Photography and Culture Volume 15, 2022 - Issue 3: Theorizing New Photographies in China
Pages 223-226 | Published online: 21 Feb 2023
“Theorizing New Photographies in Contemporary China” is a timely response to the obstacles Chinese photographic research are confronting and issues raised by recent local scholarships. The “newness” addressed in the title contains several layers of meanings. To be more specific, by inviting a new generation of Chinese academics and practitioners in their 20s and 30s, the special issue refuses the long-standing perception of Chinese photography by the West, either as a culturally distanced collection recording the country’s social change in a sense of visual representation, or ‘art works’ that gain its economic legitimacy as a universal currency drawing on its locality and exoticness under the global neoliberalist order. Instead, it strives to reconfigure and refresh photography as a theoretically productive apparatus with multifaceted social, cultural and political implications pertaining to the social reality and intellectual discourses in contemporary China. By considering photography in its plural form, the guest editor further emphasizes the infinite possibilities and inspirations this medium can bring about in contemporary China.
In July 2021, Mao Weidong, a Chinese researcher and translator of photographic theory and history, died at 53 at his home due to illness. During his lifetime, he spent 20 years working for a Chinese state enterprise where he led a stable life. Later, out of his love for photography, he gave up his job in the system of the state and joined Three Shadows Photography Art Center, a major institution dedicated to art photography in China, and China National Photographic Art Publishing House, a leading publisher of photographic theories and photo books of the country. During his tenure at the latter, he and a group of young scholars who used to study photography abroad introduced, compiled, and translated the “Image Series” (Yingxiang wencong 影像文丛), a series of 12 books that had appeared by the time of his sudden death. This series, which included critical works by Western researchers at the forefront of photographic theory and history, such as Geoffrey Batchen, Vilém Flusser, and Lucy Soutter, significantly advanced the understanding of international photographic research among local Chinese researchers and practitioners. Prior to this, most of their theoretical understanding of photography was derived from the classic photographic treatises of Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Susan Sontag, and Roland Barthes, among others. Therefore, as Wu Yiqiang, a university teacher and art critic, puts it, Mao Weidong can be described as “the ferryman of Chinese photography theory” (Wu Citation2021).
The sudden death of this “ferryman” triggered mourning in the Chinese art and photography circles but also revealed the difficult situation and the many problems that exist in photographic research in China. At the beginning of Wu Yiqiang’s essay, the author pointed out that “He (Mao Weidong) died in poverty, which brings shame to those of us who claim to love photography and the studies of photography. The photographic art scene is full of too many money-spinning exhibitions and projects, full of vanity and frivolity. Yet, we cannot even guarantee someone devoted to academic translation a slightly decent life.” (Wu Citation2021) As a scholar of art theory and visual culture at the university, I deeply resonate with Wu’s lament. On the one hand, China’s photography industry is thriving: Year after year, more and more Chinese students are studying photography in European and American universities; professional photography museums, foundations, new collectors, and auction houses specializing in photography have given shape to China’s photography collection system; and an amateur photography community of photo-sharing platforms, hobbyists, and camera manufacturers has formed a prospering industry. On the other hand, photographic research in China has made little progress: Those relatively cutting-edge theoretical and historical studies are introduced by people outside the higher education system like Mao Weidong; among academic journals specializing in photography, there is not a single one that can enter the “core journal” evaluation system most recognized by the local academic community, which further discouraged scholars from delving into the research of photography, either in terms of the history of photography or the history of photography, as publishing articles in journals outside of the “core journal index” is considered to be “useless” for their careers.
Admittedly, compared to theoretical explorations in other art departments, such as literary and painting theories, the development of local photographic theories in China is far weaker. In addition to the institutional predicaments mentioned before, the underdeveloped state of theories of photography in China also results from the socialist literary and artistic ideology predominating the country before the 1980s, where photography was considered a documenting tool for news reportage and political propaganda, obscuring photography’s artistic value and broader theoretical connotation. While the 1980s avant-garde artists who employed photography as an experimental medium may have seen theoretical inputs from the imported enlightenment philosophy and modernist thoughts, they rarely intended to theorize photography per se in the Chinese context. In this light, the collations and investigations of local photographic ideas, thoughts, and theories in China in recent years appear invaluable. Several collections of photographic thoughts from the era of the Republic of China have been published (Long Citation2015; Zhu and Yang Citation2014), and studies and practices of photography by modern intellectuals like Wu Zhihui (Jin Citation2011) and Zhao Yuanren (Zhao and Huang Citation2022) have been revisited and re-evaluated.
These local discourses meld the mechanical reproduction technology of photography with classical Chinese poetic and pictorial traditions, showing the mutual transformation between modern technological images and discourses and Chinese lyrical traditions. For instance, Kang Youwei’s (1858—1827, the leading conservative reformer, politician, and intellectual in the late Qing dynasty) review of Ouyang Huiqiang’s photographic works, originally published in Kang Citation1923 (which was also one of the earliest photographic reviews in China), juxtaposed terminologies of Chinese traditional poetry and painting, such as “sparse and disparate” (shudan cenci 疏淡参差) and “solemn and majestic” (zhuangyan huagui 庄严华贵) with various physical, optical, and chemical parameters of technicity provided by the photographer. This juxtaposition shows that the literati made photographic images acceptable and understandable by appealing to the long-standing lyrical tradition in Chinese poetry and painting, through which photography gained a high status as a visual art. At the same time, the clichés of poetry and painting were also imbued with new meanings. For example, Kang commented on a photograph depicting a street market, saying the picture conveyed “the quietness in the busyness, which is the best way to demonstrate photography’s artistic potential” (繁忙中寓恬静之状 盖尽摄景之能事). The words “busyness” and “quietness” in this comment are no longer customary antitheses in a Chinese poem constructed in the traditional way but the effort to grasp how the movement of things is captured by modern technical images.
Despite the efforts made by Chinese-speaking scholars these days focusing on photographic discourses and thoughts and the optical vision in the late Qing and Republican eras (in addition to the studies mentioned above, see also Tang Citation2022; Wu Citation2020; Gu Citation2020), there are still many more regarding theoretical and historical studies of Chinese photography to be unveiled and discussed, such as photography as contemporary art. This special issue, Theorizing New Photographies in Contemporary China, is precisely a timely response to the obstacles Chinese photographic research are confronting and issues raised by recent scholarships that I have just talked about. The “newness” addressed in the title contains several layers of meanings. To be more specific, by inviting a new generation of Chinese academics and practitioners in their 20s and 30s, the special issue refuses the long-standing perception of Chinese photography by the West, either as a culturally distanced collection recording the country’s social change in a sense of visual representation, or ‘art works’ that gain its economic legitimacy as a universal currency drawing on its locality and exoticness under the global neoliberalist order. Instead, it strives to reconfigure and refresh photography as a theoretically productive apparatus with multifaceted social, cultural and political implications pertaining to the social reality and intellectual discourses in contemporary China. By considering photography in its plural form, the guest editor further emphasizes the infinite possibilities and inspirations this medium can bring about in contemporary China. Such pluralism is directly reflected in the three research articles the special issue includes, which range from “amateurism” as an alternative way of writing the history of photography in China since the 19th century (Yang Yunchang), to the recurrent “home-coming” discourse in contemporary documentary photography (Hu Hao) and the address on “text-image” relationship in art photography (He Yining) in China.
Interestingly, both Hu and He were not within the academic system when they first submitted their first drafts, although they are pursuing their PhD studies now, thanks to the COVID-19 interferences that have significantly delayed the launch of this special issue. For a long time, Hu has been working as a researcher and curator for Taikang Space, one of the most enthusiastic art organisations in China specialising in the collection and study of Chinese photography; On the other hand, He has been an independent curator and writer focusing on photography who has an increasing influence on young photographers in China. To me, their articles are not in the typical format of a research paper: Finding You Is My Courage by Hu is like a long critique based on three in-depth case analysis, while He Yining’s Extension of Meanings follows a curator’s perspective, introducing and presenting works and projects involving text-image interplays by contemporary Chinese artists in a logic of exhibition. I hope these articles, with morphological distinctions from an academic research paper, can allow the readers of Photography and Culture to see the diversity of photographic studies in contemporary China and encourage stylistic diversity in academic journals.
The shorter essays appearing as Archive, One Photo and Portfolio were by Qiao Yang, Luo Yueqin, and Zhang Boyuan, respectively. Those who are familiar with Photography and Culture may immediately recognize that the Archive essay of the special issue appears longer than it is in regular issues. This is because the guest editor invited the author to not only showcase a series of historical images taken by the pioneering Chinese visual anthropologist Zhuang Xueben in the 1930s but also reflect on why Zhuang’s ethnographic photography can still incur scholarly debates in Chinese academia these days, and how these debates contribute to the theoretical localization of concepts derived from non-Chinese sociocultural contexts, such as the problem of (internal) colonialist gaze raised by the young scholar mentioned in this essay. As for the One Photo section, its author Luo Yueqin delves into one particular photograph of a lamb taken by the Chinese photography artist Sui Taca. Combining both Chinese traditional aesthetics thoughts and western art theories, she analyzes the tension between a “historical contemplation” and “present aliveness” conveyed by this piece of work. In general, this short essay manages to present how a contemporary Chinese photographer draws on his cultural tradition to explore the question of temporality, using photography as an irreplaceable medium.
The Portfolio section contains two photographic projects by the Chinese award-winning photographer Zhang Boyuan. While the way he photographed in the first project My Tarim can refer to many “road-trip photography” works popularized by Paul Graham, Alec Soth, Stephen Shore and many other western photographers, the complexity and confusion of being a Han (the major ethnicity of the Chinese) descendent in a multi-ethnic area can be found in his depictions of the landscape and people of Xinjiang. These pictures have no intention to praise Xinjiang as a promising land armored by modern infrastructures and skyscrapers. Nor do they portray the place as a desolate land suffering from religious and political oppressions. There is no propaganda or accusation in these works, only a young man, although not being “native” to the land historically, searching for a place he could call “hometown”. Such an approach well explains his second project that takes portraits for sands: Taking the distinctive appearances of sands as an allegory, the photographer argues that while ethnicity is often regarded as a mechanism to distinguish one from another, it can also be a tool to obscure individual identities and personalities that may have the potential to transcend any kind of ethnocentrism.
Finally, I hope to express my deepest gratitude to the editors of Photography and Culture for their approval of my special issue proposal and professional editorial work. I am also in debt to the anonymous and open reviewers who generously contributed insightful comments and advice to the improvement of each article. I believe this special issue is just an opening, and that we will be seeing an increasing volume of photographic research with local perspectives and by native researchers.
Notes on contributors
Dr. Hongfeng Tang is a Research Fellow and Dean of the Department of Art Theory at the School of Arts, Peking University. She was previously a Research Associate at the Chinese National Academy of Arts (2009–2012), an Associate Professor at Beijing Normal University (2012–2018) and a visiting scholar at Harvard-Yenching Institute, Harvard University (2011–2012). Her research interest focuses on art theory, image-media theory and Chinese visual culture at the turn of the 20th century. She is the author of four books, Transparency: Visual Modernity in China (1872–1911), Visual Modernity: A Reader(editor), Thinking China through Visuality: Studies on Chinese Cinema and Visual Culture, and Travelling Modernity: Travel Narrative in Late Qing China.
1 All Chinese names in this Introduction follow a Chinese convention that puts one’s given name after the surname.
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2. Gu, Yi. 2020. Chinese Ways of Seeing and Open-Air Painting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.
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5. Tang, Hongfeng. 2022. Transparency: Visual Modernity in China (1872—1911) [透明 中国视觉现代性 (1987—1911)]. Beijing, China: SDX Joint Publishing Company.
6. Wu, Shengqing. 2020. Photo Poetics: Chinese Lyricism and Modern Media Culture. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. [Crossref],
7. Wu, Yiqiang. 2021. “Mao Weidong, the Ferryman of Chinese Photographic Theories, Should not Leave Like This!.” Accessed January 29 2023. http://new.qq.com/rain/a/20210801A03N6700.
8. Zhao, Xinna & Jialin Huang, eds. 2022. The Master Who Likes to Play: The Intellectual Reflections from Zhao Yuanren’s Photographic Records [好玩儿的大师 赵元任影记之学术篇]. Beijing, China: The Commercial Press.
9. Zhu, Shuai & Jianru Yang, eds. 2014. Photography Literature in Republic of China [民国摄影文论]. Beijing, China: China Photographic Publishing House.