Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Collecting Contemporary Asian Photography by John Batten

Though this is about contemporary photography, the author talks about the importance of understanding the historical context of photography.

Everyone likes a bargain and in the art world findinggood art at a reasonable price can be daunting -however, when you really put yourself to the task, there is reasonably priced art available. Possibly not withinthe ‘high art’ area, but at the design and popular cultureends of the art spectrum there is art that, once collected,makes an impressive statement. Just think of toys, ChineseCultural Revolution posters, film posters, decorativeceramics etc - the individual beauty of these objects isenhanced by being seen as a considered group: ‘a collection’.

Collecting photography, I believe, is open to all - no matter your budget. Photography is also understandable to most people: we have all looked into a view finder, clicked the shutter and taken photographs. The technical vagaries of photography need not be a barrier to appreciating photography, but - like most pursuits - understanding what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ takes time and requires the building of knowledge.

I believe it is essential for photography collectors to understand the history of photography - to appreciate the episodes of technical advancethat influenced the final image that the viewer sees and to gain agreater understanding of the intentof individual photographers: the documentation of Egypt done in the1850s by Francis Frith; the locomotion experiments and formidable panorama photographs of Eadward Muybridge; the difficulties of photographers on-the-move (carting cumbersome glass plates, chemicals and portable darkrooms) such as John Thompson in China in the1860s; the obsessive need to record a cityundergoing massive changes such as the Parisian Eugene Atget undertook over aforty year period around the turn of the 20th century; the German August Sander’s monumental series of portraitphotographs; the photographing of seemingly banal objects (advertisingand road signage) done by WalkerEvans in the USA; photography taken in extreme conditions, such as Frank Hurley’s photographs of the Antarctictaken on Shackelton’s ill-fatedexploration of 1914-17; and, the advances in photojournalism that the work of Weegee achieved. If these names are meaningless to you; I can assure you that you have seen their photographs: each have produced indelible, iconic images that have shaped and visually articulated our viewof the world. They are also amongst photography’s pantheon of standard-bearers from which all photographers are judged.

A knowledge of the history of photography is essential to focus andarticulate your likes and dislikes aboutparticular individual photographersand their work - a knowledge of photographic history means you canjudge how and why a particular photograph falls within the photographic canon. With knowledge and time, these judgements become second nature and your viewing becomes confident and the photographs you buy will reflect your knowledge.

I love browsing for old photographs in second-hand shops -lots of family and travel photographs; often simple snapshots, occasional old stereo-cards, film publicity shots - most are mundane and of no interest, but small (and cheap) great photographs can be found; there is no intrinsic value in these photographs: the photographers are usually all unknown amateurs ornameless studio photographers, but this does not detractfrom the fact that the actual photographs can often be excellent. An interesting collection can be built from thishumble scavenging - indeed, in the USA there are collectors of ‘found’ photography and exhibitions have been held at leading public galleries based around unknown and amateur photographers.

But most photography collectors purchase their photographs from galleries or direct from photographers who are not represented by dealers. Hong Kong’s leading photographer is probably So Hing Keung - his work deals with a variety of subjects, but all is pure documentary: he records a changing and psychologically taut Hong Kong with his Hong Kong series using a polaroid camera - each photograph is unique: embellished by distressing and scratching the negative and then putting a sepia tone through the final image. He has also photographed extensively in China and his Southern China series specifically documents over a ten-year period the Chiu Chow village of Chaoyang in Northern Guangdong.

A few months ago I visited Taipei and visited Taiwanese photographer Chen Sun-chu’s latest exhibition at IT Park (asemi-commercial space run by a photographer that exhibits innovative art). I think his on-going portrait series and pre-occupation with his own family will become one of the great bodies of photographic work taken by any Asian photographer. I also admire his work because it is not bound by constrictingtaboos and political correctness: his latest large-scale colour photographs are set in the physical confines of family burial plots.

There is a long history of Western photographers working in Asia, including over the last 50 years Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud.Recently, Lois Connor’s use of a large-format banquet camera on her yearly visits to China and Vietnam haveproduced a seminal collection of beautiful silver gelatin and platinumprints and these placed alongside herwork in her native USA makes herone of the world’s outstanding contemporary photographers.

Hong Kong-based Michael Wolf is a freelance photojournalist who hasbeen working in China, predominantly for the German Stern magazine, overthe last nine years and whose on-going explorations of Hong Kong haveproduced an important series of work:his Architecture of Density series depicts Hong Kong’s large housingdevelopments - these front-on photographs depict endless clinical grids of apartments as well as their inhabitants’ attempt to personalise their outwardly anonymous homes. Together with his Backdoor series (see the forthcoming Thames and Hudson publication), Michael’s Hong Kong work will be seen to be ground-breaking in future years.

New Zealand photographer Laurence Aberhart was invited to Macau in 2000 by the Macau Museum of Art to document a changing Macau and his later exhibition ( and catalogue : Ghostwriting: Photographs of Macauby Laurence Aberhart) at the Museum displayed sixty of his 8 x 10inch contact print photographs of Macau - reminiscent of the 19th century photograph albums that travellers visiting Hong Kong or Macau would purchase as a memento of their visit. Aberhart’s photography is photography at its purest and inthe mould of Eugene Atget or Walker Evans. He has since photographed inChina and Japan (adding to his extensive work in Europe, NewZealand, Australia and USA).

Thai photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom is regularly seen at artbiennials and is well known for hissocial realist imagery using ‘the pinkman’ as the protagonist. The pink man- who in real life is a well-known Thai actor, dressed in a bright pink suit - isdepicted serenely standing amongstscenes of chaos. Manit’s manipulated images often make use of distressingphotographs (usually press agency photographs) from recent Thai history -one of his most notorious photographsdepicts the pink man standing asaccuser (of the then militarygovernment) amongst on-lookersstaring at the bodies of dead students strung on trees adjacent to the Royal Palace in Bangkok in thestudent riots of 1973.

Seen alongside such powerful political social commentary as Manit Sriwanichpoom, contemporary Chinese photography seems almost trite.However, it is Chinese photography that will most be seen in the world’s public museums - curators are pre-occupied with China and governments are keen to promote trade by encouraging cultural and art exchanges;so, money is available for Chinese artexhibitions; whereas the Philippinesand Indonesia - who it could be arguedhave equally if not more talented artists- are much less seen.

A phenomena that is almost solely seen in China is that artists work with awide range of media e.g. painters will also make videos, take photographs, doperformance pieces and installations -thus, a ‘Chinese PhotographyExhibition’ may well comprise photography done by artists who merely use photography as an extension to their wider artistic practice. These artists have become masters of digital manipulation, cutting and collaging - the power of Photoshop has taken the place of stringentmeasuring of light, subject composition and meticulous darkroom techniques. The presented photograph (usually adigitally printed image) will often be of material that will shock the viewer. These generally glossy gratuitous imageswill be presented with little or no social or political context or comment - in keeping with the Chinese State’sintolerance of overt criticism.

China does, of course, have some excellent photographers and these serious photographers should form the backbone of a Chinese photography collection. Luo Yongjin’s austere black and white photographs of industrial buildings and abandoned domestic apartment buildings is reminiscent of the famous German husband/wifephotographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Liu Zheng’s documentary photography is excellent and his historical tableaux - such as his Peking OperaSeries is some of the best narrative type photographydone in China at the moment. I love panorama photographs: Zhuang Hui’s recent panorama photographs or workers and work units fits into China’s long history of such photography and is itself important work. One photographer whose digital photographs are impressive is Weng Fen: his Wall Straddle series is enigmatic and begs so many questions for the viewer. He has used the same idea - originally young schoolgirls but since expanded to include families and the elderly - of someone staring into a distant series of skyscrapers or,recently, to a seascape horizon line.

Collecting contemporary Asian photography just requires knowledge and a practised eye - good luck.

No comments: