Host:Xie Zilong Photography Museum
Dates： 16th September 2022-27th August 2023
Venue: Exhibition Hall No.6, 3F, Xie Zilong Photography Museum, No.387, Xiaoxiang South Road, Yuelu District, Changsha, Hunan, China
The Age of World Images
The invention of photography has brought humans into the ‘age of world images’, which not only refers to the pictorialisation of the world but also the global circulation of the pictorialised world. The photographic image perfectly conforms to the logic of mass reproduction of capitalist commodities. The invisible and immovable world of objects is transformed into thinnish plates that people can easily access. Modern Chinese people hence see and understand the world in photographs. The exquisite yet boundless world in the stereoscope creates an intimate and physical viewing experience in their eyes close to the lens.
Gazes and Expressions: The Aura of Photography
Looking at the big innocent eyes of Franz Kafka in his childhood portrait, Walter Benjamin describes the face in the photograph as the last aura in the age of mechanical reproduction. Roland Barthes also terms the ‘eidolon’ radiated by people or objects in a photograph as a “Spectrum”. When the Chinese were first confronted with cameras, we find the gazes and expressions captured in early photography that never have been taken seriously. In early portrait photography, the defamiliarisation with photography can still be found in those downcast and evading eyes, confused and puzzled looks, and direct and inquisitive gazes, which penetrate the frame and expose the hidden camera—the presence of this new human-object relationship has further highlighted the indexical realness of photography. That is why those tiny “eidolons” of more than a century ago still attract us to quest who they are, why they are here, and where they have gone.
Photography as an Expression of the Literati
Photography immediately became a powerful means for the literati and intellectuals to create and self-express. In their elegant gatherings, taking a group photograph as commemoration has replaced traditional painting and calligraphy practices, although these photographs of elegant gatherings were still perceived within the aesthetics of traditional painting and calligraphy. In the meantime, inscribing poems on photographs and presenting them to friends confirmed the new form of poems for pictures, allowing photographs to actively participate in constructing self-images of the emerging intellectual class. From Su Manshu, the amorous flaneur, to Lu Xun, the enlightener who wrote, “I shall offer my blood up for Xuan Yuan, our progenitor”, photographs constituted a metaphorical and interrelated pathway between traditional literati and modern intellectuals in their bodies, emotions and national homeland.
Photography and the Discourse of National Character
From the late Qing Dynasty to the May Fourth Movement, the issue of Chinese national character has always remained a central theme for enlightening intellectuals. Lu Xun once discovered the “numb” expressions of the spectators in a beheading image, which led him to criticise the cultural weakness and flaws inherent in the nation and attempt to use writing to wake up his fellow countrymen. Photography is far from transparent or neutral. The selection and manipulation of objects and perspectives in the shooting process always manifest the implicit conceptions of the photographer. Under the gaze of modern western colonialism seeking monstrousness of the Others, Chinese people in the lens of western photographers were portrayed as ‘benighted’ and ‘uncultured’. Worse still, such a colonialist bias was so enhanced by photography’s scientific attribute that people believed that the technology could not only represent the external realness but also reveal the internal essence of the photographed. In this way, the weakness and flaws in modern Chinese people’s national characters became visible, quantifiable, and thus factual and indisputable—this history and such ideas, for sure, deserve critical interrogations. They are substantial embodiments of modern China’s lack of right to speak when photographic images were employed as a representative language.
Photography and Miscellaneous Visual Media
The concept that photography is an independent art form distinctive from all established visual media does not apply to its early history. On the contrary, photography interacted, intermingled, and combined with various media, including printing, painting, slides, and film. Together, they created a synthesised experience for the audience, constituting a rich and comprehensive visual culture in modern China.