In the exhibition hall it presents the audience not only a number of historical moments in 1949, but also chance to discuss the formation of photographic mechanism in the New China period, in an attempt.
From the perspective of photographic groups, the producers of New China's images sometimes become mysterious because they were in the specific historical situation of the year when they were not signed or collectively signed. But in fact, it's a limited group of people whose names are available. Some of them enjoyed a reputation in the photographic activities of the Republic of China; others, who began their photographic career in the war years, also indirectly accepted the visual experience of the photography of the Republic of China. Most of them improved their understanding and utilization of photography in the practice of photography during the war. After the founding of New China, they became a few official photographers in New China because of their trust and past photographic experience. They generally ended their photographic creation in the 1980s, but still influenced Chinese photographers through their official positions, as well as through exhibitions, writings and lectures for quite a long time. In any case, this group of photographers has produced most of the important images that can be seen by the public in half a century. But from another point of view, most of them have never held an exhibition or published a picture album in their lifes. It's hard for us to associate memorable pictures with their names. Some of them had not been mentioned at that time and had been forgotten at present.
Particularly noteworthy is that in the exhibition hall, some photos appeared twice, or even three times. This is because this exhibition is also concerned about the printing and enlarging of works in different periods. If the study of the history of Chinese photography is confronted with the lack of documentation at the present stage, the biggest dilemma from the perspective of art galleries is the lack of photographic collections. The development of photographic exhibition and photographic research depends on the abundance of photographic collections. During the war period and the New China period, because of the lack of materials and the particular working mechanism, the photographic works in the war period and the New China period are even more difficult to find than those in the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China. Over the past few years, our research team has rescued photographers from this period to organize oral history and family photographic archives. These old photographers have died one after another, but the film negatives, prints, manuscripts, woodcuts, diaries and other materials left behind by the efforts of scholars have become possible to study the life history of artists and the style of their works. Since 2015, these archives have been collected in the Social Archive of Chinese Photography Institute of the Chinese Academy of Arts. As a prestigious academic research and teaching institution of photography theory and history theory in China, they are active in the forefront of literature collection, academic production and exhibition practice. At the same time, we are also concerned that the few works and even precious film negatives left by photographers are being destroyed. This is often due to the difficult working conditions during the war, which makes the chemical instability of media and non-professional preservation conditions. Therefore, considering the reliability of the preservation of photographic works, the standardization of the process of co-production with artists, the openness of cooperative exhibitions between galleries at home and abroad, and the feasibility of academic research on theory of photography and theory of photography history, the Art Museum of China Academy of Arts has become the first gallery in China with a special photographic department, and is willing to cooperate with galleries and photographic institutions and research institutes at home and abroad, to promote the development of photographic creation and photographic research.
文 / 高士明
高帆，1949 年 2 月 9 日，北平各界群众聆听叶剑英市长在庆祝北平解放大会上的讲话
The Ferryman of Time
— Notes on Photography and History
Text / Gao Shiming
Any invention divides human history in two, as does photography.
Before the emergence of photography, memory of the past was a series of impressions that lurked in the depths of consciousness, waiting to be recalled from the darkness, like a dark house illuminated by lightning. At that time, memory could be fixed and formed by writing, and the great historian’s pen could make the ashes of the past come into shape again. At that time, while images were legendary representation of history and the instantaneous visual experience was not fully established, the “writing of light” was just a phantom image in the individual’s heart. Today, as reality is constructed as a giant screen, the world around us is like an old movie, long, dull, trivial and irrelevant, and our body becomes a constantly recording and projecting machine. Thus, photography has become the most straightforward manifestation of history, the evidence of events, and the collateral on the gambling table of history.
If perspective provides a fixed point in space for our viewing, then photography sets a similar base point in time. With the advent of snapshots moments have become truly present and part of our everyday experience. Our viewing is thus aggregated and set at a point in time, as if only the very moment of exposure was relevant. Because of photography, time is cut into pieces, and thus we can “see” the slices of time. However, Walter Benjamin was sensitive enough to find that the “camera gave the moment a posthumous shock”. The shock perceived at the present relies upon another past moment, which has already disappeared in the continuous time, and is recalled upon viewing. This is done through an “automatically” generated image. Through this image, the annihilated reality reappears. Susan Sontag states, “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality, understood as recalcitrant, inaccessible; of making it stand still. Or they enlarge a reality that is felt to be shrunk, hollowed out, perishable, remote. One can't possess reality, one can possess (and be possessed by) images – as, according to Proust, most ambitious of voluntary prisoners, one can't possess the present but one can possess the past.”
But for Proust, reality lies far in the past, photography paves the present way to reality. However, this proximity to the present leads to another kind of distance – taking possession of the world in the form of images, which is to re-experience the non-reality and alienation of the real world. According to Proust, memory is an image in which reality becomes a tangible place to be grasped because of its alienation from the present. A photograph is not a real time image. Before an object disappears from the image, it inscribes the moment of exposure onto the negative, and it is the moment when reality disappears and the visuality stays behind. There is a small time lag between that moment and the present (when we look at the picture) as the two gazes seal a period of time, which is the memory of the picture itself as well as the suspense of the negative film in the dark. Photography is not only about viewing, but more importantly, it is about a memory, and because of this memory it creates a new object to gaze at. As Roland Barthes raises in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, the “name of Photography’s noeme will therefore be ‘that-has-been’, or again the Intractable. In Latin, this would doubtless be said: interfuit what I see has been there, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet already deferred”.
Photographs have a power of proving. This power of proving is not on the object, but on time. Photography is to historians what buried rock formations are to geologists. Geologists have conclusively inferred the long history of the earth from the structure of the layers of rock, which are evidence of stationary time and crustal movement. Historians, too, seem to be on the lookout for that elusive old photograph. This is not to say that historians, like the police, try to rely on photography as evidence of some kind of fact, but instead, historians increasingly treat history as an old photograph of wholistic historical landscape.
At its core, however, the old photograph in one’s mind is merely a historical placebo. The memories and moments of the past that have been summoned together by Proust somehow become an image, an unmistakable evidence, and our memory is thus held back by this cold, frozen evidence. As Roland Barthes reminds us, “In photographs, time is blocked… photos are never memory. They block memory.”
From cave paintings to photography and movie to today’s trillions of images on the internet, all of them are keys to the secrets of our world. Image is not only what we stare at, but also what is always with us, what is always around us, what is embedded and permeated into us, and what we often turn a blind eye to. The visual production of contemporary photographers is developed in this realistic situation.
In On Boundless Realism, Roger Garaudy declares that, “A world seen by a man in motion, in memory, in dreams, in hopes, or in fears, is more realistic than a world of classical abstraction impassively seen through the window of Alberti.” From the works of contemporary photography artists, we can see the reality of the infinite difference felt by these subjects in “movement, memory, dream, hope or fear”, and the multiple ways they deal with these realistic feelings.
In my observations over the years, contemporary photography experiments can be roughly grouped into the following clues:
Photographic Graffiti. To combination photography and painting was the “first reaction” at the beginning of the invention of photography, what the current photographers pursue is not the painting-esque quality of photography, but the mixture and disagreement of the two ways of image making. With the digitalization of photography and the development of mapping softwares, these two technical forces converge and embodies photography with the same rich techniques and expressive leisure as painting — smearing, covering, brush strokes and retouching… are gradually revealing new possibilities in photography.
Photographic Theatre is not merely the common techniques of set decoration and staged photography, but is also a comprehensive and full mobilization of the “photography studio” as a media site. Photographers today are able to mobilize the performance quality of all elements in the studio fully, the combination of scenery, lighting, props, and on-site drawing, to construct a multi-modal and comprehensive performance scene.
Photographic Fiction, photography is more than a snap, not just a slice of time, but a series of events in time and space. The timeliness and eventfulness inherent in photography, as well as its internal continuity, open up the narrative space. The narrative capacity of photography is continuously growing, thus photography presents a sense of cinematic and narrative consciousness, which is completely different from the traditional sense of “decisive moment” in its unique imagery, with a plot line condensed in the picture.
Photographic Design, the combination of photography and graphic design, through splicing, collage and other techniques, photographic images can obtain the strongest visual effect. The principle of reality that photography originally adheres to is no longer important, photographing is merely one of many ways of image capturing and producing.
Photographic Topology, image is the topology of time, like digging a hole in time in day-to-day life to construct a different kind of time, alternative time. In this sense, photography is the naming of events and moments. In the experience of modernity, our perception towards events and situations has been closely linked to the intervention of cameras. The eventfulness and timeliness of photography have been vacated by some “instantaneous” experience. What the current photographic artists have to do, to a large extent, is to resist this experience of time, which is built up by countless instantaneous moments.
As an experimental art, photography is an infinitely open medium. The reality it faces and presents is not an external ready-made object, nor a special “landscape” fabricated deliberately, but something far more open. Contemporary artists do not have as many complexities and burdens from the golden age of photography in the last century. With the development of digital imaging, photography has become their laboratory and playground. However, this is only a few games and tricks, what’s rooted in the original field of photography experience itself has always been empty. In the face of these vibrant and colorful creations, I cannot help asking what we have lost in the constant openness and experimentation of photography.
In the history of photography, all the gifts of progress have been accompanied by hidden dangers. Today, on one hand, digital imaging technology and various media experiments greatly satisfy the impulse to create photography; On the other hand, digital instantaneous development completely removes the mystery of expectation in the dark that old-fashioned process offers. Digital printing makes photography more easily retouched and adapted at will, and become “printed matter” in the truest sense of the phrase. The magic transformative ability of photography has on everyday experience, to turn ordinary objects into gold, is on the wane. The charm of images, the power and dignity of images are declining day by day, and even the desire for photographers to face the reality head on is gradually declining.
Photography has frequently appeared in art galleries and gallery systems in China in the past 20 years or so. In this process, photography has increasingly become an important part of contemporary art. On one hand, the photography experiment in contemporary art has brought many new ideas, methods and styles to the photography industry. On the other hand, when photography gets closer to the center of the contemporary art stage by means of experimental images, it loses its critical consciousness in the society and the mental motives to face the reality.
In the face of photography experiments or games from digital natives, we need to ask: Is photography a medium or a method amongst all kinds of visual creation? Being a method or being a medium bears completely different meanings, only method can build a unique sense of perception and world, can constantly update our experience and knowledge. Only photography as experience, as a method of photography, can call out its power of exploring reality from this classical modern technology. In this case, photography is not reality’s backup or index, but a mysterious channel through which reality can be realized and spirit can be revealed.
Photography fundamentally - let the invisible be seen and keep behind the undetainable. In our usual experience, photography seems to seal up time and results in “the amber of time”. The memory and the time that have been called back along the track of the image, like tangible evidence, are the clues of existence, the indelible mark. At the same time, photography is also the memory organ of modern history, which has accumulated the most meaningful visual heritage for us.
The Museum of China Academy of Art took the lead in establishing Photography Department in China. Its initial intention started from the 5th Shanghai Biennale organized by us in 2004, with the theme of “Image Survival: The Technology of the Visual”. Taking the Biennale as an opportunity, with the help of Chen Shen, Geng Hai and other colleagues in the photography industry, we designed a proposal site in the 100-meter corridor of Shanghai People’s Park, proposing to create a research museum for the history of Chinese photography. Fifteen years have passed in the blink of an eye. Despite the upsurge of museums and art galleries sweeping across the Mainland China, the research-oriented photography museum we anticipated then was never established.
In 2014, China Academy of Art founded the Social Archive of Chinese Photography, which invited the young but established photography scholar Gao Chu to preside over it. The research this institute does is not only about the history of photography in general sense, but also about “photography as experience” and “photographic moment”. As Mr. Pasolini says, one’s life is a long take. Photography as experience is always isomorphic with our life, so it may repeatedly reconstruct our relationship with reality. Artist Chen Jiren has described a little-known visual moment in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation era, when the Japanese colonialists projected Japanese films to promote “Japanization” education, but most local people did not understand Japanese, and the authorities arranged an interpreter for real-time translation, which was then called “Bian Shi”. Many interpreters were anti-Japanese activists, and the moments they translated the subtitles were often the moments they utilized to promote anti-Japanese propaganda to the audience. Thus, what the audience experienced at the scene formed a strange combination - the Japanization imagery, with the voice of resistance. At that moment, what happened in the audience’s mind was an image of rebellion and struggle.
Gao Chu informed me another touching visual moment, which happened in the border area of Shanxi, Hebei, Shandong and Henan in the early stage of the liberation war. At that time, photography was playing an increasingly important role in the war, and the visual information of the whole war zone was spread to every soldier and the mass through temporary photo exhibitions held on street corners, and photo albums in barracks and trenches. Taking photos was an important event in the army. Every time before an assault was launched, the army photographer would take photos of every frontline soldier. These were the solemn moments of life, perhaps their last moments. The soldiers were vaguely aware that due to the lack of supplies, there was probably no film in the camera. But they still got dressed, faced the camera, posed, took the last and perhaps only pictures of their lives, and rushed to the battlefield.
The moment when the interpreters used the projected films for anti-Japanese propaganda, and the moment when photographers in the trenches held up their empty cameras to take pictures of the soldiers before battles, were the solemn moments and decisive moments in the history of Chinese photography. The images with opposing audio, the film-less photography ceremonies before battles, let us think about the nature of photography from another perspective. These images were transmitted and accumulated in the minds of many people, and gradually produced a kind of liberating energy, which was transformed into courage for action.
It is in this sense that the Social Archive of Chinese Photography cares about the image as history and the history as image. What it points to is the construction of more significance, more intense reality and more powerful subject in the reconstruction of historical relations and events, the interleaving and ringing of different historical clues in the events, and the emergence and liberation of people who are the ghosts of history and the signets of light.
Under the promotion of the Social Archive of Chinese Photography, the Museum of China Academy of Art formally established the Photography Department as the collection and research platform of Chinese photography history. Through Photography Department and the Social Archive’s common efforts, we will invite domestic and foreign photography scholars and photographers to build China’s modern image narratives from a historical latitude, working towards the retelling of the history of the century through photography and the development of Chinese modern history, presenting outstanding collections and Chinese photography while discussing the relationship between photography and Chinese modernity. In this process, the images that we face will be beyond the “art of photography”. Many of these old photos, whether they are “documentary photography” in the war era, “art photography” in photography studios, or “life images” of people in pictures, have become our collective memory. They support our historical values and our historical experience.
Through these photographs, what we can feel is completely different from what we see in pictures we learn in institutions and picture albums. These photos have been forged by blood and fire, honed by history and time, and thus have gathered a kind of engaging power. This power comes from the nameless mountains and rivers, nameless people in the photos, silent, condensed, serene and powerful.
The moment of photographic development is the moment of time fixation. In our experience, the photographs show a frozen moment in history, however behind the photographs, every photographer’s life is a river. Those frozen moments, those decisive and indecisive moments, are all part of a coherent history of life, whether to photographers or the subjects of photographs. Photography is not only for capturing time, but also for developing time, not only for archiving history, but also for life to take form. From these photographs, we can feel the desire to let the nameless moments and nameless “people” lost in the history to reappear.
History is not a dispassionate study of historical data, but a kind of encounter, a kind of seeing. Facing the photographs, we can see the backs of the soldiers marching in the dusty mountains and rivers, and their near-death fate. Through these frozen photographs, we come face to face at certain moments, with those in the photographs, with the person behind the camera.
These photos make us reflect on what is the so-called “art of photography”? Photography is by no means just a scenery machine in this “world of imaging”. It constructs the ability to self-criticize and self-produce — by grasping the timing and meteorology, turning the ordinary into the magical, traveling through time in an instant and creating images for the world. Paul Valéry discovers early on that Plato’s “Cave Metaphor” describes a vast camera obscura in which the world we live in is a negative in the eyes of God. The photographer then becomes the printer of the potential negative. “Reality doesn’t belong to this world, it shines again every ten years.” says Jean Giraudoux. The task of photography is to record the flash of light. The moment of image is exactly the moment when reality is revealed and the world is revealed again and again. Through these photographs, we encounter these moments again, which are not only the ambers of time, but also the seed of time. Because photographs aren’t just for preserving, they’re the keys to time.
At this instant, I think of Mr. Gao Fan’s photographs of the nameless figures in front of the Tiananmen Gate in 1949. It is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. This photograph reveals the historic significance of photography, which is bound both to the past and the future. This is the essence of photography - photography is the ferryman of time.
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Revolution in a Chinese Village in North China 1947–1948: Archive of the Crooks
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Chinese Contemporary Photobooks:
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