There is a lot of very interesting photography coming out of China. Unfortunately, we do not get to see much of it in the West. What we do get get to see is photography produced by Westerners who go to China to cover what we like to refer to as the “economic miracle” and , thus, our view of China is skewed towards images of production, of vast urban development, of ecological disasters. While there is no doubt that there has been some quite amazing work by visitors to China (see, for example, my review of Edward Burtynsky’s ‘China’), living with such an incomplete picture is not very satisfactory - especially in the light of Chinese photography itself.
But where does one get to see Chinese photography? I mean, after all, I could be just making this up! A while ago, I went to London to see the Diane Arbus retrospective there (which I had managed to miss while it was much closer to where I actually lived), and right in the same museum, there was a show of Chinese photography. As much as I admire Diane Arbus’ work, I ended up spending much more time in the other show, and I remember how amazed I was (only in part because I basically had been familiar with Arbus’ work). When I came back home, I went online to look for Chinese photography (the results of my attempts can be found under Contemporary Chinese Photography), and it was a frustrating experience to see how little could be found online, the work - of course - in part being made impossible by my inability to read Mandarin or Cantonese. And books? Quick, name a book by a Chinese photographer!
Having said all this - it seems like an awfully long introduction, but I think it is quite necessary - I was thrilled to learn that a retrospective of Wang Qingsong’s work has just been published, entitled Wang Qingsong. Wang Qingsong has long been one of my favourite photographers, and his work deals with the kind of China that Western photographers do not cover - simply because they can’t. Wang Qingsong’s most recent work consists of vast, staged sets - just like Gregory Crewdson he uses movie crews and, in his case, even a movie studio, employing dozens and dozens of extras. Some of his earlier work, no less vast in scale, was created with smaller numbers of extras, but then it was digitally assembled to created panoramic views, so the final image would have to be read like a story (now there’s an interesting use of large photos!).
Technicalities aside, Wang Qingsong’s work is quite political, and I think some of the actual content might simply be impossible to understand for someone who is not familiar with Chinese culture. But regardless, what is most interesting is not just the actual quality of the photography, it is also to see photography that actually deals with China underneath the surface that we Westerners have become so used to scratching. If you are interested in any of this, Wang Qingsong is a must-buy.
Needless to say, one photographer can hardly represent the whole of his country. But seeing this work published and thus easily accessible is an important step forward, and I really hope that there will be more books about the photography made by Chinese photographers.