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April 30, 2017

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When portraits were art, not self-obsession

SHANGHAI Center of Photography unveiled its latest show this week, exploring various ways we saw ourselves through Chinese portraits long before selfies took over.

Titled “Here’s Looking at You!,” the exhibition features photos and art projects by Thomas Sauvin, Daniel Traub and Liu Tao. Each photographer/artist portrays an encyclopedic account of Chinese society in a certain time, through distinctive perspectives.

French artist Thomas Sauvin tries to map out an era — from 1985 to 2005, before digital photography started to prevail — with recycled negatives he bought from a trash collector in Beijing.

He has digitized, numbered and edited more than 850,000 portraits from discarded negatives since 2009, compiling a selection called the “Beijing Silvermine.”

Sauvin told Shanghai Daily the project shows a side of China “less known” to those outside China. “For many foreigners, China is about exoticism ... some love it and some hate it,” he said. “They are so obsessed that, sometimes, they forget to see life.”

The works are of universal themes, such as love, childhood, death, work and leisure, in which Sauvin believes foreigner “could find interesting connections.”

Some of those portrayed contacted him when they saw themselves in the photos. Although he was happy to meet them, he says that was never the plan:

“It’s something of a bigger picture, to draw the portrait of space and time.

“You are always seeing the people looking at the objectives, and you could almost hear ‘Three, two, one!’ There’s no spontaneity in the photos.

“On the other hand, you have great complexity between the photographer and the person, which creates something fun, enduring and authentic.”

Teamed up with street photographers Zeng Xianfang and Wu Yongfu, American artist Daniel Traub focuses on Africans in northern China’s Guangzhou City settling in the community of Xiao Bei Lu, or Little North Road.

The project “Little North Road” features portraits of African people, mostly trading textiles between China and Africa.

The portraits, usually 8-by-10 souvenir photos taken by street photographers on a pedestrian bridge in the community, were either sent back to the families or kept as mementos.

“(The bridge) is almost like a stage, you can see people presenting themselves in a very formal way,” Traub said. “There’s a sense of performing in front of the camera.”

Chinese photographer Liu Tao captures incidental moments unfolding in an old town sector of Hefei City, within the community where he lives and works as a meter reader.

Every day he wanders along the streets, observing people, resulting in a myriad seemingly carefree metaphorical and humorous snapshots.

Among the snapshots is a beer-bellied man standing opposite his pregnant wife; a half-naked tramp sleeping in front of luxury store with posters featuring models striking a similar pose...

“One day I realized that everyone on the street is just another ‘you,’ quietly looking at you as you look at them. Our lives exist in parallel,” Liu wrote for his collection, named “Good Afternoon, Goodnight.”

The exhibition runs through June 25.


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