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Documenting China: Contemporary Photography and Social Change

This photographic exhibition documents social change in China. This is a past event.

Crow Collection of Asian Art, Dallas, TX, September 2008. Sponsored by Smithsonian Institution, Crystal Cruises and Bates College.

three photos from documenting china

Documenting China: Contemporary Photography and Social Change is an exhibition featuring selections of seven photographer’s works which reflect the extensive changes in China’s society since the power shift from Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) in 1976. Under strict and militaristic Communist rule, Chinese documentary photography was totally censored. These photographs tell the story of the dramatic changes taking place as China shifts to modernization and urbanization from traditional and rural lifestyles.

Some 90 million rural laborers have poured into China’s cities seeking employment. This huge influx of unskilled workers plus the massive task of updating the cities’ infrastructures has caused widespread turmoil and contributed to an identity crisis for city dwellers. The photographs in this collection reflect the dichotomy of modern city life with ancient family values on a human scale. We see images of Chinese individuals in their homes, at work, at leisure. We get a peek into how they are responding to the broad reaching changes in their culture.

While most of the photographs are black and white, color dominates the "Master of the House" series of photos from Henan Province, a rural locale. Jian’s work communicates the stark living conditions of each subject, but the color adds a realistic dimension that may help those in North America relate better. The Chinese people love to incorporate color into their homes so the medium of color photography tempers the bleak interiors. Also the choice of oversized prints assists in neutralizing the austere settings.

Lu Yuanim’s “Untitled #3 1992-1995” dramatic photograph is a pensive Shanghai male shown with his reflection in a mirror in a room that is clearly old fashioned featuring traditional furnishings. He is calm and pensive despite what might be going on around him in a city that is in social upheaval as it modernizes. He echos this contrast in several other photographs in the display.

Zhou Ming also uses Shanghai as his location for a series of street scenes and public settings. “Untitled #4 2002” focuses on rows of birds in cages at a public bird park. Birds are favored pets in China. Owners take their pets to a bird park for fresh air and so the birds can interact with other birds. Owning a bird can bring a bit of nature into one’s cramped city quarters. That would seem to be a welcome addition to the quality of life in an overcrowded city.

Some lovely pastoral photos were taken by artist Liu Xiaodl in Jiangsu Province as source material for his future paintings. Xiaodl is not a professional photographer but the detail and subject choice of his photos reflects an understanding and compassion of those he featured.

Perhaps my favorite photograph in this exhibition is Zhang Xinmin’s “Jiangxi 1998” depicting a man climbing through a train window in order to get onboard. One can only speculate on how he was able to even reach the window as it appears to be very high off the platform. He must have felt desperate. Apparently there are so many commuters needing to ride the overloaded public transportation that some will go to extreme measure to make certain they get on.

This collection is a welcome visual narrative from insiders on how the Chinese are adapting to the changes in their country. It is probably a more honest interpretation than most of what we saw while watching the Olympics in Beijing. It certainly is willing to look at the common people of both the countryside and the urban areas to depict their ambivalent struggle to modernize.

B. Bell

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