Saturday, 12 October 2013

Xie Hailong's Hope Project and Dragon Gallery of photography, Gaobeidianxi, Beijing

Imagine seeing an exhibition about photographers and their activities as individuals and within groups such as PhotoForum, or another photographic society in New Zealand.

It was something of a surprise, and delight, to see an exhibition of framed but unglassed photographs of Chinese photographers associated with Xie Hailong, the famous photographer and director of China's Hope project. One of the most inspiring documentary photography projects in the world, the hope project, by showing Xie's photographs of poverty stricken children in remote areas without schools, helped raise awareness and the money to rectify their problems and educate the kids and their families.  His photo essays are, in a sense, the equivalent of what Sir Edmund Hillary and his coworkers achieved in Nepal; what the Farm Security Administration during the great depression in the United States did in the 1930s, with the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein and other talented photographers in Roy Stryker's team. It is also similar to the outcome of W Eugene Smith's great 'Nurse Midwife' Life essay that raised consciences and money to build medical facilities in a poor area of the US south.

Cover of Xie Hailong's small book on the Hope Project, printed on cheap uncoated paper

Two of the children depicted in Xie Hailong's early photographs which inspired the Hope Project to provide schools for deprived rural children
Xie Hailong is something of a legend in mainland China. He holds, as so many of China's senior photographers do, numerous government-sponsored positions of influence. Recently retired, he started his own art gallery, the Dragon Gallery, in 2006. It is located in Gaobeidianxi, east Beijing, which is a one and a half hour train ride from where I live in Changping District in the north. He initiated a meeting through Zoe Zhang, and with my wife, Liu Jianguang, we met him, curator Mrs Li Jianjun, publisher Liu Feng, and saw the current exhibition in the one room gallery on 15 October 2013.

Installation view of the Dragon Gallery's exhibition of overlooked photographs of photographers made during the 1980s

The art scene here seems very hierarchical, which might explain why the catalogue of his exhibition at the Beijing Art Museum, Xie Hailong Artist, starts off, after a romantic cover picture of the photographer, staff in hand, posing during a tramping high above a misty mountainous valley. This Pilgrim's Progress kind of image is followed on the small title page with a list of his public positions and awards, in an ugly type face and design. He is, for example, Vice Secretary-General of the Chinese Photographers Association, and Director General of the Images Copyright Society of China, as well as being on the Council of the Soong Ching Ling Foundation. (She was the widow of Sun Yat Sen, the acknowledged founder of the Republic of China, and a friend of Rewi Alley's, on the side of Mao Zedong's Communist Party. While her sister, Soong Mei-Ling, was the wife of Mao's arch rival, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.) Mr Xie is also an honorary councilor of the Police Literature and Arts Association of China, and Vice Chairman of the Beijing Photographic Fine Art Association. He has won many awards for his photography and his activism for improving education for the poor.

Seeing his gallery took me back to the Snaps Gallery period when PhotoForum was getting started in the mid 1970s. Dragon Gallery is nothing posh like some of the dealer galleries in the 798 Art District that are financed by wealthy backers. Although they looked flimsy, the lack of glass protecting the prints made them easy to see, but the heavy string holding the frames was a little distracting at first glimpse. The wall labels were in Chinese, of course, but I could read the dates and ascertain that the pictures paralleled the development of PhotoForum's education based activities of that period and earlier which encouraged the formation of galleries, collaborative exhibitions, workshops and publications.

I don't yet know what their circulation is, but Liu Feng, the publisher of Energy Outlook magazine, (which carried a memorable cover graphic of an iceberg in the shape of a question mark), included a 26x18 cm 16-page booket of the best work from Xie Hailong's exhibition. It started with an image of a woman photographing from a train and culminated with a delightful image from 1994 showing Xie and his fellow photographers at the China Youth newspaper office listening in to their sole female workmate who sits cross-legged on a sofa with the telephone to her ear and a pomegranate to her right. The whole booklet, and exhibition thus sings the praise of a small number of Chinese photographers working since 1977. One image on show depicted a foreign photographer in a class-like situation but I didn't recognise him. Nobody in the group that met me could tell who he was, but offered to find out if I really wanted to know.

Installation view of the Dragon Gallery's exhibition of overlooked photographs of photographers made during the 1980s
The prints on display were nothing fancy. They all seemed to be recent digital copies of silver prints, or scans from negatives,and they had that harsh contrast which is a hallmark of newspaper prints made to counter the softening effect of the 60-lines per inch half-tone screen and ink absorbing newsprint. Not pretty. But these could have been printed with more sensitivity, and, in fact, they look better, generally, as reproductions in the small publication.

Installation views of the Dragon Gallery's exhibition of overlooked photographs of photographers made during the 1980s
A delightful 1994 photograph showing Xie, 2nd from right, and his fellow photographers at the China Youth newspaper office listening in to their sole female workmate. Reproduced in a supplementary booklet for Energy Outlook magazine by the publisher, Liu Feng 

This  reminded me that New Zealand's independent photographers, in the late 1960s and early 1970s had to be shown by people like John Fields and myself how to make a print that expressed their feelings, as well as provide optical evidence of what they saw. And that this fine print approach was a hallmark of US photography, as pointed out by Nancy Newhall, rather than for Europeans like Brassai and Bill Brandt for whom the content of the image itself was supposed to carry all of the message. Which is why they "spotted" their glossy prints with felt tip pens and shocked budding purists like myself at the time. It is, however, hard to believe that people who love fine photographs would purchase these Chinese prints for their enjoyment.

We did not have time to talk to them about these issues because they had another appointment, but I am curious about the history and success or otherwise of independent galleries like this, which is operated by Xie's company, Beijing Leo Visual Culture Communication, named after his zodiac sign.

Zoe Zhang reading the supplement which featured the exhibition for Energy Outlook magazine

L-R: Li Jianjun, Liu Jianguang, John Turner, Xie Hailong, Liu Feng, (and a visitor from Hastings, to paraphrase Auckland Metro which always named unidentified individuals thus), Dragon Gallery, Gaobeidianxi, Beijing, 15 October 2013. Photograph by Zoe Zhang
I couldn't but muse about the hundreds of shows and events with New Zealand photographers, or overseas visitors, in the days before digital photography, where I was usually the only one with a camera, or the only one bothered to take installation or "crowd" scenes. Maybe a NZ-China visual comparison, showing the personalities and varied activities of PhotoForum, for example, alongside such records of the meetings of Chinese photographer's associations, would be of interest. Certainly, background research for the PhotoForum at 40 celebrations reveal the value of such images. But my observations of the Beijing scene could be shallow, and I feel the need to know a great deal more about the way serious photography is treated in this vast country, province by province. Beijing prides itself as the cultural capital, but it is not as advanced as Shanghai or Guanzhou, it seems, when it comes to honoring and exhibiting its best photographers through exemplary exhibitions and publications.

Xie kindly gave me copies of three of his books, including the (literally) heavy weight large format volume from the series produced by the China Photographic Publishing House: Photographic report of China Hope Project (2007). I had bought other books from this series from Fang Hua's New Zealand Chinese Bookshop in Auckland's Dominion Road, but have found that few bookshops in China carry them, despite their bi-lingual texts. Xie's photography is outstanding, and reminds me of the late Terry O'Connor's heartfelt, elegant vision. The book, with a high production values, costs RMB380 ($NZ75) and is clearly made for the art market. By contrast, his book of pretty much the same work, in a vertical instead of square format, was produced for the general, non-specialist market and retails for RMB32 ($NZ6.50). It is a small book on cheap uncoated paper, with Chinese text only. It suffers from pedestrian design and the pictures are  dulled down because neither the designer nor printer apparently knew how to get richer and more sympathetic tonal contrast from the paper stock. In between, is the nicely printed but over-designed catalogue produced by the Beijing Art Museum, mentioned above. The decision to toss Xie's celebrated 1993 image of a young girl walking in the rain, into the book's gutter, was stupid, because it undermines the photographer's art and his intention to gain empathy with the child, with this inexcusable side show. The price, at RMB 80 ($NZ16) is fine, but museums should be producing books of far more sympathetic and sophisticated design, with comparable production values.

The heavywight version of Xie Hailong's Hope essay

The nicely produced but poorly designed version of Xie Hailong's Hope Project essay

How to deface a good photograph. Spread from the nicely produced but poorly designed version of Xie Hailong's Hope Project essay

Noted photographer Tang Shizeng at Kekexili, Tibet, nd 

T-B: Yan Danqing watched by curious children who had never before seen a photographer, and Yang Shaowu, now editor of Lvliang Photographa, eating breakfast on the hoof (both recently rediscovered images from the 1980s)
Looking at Tom Hutchins' photographs of China in 1956 via the internet

Mr Xie, curator Mrs Li Jianjun, and publisher Liu Feng all wanted to see some of Tom Hutchins' work from China in 1956, before they left for another meeting, and their response was spontaneously favorable when they saw some on my web site. So much so, in fact, that they asked if his work, which was blocked from exhibition and publication here in China by his trustees for fear that it would be pirated, could be taken up as a key example for the Images Copyright Society of China to investigate. I'm certainly listening, and will continue my efforts to have Tom's work shown here, which was the source and subject of the hard-won and  most important assignment of his journalistic career. Tom's own fear of censorship of his photographs by the Chinese government is part and parcel of the kind of issues that need to be resolved, in favour of the photographer as independent eye witness, if the histories of China are to be accurately recorded and respected. We shall see. My fingers are crossed.

Zoe Zhang leaving Xie Hailong's Dragon Gallery by the entrance

Sunday, 6 October 2013

New Zealand's profile at 2013 Pingyao International Photography Festival

Elaine Smith, volunteer Lisa Lee, foreign guests coordinator Amy Liu,
 and Julia Durkin at PIP Pingyao September 2013
Following on from the first Auckland Festival of Photography's exhibition last year and my two-person show with Julian Ward, which followed PhotoForum's six Auckland photographers show in 2011, the profile of New Zealand photographers is gradually being lifted in mainland China.

Credit goes to Julia Durkin for hosting PIP artistic director, Zhang Guotian during the Auckland Festival of Photography in June, as part of the effort to coordinate and exchange work from the growing number of photography festivals worldwide. Zhang said he enjoyed his visit and the welcome given him in recognition of Pingyao's aims and achievements. He saw a wide range of New Zealand work at the Festival and visited local archives to study historical collections and curatorial practices. 
Zhang Guotian, Artistic Director of PIP, 2013
Durkin's right hand woman at the AFP, Elaine Smith, selected work by four Aucklanders to show at PIP this year: Chris Corson-Scott (5 images), Geoffrey Heath (5), Anita Jacobsen (4), and Vicky Thomas (5). It was a modest beginning for presenting the work of  people who have earned this exposure, when compared to the more ambitious solo presentations of PIP old hands, like Don Penny (USA) and Bronek Kozka (Australia), just a dozen metres away. It is a pity that they were unable to attend in person to experience the cacophony if images of all subjects, sizes, and levels of competence that surrounded their work in the old cotton mill and most other spaces.

Geoffrey Heath's work at PIP 2013
Vicky Thomas's work at PIP 2013

For me, Heath, Jacobsen and Thomas's work was very competent but they are still in the process of finding their full voice. Unlike them, Corson-Scott avoided the art schools, with their growing conservatism, and struck out on his own. Consequently, he seemed to pop out of nowhere with a mature vision, when I first saw his work in the show at Northart that he curated with Edward Hanfling for this year's AFP, and their meticulous preparation for that show convinced PhotoForum and Rim Books to publish their  Pictures They Want to Make: Recent Auckland Photography. PhotoForum, Auckland, 2013).

Geoffrey Heath (left) and Chris Corson-Scott's work at PIP Pingyao, 2013 . Photo courtesy Julia Durkin

Chris Corson-Scott's work at PIP Pingyao. Photo courtesy Julia Durkin

 Corson-Scott's contemplative, intensely rendered images belie the fact that he is still at an early stage in his development. His thinking is remarkably advanced and more ambitious than most of his peers, partly, I think, because he shares with his late father, the painter Ian Scott, a high level of intellectual enquiry about the nature of form and content in relation to the vernacular.  The lighting is always dicey at PIP but if anything, Corson-Scott's prints could have been bigger to dominate the large panels they were on, as they did in Auckland. 

Pingyao International Photography Festival 2013 compendium spread for Auckland Festival of Photography's exhibition. Photograph by Anita Jacobsen
Pingyao International Photography Festival 2013 compendium spread for Auckland Festival of Photography's exhibition. Photographs by Chris Corson-Scott and Geoffrey Heath
Pingyao International Photography Festival 2013 compendium spread for Auckland Festival of Photography's exhibition. Photographs by Vicky Thomas
Not knowing until the last moment where one's work will be shown is a common PIP risk, but it is remarkable how many of the thousands of viewers can tune out the environmental static to take a look at the work itself, no matter how unsympathetic the lighting is. And it reminds me of the NZ National Art Gallery's reliance on daylight to illuminate its collection only 40 years ago.
For future PIP exhibitions, I hope both the AFP, PhotoForum, and any other contributions will also present significant work from south of the Bombay hills, to better represent photography in New Zealand. That also would be in the spirit of PIP.

Listed on page 411 of the heavy, well-illustrated 432-page PIP compendium (for it is virtually impossible to catalogue or completely note everything on show) is a bio for curator Vivien Shao Wehhao from Wellington. She apparently organised a display of work by Zhang Qian that was listed as 'Straggling & Belonging' in the essential China Pingyao 13th PIP Guide Book. "Struggling", rather than straggling, might have been the word lost in translation. Like dozens of other shows, I think I missed it on my rounds, and in my last minute rush to grab reference pictures of  interesting shows with outstanding, typical, or terrible work, to study later.

On the bullet train from Beijing to Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi Province with about as many people as the whole of New Zealand, I received a text to say that Zoe Zhang, from Auckland, was coming to Pingyao. She had visited me in Beijing a few months earlier, and decided to re-present her self-representations from an exhibition of Chinese New Zealanders held at the Wallace Arts Centre in Auckland a year or so ago. She was a little apologetic because a flood in the Old Cotton Mill had spoiled her chance to present the work in two sets, facing each other. That might have worked fine, but for me the alternating large bold prints of herself and special objects worked fine and the connections were still made, without compromising the main idea based on her holding imaginary objects in her hands and leaving the audience to wonder what she was thinking of.  

Zoe Zhang with her exhibition in the Old Cotton Mill, PIP 2013

Zoe was a student of some of my past students, like Marcus Williams,  and old friends like Allan McDonald and John Malcolm at Unitec, Auckland. She also studied with my friend KT Ho, at the Auckland University of Technology, so there was a connection there. But what I did not realise at first, was that she is an inspiring networker and an outstanding translator, who time and again introduced me to top photographers and educators and translated for me. Consequently, when the PIP meeting for curators was postponed and left 20 people in the lurch, she and I were able to take control and get a round-table discussion going. With her help, I was also able to providing a practical demonstration of editing one's pictures for a show, using the work a Shanghai curator had brought to the session.
To my delight, I discovered that Zoe's exhibiting neighbour was Fan Shunzan, whom I met in 2011 when he was giving away copies of his home-printed-and-packaged postcards to rich foreigners like me. I had insisted on buying a few sets, which surprised him, because I wanted to share them with friends, and use the example of his impressive  imagery and enterprise to inspire my last batches of Elam students before I retired and left the country.

This time Fan had stacks of offset printed packs of a dozen colour postcards selling for 10 and 15 RMB (only two or three NZ dollars), with  sales adding to his income from occasional teaching. He employed a lovely young local woman to take care of his exhibition and card shop while taking in the competition, and seeing friends at PIP. He's got a fruitful imagination and a nice sense of humour, as well as the enterprise needed to get anywhere from the bottom up in China. He wouldn't name a price for his nearly metre-high prints on exhibition because they were shopworn, but I think he was asking the equivalent of  $400 NZ for them. I was tempted, because they are well worth that.  
Zoe Zhang and Fan Shunzan, PIP Pingyao 2013

Zoe Zhang and Fan Shunzan, PIP Pingyao 2013
He was not so enthusiastic about Zoe's show, when I asked him to comment, and later, over dinner, I noted that he puzzled over the meaning of  work in Pictures they Want to Make...  Which is precisely what events like PIP are all about - being exposed to unfamiliar work, and with luck, learning to cross barriers and getting help to figure it out for oneself.

Pingyao International Photography Festival 2013 compendium spread for TINT exhibition. JW Chapman-Taylor's 'Grief' at right

 John McGarrigle, American Photo Co. left, and Mac Miller's photograph right

My own exhibition, 'Tint: a selection of New Zealand photographs 1868-2012 from the collection of John B Turner,' was a late addition because indications were that I was not been invited to exhibit this year. I wrote most of the introduction for an intended catalogue but had no time to edit, translate or publish it within the brief time frame. Nor contact all of the sources of the pictures, which had to be cut back from 44 to 36 and downsized to fit the allocated space. Consequently, I did not show work by either John Fields or Fred Muir, mentioned in the compendium. Nor did I have time to renumber and improve the design of the PIP translated the wall labels. Bi-lingual captions are a must for the mainly Chinese audience which wants to understand the meaning/s of the images.
The photographers represented were Herbert Deveril, DL Mundy, American Photo Co (John McGarrigle) (2), William J Harding, James Bragge (2), Alfred H Burton (3), Arthur Northwood (2), William or Fred Tyree (3), Edwin K Pollard (Tyree studio), James McDonald, G Leslie Adkin (2), JW Chapman-Taylor, John Pascoe, Les Cleveland, W (Bill) Walker, Ans Westra, Diana Wong, John S Daley, Alan Leatherby, Glenn Busch, Mac Miller, Bruce Foster, Max Oettli, Paul Gilbert, Peter Peryer, Peter Black, and one unidentified 19th century practitioner who copied another's image.

Peter Black and G Leslie Adkin images provide the stage for young entertainers

TINT: a selection of New Zealand photographs 1868 to 2012 from collection of John B Turner, PIP 2013

The loose theme of the display was a version of New Zealand's history as a colony, which I was able to expand on in both my official and spontaneous floor talks. The digitally enlarged copies of original vintage albumen and silver prints, and facsimilies of 40 year-old gelatin silver and gold-toned POP  "new" prints that I made from original negatives in the Alexander Turnbull Library, old National Museum, Nelson Provincial Museum and other sources, were made big for easy viewing and enjoyment from the rewards of close scrutiny by a new audience. Most were not as big as I had intended, but they looked pretty good, I think, and certainly received a lot of interest. The more recent works, unfortunately, had to go on the shady wall opposite the Barker, Deveril, Mundy, Bragge and Burton works. But such is Pingyao. It is not an ideal exhibition venue except for having a huge audience and networking with accomplished foreign and Chinese mainland photographers and promoters.

Miao Miao at Tint exhibition, PIP 2013
I don't want to make too big a song, to spoil the dance about it, but one of my unexpected PIP highlights was when Miao Miao, a lively five year old local girl, danced for me in the middle of my exhibition. Dragged around by her big brother, who owns a small restaurant in Pingyao, I gently asked her not to touch the prints when I saw her feeling a print that had been shifted and placed low to rescue it from rain dripping from the roof. Not wanting to extinguish her spark, I asked if I could take some pictures of her, and later, I asked if she believed in ghosts? She was scared of them, she said, so I told her how James Bragge had made the ghosts appearing - or disappearing - in his celebrated picture of the Bank of NZ corner in Wellington around 1879. She said she was still scared after that, so I showed her how to turn my clever PIP translator, Julia, into a ghost.

Ni Rong: Miao Miao taking the photograph of John Turner, PIP 2013
Miao Miao (5) Mr Turner, ghost-buster, Tint, PIP 2013
Julia almost disappeared when I demonstrated the slow shutter speed trick to Miao Miao, then it was my turn, when I fell on my back after scaring  the daylights out of a little girl and her mother whom I backed into while trying to get a more interesting  picture. Luckily, only my lenshood was broken and Miao Miao's dance came to my rescue by restoring a little decorum to the occasion. I don't know how to edit my my cellphone dance movie, so can't share it here. The complete TINT show, however, can be seen at 
 with expanded captions. Very soon I should have loaded the installation shots that I owe to all of the living contributors, individuals and institutions, to whom I give my grateful thanks. Their pictures continue to inspire and delight me.

Julia Jia, PIP volunteer translator, Liu Heungshing, photographer-historian, and Zoe Zhang, photographer-unofficial translator-networker, TINT exhibition, PIP 2013

As well as promoting fine New Zealand art, we are, I hope, encouraging mainland Chinese, and others, to think about starting their own photograph collections. I had positive comments from many established Chinese photographers and curators for my early start to collecting. The only criticism, twice voiced, was that it would have been better (for them) to see the original prints that I had brought from New Zealand. Viewers were particularly impressed when I pointed out that a different copy of Peter Peryer's multiple original print (the cover image from  PhotoForum No 33, August/September 1976) was currently being auctioned at Webb's in Auckland for around $NZ5000 (RMB 30,000), when I had purchased it with the other nine pictures from his Mars Hotel portfolio for $100, 37 years ago.
We can't expect Chinese mainlanders to buy many New Zealand prints but we can show by example, the benefits from supporting talented artists at the beginning of their careers, when they most need it. PIP, in fact, does this well by providing a vital, imperfect environment at low cost, without the high art pretentions expected of a dealer gallery. Then it is up to anybody with eyes to sort out for themselves which work is entertaining, enlightening, or desirable?  We don't need to be told when we come across  the rare life-changing work, but image by image, we can learn more about our world and ourselves.

Volunteers Hanging Tint, Diesel Factory A5, PIP 2013

Early visitors, US and South African shows in background, Diesel Factory A5, PIP 2013

Hanging Tint, Diesel Factory A5, PIP 2013

The PIP 2013 compendium, titled 2013 China Pingyao International Photography Festival, will not be available from New Zealand shops because PIP's local government and central government backers do not print enough, and don't seem to understand that what happens at PIP is of interest to a far larger audience than just those who can attend the festival. They might not sell like fresh dumplings, but their yearly publications should be treasured as a record of the progress of photography as a means of communication and expression in China. As such, they should be in every important art library. But having said this, my confidence was dented when I could not readily get approval from the best Fine Arts Library in New Zealand (Elam's) to buy the copy of last year's compendium that I had purchased on spec for them.

Chinese photography, you see, like New Zealand photography 40 years ago in our own country, is not yet being recognised for its scope or vitality. Even PhotoForum, understandably, because of its primary mandate to promote New Zealand photography, has been slow to showcase outstanding work from The Peoples Republic of China.
Nor, for that matter, is the New Zealand art scene properly celebrating the work of Chinese New Zealanders like Diana Wong and KT Ho. Part of the problem is the Chinese reticence to put themselves forward, but also there can be a language and cultural barrier, not to mention an individual's personality, behind their modesty. Our NZ Chinese artists have their own clubs, such as Photo Whisper, and the United Chinese Photography Association of New Zealand, which recently had a show in Parliament Buildings, opened by Prime Minister John Key. They also produced a book, The Land of the Long White Cloud - New Zealand through Chinese Lens (sic.) as a heartfelt eulogy to the natural beauty of our small island nation, expressed, usually, with exceptional technical competence. Yes... but...!  I am not certain, however, if anybody capable of writing a critical review was ever shown it, let alone giving public expression of the serious attention it deserves.
Nor is going to be easy to get New Zealand institutions to exhibit outstanding Chinese photography in meaningful ways, or within the rapid timelines expected by many Chinese. We all know that pictures can still strip away some of the language barriers and political grandstanding that tends to stunt serious attempts to communicate and educate. New Zealanders know that the true value of overseas experience is to discover who they are and what it means to be a citizen of the South Pacific.  From this end, in China, there is a queue of exemplary photographers who would like to show their work overseas, and study at first hand the work of admired occidental peers. All they need is the kind of helping hand extended by practitioners from all around the world, whom they meet at Pingyao and other festivals, which are veritable hives of networking and good will.  
JBTat Love Begonia exhibition PIP 2013

Note. Unless otherwise stated I am guilty of taking these photographs.