Enclaves of Individuality: The Contemporary Photobook in China

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

In other works these criticisms of contemporary China are still more pointed. In A Changing Shanghai (2004) the photographer Xu Jianrong re-photographs street scenes photographs of Shanghai originally taken by Xu Xixian in the 1970’s. The result is both a massive, obsessive undertaking, and a shocking demonstration of the rapid pace of change in the city, as traditional Chinese architecture and small communities give way to office blocks adorned with the logos of foreign firms. Likewise Zeng Li’s A China Chronicle (2006) documents the massive architectural destruction taking place in the country, in effect drawing a comparison between present events and the mass cultural erasure which took place during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In the most recent books the personal voice of the photographer has reached its height. This is perhaps nowhere more in evidence than in Ren Hang’s Nude (2012) a book of funny, explicit photography which pushes the limits of China’s new permissiveness to its limits and challenges viewers in a not dissimilar way to Boris Miklhalov’s early photographs, themselves made in the final decades of the Soviet Union. This book is an inner world, beyond the pressures and conventions of modern China, where Hang and his friends can do pretty much whatever they want.

Hang’s work is perhaps the most acute demonstration of a tension evident in almost all these works, between the vestiges of Chinese tradition and communism on the one hand, and other people’s desire for individuality and self-expression on the other. This desire for individuality might be something we would have expected to see fulfilled by China’s gradual shift towards capitalism, with all its emphasis on personal choice. In some respect it has been, and the colourful, fashionably dressed shoppers of Jianrong’s modern Shanghai stand in contrast to their drab, uniformly dressed forbears. Still restrictions indisputably remain, and the contemporary Chinese photobook seems to still offer it’s makers a valued space in which to live out other lives; an enclave in which to explore unpopular ideas or give voice to controversial thoughts.

Lewis Bush

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