Gallery Sightings: The Chinese Photobook

What: The Chinese Photobook

When: Through April 2, 2015

Where: Aperture Foundation (547 W. 27th St., fourth floor)

Admission: FREE

Chengdu, statue of Mao Zedong
Photo courtesy of Arian Zwegers (Flickr) Some rights reserved.

Whether on a Facebook profile or in a family photo album, we use photographs to tell the stories of our lives. In a similar way, photographs also tell the grand narratives of peoples and nations, although with much more complexity and on a much larger scale. In a sense, The Chinese Photobook, on view at the Aperture Foundation’s gallery space, is China’s own family photo album, spanning the years from 1900 to 2014. (A photobook is a book whose content is primarily composed of photographs and is sometimes a coffee-table book.) Some of the photographs on display are celebratory while others are critical. Some are elegant while others are unsettling. Images captured from vastly different points of view come together to tell the rich, layered, and multifaceted story of this nation. But this diverse show also has great unity, for despite their differences, all the images demonstrate the immense social and political power of photographs.

Installation shot.
Installation shot (Photo courtesy of the author)

Although this show occupies only a single room, it is remarkably comprehensive. The exhibition includes about 80 photobooks displayed in glass cases, 125 framed pages, and four video slideshows. The photobooks come from a collection gathered by photographer Martin Parr and the Dutch photography team WassinkLundgren. Parr and WassinkLundgren are the curators of this show. In an interview produced by Rencontres d’Arles, Parr remarks that China’s long tradition of photobook publishing has been sadly ignored. He is enthusiastic to share with others what he calls “the forgotten land of incredible photobooks that nobody knew about,” and this exhibition certainly reflects that enthusiasm.

The show is put together rigorously and meticulously. The detailed descriptive plaques that accompany each photobook reflect thorough research and help viewers place the images in their social, historical, and political contexts. (No need to be an expert on 20th century Chinese history!) Published by Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and the Chinese, these books were intended for audiences ranging from curious American children to Italian fascists, and from Maoist devotees to political dissidents. Each book tells a different story of China.

The show is divided up chronologically into six sections: From Empire to the People’s Republic of China (1900-1949), Manchuria and the Sino-Japanese War (1931-1947), The Image of a New China (1945-1966), State Publishing: The Cultural Revolution and Beyond (1966-present)The Renaissance of Chinese Photography (1979-present), and Global Perspectives on China (1949-present). The show opens with Westerners’ photographic impressions of “the Orient,” and the theme of imperialism links these images to the Japanese photographs of China in the second section. After defeating the Japanese, the Chinese Communist Party drove out the Nationalist Party, ushering in an era of flourishing visual propaganda, a practice that went hand in hand with oppressive censorship. Of particular interest is a photograph of Mao with Lin Biao, a military and political leader who fell out of political favor. After Lin Biao’s death, photographs of his face were defaced with white crosses. Here, the descriptive plaque suggests that the owner of the book might have crossed out Lin Biao’s face to show solidarity with Mao, an action taken perhaps out of fear of political persecution. Possessing images of Mao’s enemies was grounds for suspicion and arrest.

An exhibition of Chinese photography would not be complete without Tank Man, and the photograph is dutifully displayed in this exhibition (1). This image, which is banned in Chinese media, is a striking example both of state censorship and of the power of a single individual, armed with a camera (or, in the case of Tank Man, several individuals with cameras) to oppose an oppressive regime. Tank Man provides a transition into the last section of the show, which displays dissident photography that reveals the dark and sinister side of Chinese society and urban life in particular.

A strength of the show is its use of video installations, allowing us to see inside books that would be too fragile for each visitor to open. For example, the photobook Chinese Medicine: Tongue-Coating Atlas (People’s Medical Publishing House, 1984)—one of the few apolitical photobooks on display, which links photographs of tongues to corresponding medical diagnoses—is the subject of one such video. Above the glass vitrine that holds the book, a screen shows two pairs of hands flipping through the pages, revealing the mind-numbing variety of tongues that the book contains.

This exhibition is certainly worth a visit—even for those who have little interest in Chinese history—because it speaks to the social and political power of photographic expression, a power that is not limited to a single country, but rather is shared by all of us, even today. This exhibition demonstrates how politicians and activists use imagery to shape how people think. Do we support the illustrious Chairman Mao, to the point where we deface photographs of opposing leaders? Must we forget the Tiananmen Square Massacre, if there are no images to remind us of the event? The Chinese Photobook prompts us to reflect upon how images shape our perception of political leaders and historical events, and how photographs can be both oppressive and liberating.

(1) The copy of Tank Man on display was taken by Stuart Franklin and reproduced in Franklin’s photobook Tiananmen Square (London: Black Sun, 1989).

2 thoughts on “Gallery Sightings: The Chinese Photobook”

  1. Hi Sasha, there was a huge timeline included in the show, right next to the bookstore part where they also showed the last part of the project with a foreign perspective on China, you better check it out again.

    1. Thank you for pointing this out! I updated the article to reflect this correction. – Sasha

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