern China.

The “High Pavilion in Cool Summer” by Yao Lu looks like a typical traditional Chinese painting. However, if one looks closely, the “green” on the mountain is actually composed of the modern covers for construction sites. Cars and cranes also dotted the work to the discerning eye.

“It is not difficult to feel the artist’s idea that modern industry and technology are hopelessly damaging natural beauty,” explained Smith.

The work “Follow You” by Wang Qingsong focuses on the educational system. It portrays a vast classroom just ahead of the grueling national college entrance examination. Exhausted students are hunched over desks piled with books and used Coke cans. In the center of the photo is the artist holding a hospital drip bag hanger — an apparent warning to students about the risk of wearing themselves out. In the background, wall posters pose questions. “Education is the foundation for the development of 100 years?”

The whole scene was contrived outside an actual classroom, but anyone who has sat through the exams would be so familiar with the scene depicted.

“From this type of humanist indignation, Wang evolved a methodology for his photographs, which involved ever greater casts of people and the construction of complex sets to convey his experience of the times,” said Smith.

“These works represent an extraordinary diversity of process and of resources brought to creating them,” she added. “He is possibly the most serious of artists using photography and photography’s narrative power as his tools.”

During the exhibition, visitors will be able to meet some of the photographers as well as visiting artists from China and abroad.

“Nowadays, almost everyone has a camera in a mobile device, and photography actually expresses how we see the world,” said Smith. “Susan Sontag once said, ‘What it once took a very intelligent eye to see, anyone can see now.’ This is the truth about photography, and we expect to see more of it in the future development of Chinese photography.”


Grain to Pixel: A Story of Photography in China

Venue: Shanghai Center of Photography

Address: 2555, Longteng Avenue

Date: Through November 30, 10am-5:30pm



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