As The Chinese Photobook continues at The Photographers’ Gallery, Lewis Bush considers the influences, politics and development of the more contemporary publications in the exhibition.
Installation view, The Chinese Photobook at The Photographers’ Gallery ©Kate Elliott
Despite spanning more than a century of publishing, the great majority of works in the Chinese Photobook exhibition fall into the single category of visual propaganda. Whether produced by early republicans, occupying foreign powers, nationalists, or communists, these books show a remarkable consistency, with sharply drawn moral and political lines and with little space for the voices or ideas of individual photographers.
Propaganda tends to offer interesting insights into the minds of its makers, but often says little about the country it purports to represent, and still less about the ordinary people who make up that country. It’s only in the contemporary section of the Chinese Photobook that these people begin to much more clearly emerge.
The period after Mao’s death saw a rediscovery of photography, and one can trace a growing separation here between photographers and the state. It is possible to perceive the photobook becoming much less a tool of government propaganda, and instead becoming an ever more liberated space, open ground for Chinese photographers to experiment, opine and criticise.
The earliest examples demonstrate tentative steps away from state orthodoxies about publishing and photography. The April Photography Society’s book The Mourning of the People (1979) documents the supressed public distress in the wake of Premier Zhou Enlai’s death in a form which hardly seems radical today, but which was outright dangerous in the political context of the time.
Similarly Nature, Society and Man (1979) focuses on seemingly apolitical nature photography, but the contrast this made with the much more common propagandistic photographs of gargantuan construction projects and statuesque soldiers must have been profound, and for curator Ruben Lundgren this makes it one of the most adventurous books in the show.
Moving closer to the present this divergence intensifies, the voices of individual photographers becoming ever clearer even though they often remain wedded to projects which might be seen to serve the interests of the Chinese State. Liu Zheng’s The Chinese (2000) is the product of an epic trip in search of the characteristics that culturally define the country’s people. It is ambiguous work, on the face of it appearing to support the official image of a culturally homogenous nation, but with individual images delivering far more ambiguous messages.
Liu Zheng, The Chinese, 2000 © The Artist