Thursday 15 November 2018

‘Troubled Intentions Ahead: Confusing Public and Private.’ The Split Personality of 2018’s 3rd Beijing Photo Biennial

Seldom has the name of an event been so apt as that of the Central Academy of Fine Arts Art Museum (CAFAM’s) ‘Confusing Public and Private,’ the title of the belated 3rd Beijing Photo Biennial, but not in the way intended.

Viviane Sassen (Netherlands). Installation detail


CAFA Art Museum has a public relations problem. I contacted them several times last year to ask for
information about their due third Photo Biennial. I wanted to participate and help publicize it. The first and second biennials, in 2013 and 2015 were international in scope, with challenging contemporary work of a higher standard than the many token “international” photography events that I have seen in China. They also had a top lineup of practitioners and academics to discuss topical issues. 

Nothing, nothing and nothing came from my web searches and direct inquiries to CAFAM, and nowhere could I find any notice that the 3rd Photo Biennial had been canned or postponed.
I later learned that the head of the Museum, Wang Huangsheng, who is known as a shaker and mover in the art scene had moved on. But there was no news of the expected biennial which I feared had been starved to death. Nobody I asked at the October 2017 International PhotoBeijing week, with which the first CAFA biennial was linked, nor my other contacts could tell me why the most exciting photography event in Beijing had simply disappeared from the calendar?

My early inquiries this year bore no fruit until I met Cai Meng, a curator of CAFAM, at Three Shadows Photography Art Center a month ago. He confirmed that the 3rd Biennial was going ahead but failed to deliver on sending me the information about it. I don’t doubt that he is busy or very busy, because the biennial is such a huge undertaking, but the habitual lack of advanced PR notice, support and follow up in China is beyond a joke. (And I’m not just referring to the occasional English translations.)

Shen Xuezhe (China)

To make things worse, the typically last-minute press release was both confusing and wrong – as was the verbal assurance from my phone call to the CAFAM office that my visiting New Zealand photographer friend, Julian Ward, and I could see the exhibition just before its announced opening at 5pm on 28 September. They got it wrong. There was building going on but no show when we turned up. The front desk staff told us that the show was due to open on 1 October, China’s National Day instead and it was left to a lovely and helpful curatorial intern to apologize profusely on behalf of the museum. She earnestly promised that they would send us a book as compensation for wasting our time and taxi fares, but I seriously doubt the Museum will deliver. 
Jayson, the new manager of the museum’s coffee bar, who had spent 15 years in Australia, recognized our accents and went out of his way to chat and smooth over the museum’s PR cock-up, even though he had nothing to do with the show.

Léonard Pongo (Belgium)

There was another problem with the lack of information. To further confuse matters, the show was
unevenly split between two venues nearly 500 kilometers apart it had two different names, no facts as to exactly when or where it was opening, nor anything about the academic seminars which usually
accompany the biennial.

I wanted Julian Ward, who had exhibited some of his India photographs at the recent Pingyao International Photography Festival, to see how impressive CAFAM’s biennials could be, so after another phone call to them we went back on 3 October, his last day in Beijing. There we learned how monumental the 3rd biennial’s split personality had become. Only a small part of it is displayed in the CAFA Art Museum at No.8 Huajiadi South St, Chaoyang, Beijing 100102, taking up about half of its ground floor and a little easy-to-miss mezzanine above it. To see the rest of it, the very private public part, requires a four-hour trip to Beizhen, 490 kilometers away in Liaoning province, northeast China.

CAFAM may be taking long distance learning very seriously, but despite an impressive lineup of exhibitors and all but two of the Chinese contributors showing at Beizhen, I’m not sure that I can be bothered to go that far to see the rest of the show.

Mário Macilau (Mozambique)

The poster for the Beizhen exhibition bills it as ‘Troubled Intentions Ahead: Confusing Public and Private,’ as part of the 2018 Beizhen China Ist International Photography Festival, 28 September to 28 October 2018’ It is sponsored by the Culture Industry Center of Beizhen Jinzhou, Liaoning. (No place, address, contact number or GPS location is given.) CAFAM’s 3rd Beijing Photo Biennial (minus ‘International’) is given a minor billing with the dates 1 October to 4 November. Beizhen has trumped CAFAM, it seems, but it is not clear if the shows are one and the same? CAFAM bills its mini-show as just ‘Confusing Public and Private’. A second publicity sheet reclaims the Beizhen exhibition for CAFAM, as the overall organizer of this chaos with Chinese characteristics, when what is needed is hard facts and consistency.

For the record, one can see work by the following practitioners at CAFAM: Berna Reale (Brazil); Bruno Morais & Cristina de Middel (Brazil and Spain); Shen Xuezhe (China); Eddo Hartmann (Netherlands); Eva O’Leary (USA); Léonard Pongo (Belgium); Mário Macilau (Mozambique); Pieter Hugo (South Africa); Viviane Sassen (Netherlands); Weronika Gesiscka (Poland); Richard Mosse (Ireland), and Yu Xunling (China). That’s 12 of the 112 artists listed. A lineup which includes Erich Von Stroheim, Gerhard Richter, Marcel Duchamp, MC Escher, Man Ray and Robert Frank among the most famous of the famous whose work is virtually out of reach.

The Curatorial Committee (of the 2018 Beizhen International Photography Festival) is listed as Fan Di’an, Wang Huangsheng, Zhang Zikang, Hans de Wolf, Cai Meng, Ângela Ferreira and He Yining. Although written in the first person, the author of the extensive wall texts is not identified.

Vivien Sassoon (Netherlands)

The idea of private photography going public is not new anymore than is the juxtaposition of work made for the public displayed with more intensely personal work, so the stated catch-all rationale seems like flimsy academic window dressing to me. Here are some samples:

‘As a new form of technology, medium, and application, photography has been associated with issues concerning the public vs. the private since the day it was invented.’ [What? How new is new? Photography will be 180 years old next year!]

Bruno Morais & Cristina de Middel (Brazil and Spain)

‘From the inherently private practices of shooting and displaying in public spaces in the early days of photography,’ it continues, ‘to the democratization of image in today's world of camera phones, mobile web, and social media, and the constantly evolving visualization of data in contemporary art, photography has become an important medium that extends, interferes, participates in the construction of public and private lives to an ever-increasing degree. As a result, the public and private elements of photography continue to integrate and spread from constant clashes and
confrontations between real and fictional spaces; they are also changing our modes of expression, relationships and behavioral patterns while filling up our public and private living spaces. Eventually, with the extensive photography interference, public and private spaces are reconstructed, as are the boundaries between the individual and the community and the definitions of self and others. During this metamorphasis [sic.], photography becomes intertwined and resonates in new ways with a variety of important factors such as history, reality, religion, philosophy, civilization, war, science & technology, politics, and human emotions. As a medium or a bridge between different worlds, its
performance unfolds in both the public sphere and the private sphere. In a spatial-temporal context where the public and the private are merged, the modes of organization and thinking are extremely complex, and the atmosphere is characterized by a sense of ritualism and absurdity: how can we embark on an adventure of the mind? What kind of world is this? How is it related to us? In an intellectual field of visual drama that could be defined as Utopia, Dystopia, Heterotopia or Protopia, the way we tackle the relationship between the public and the private and its expressions via
photography will be the common goal we build on a comparatively broader, higher and more distant point of view, and it will also become our curatorial starting point for the exhibition. Therefore, the exhibition revolves around the complex coexistence of the social, public, and private characteristics of photography—a broad, multidisciplinary field—and explore[s] photography[s] role and significance in the tension between the public and the private.

Bruno Morais & Cristina de Middel (Brazil and Spain)

`It is worth pointing out that, by drawing on past experience and learning from the challenges we faced during the first two biennials, the curatorial team has designed the exhibition with an experimental and daring organizational method based on the theme "Confusing Public and Private", with the hope of presenting a completely different kind of show this year.’

“Daring and more experimental”? Yes, if the experiment is to prevent people from seeing the whole show? Or are they referring to more design acrobatics and window dressing? Actually, to be fair, most of the work, tucked into the adapted packing crates with their own lighting, is well displayed, except for the occasional blur of light in one’s eyes.

Eva O’Leary (USA) Installation and video detail (below)

Pieter Hugo (South Africa). Photographs from China

Better late than never, the ‘Mission & Purpose’ of this event is spelled out in one of the large wall posters. Later still will come a publication, one hopes, that will marry the contents of the split venues and rationalize the wordy justifications.

‘The Beijing Photo Biennial has received wide attention and recognition in the art industry and related fields following the success of its first two editions ("Aura and Post-Aura", 2013 & "Unfamiliar Asia", 2015 [link here]. As one of CAFA Art Museum's signature events, the project aims to examine the ways photography—with its unique form of interference and application and a constantly self-renewing medium—continues to engage in contemporary cultural narratives and the construction of new artistic orders and structures. Drawing on Western classics and cutting-edge photographic resources around the world while keeping an eye on the future, we hope to discover and support talented young photographers in China and encourage them to explore the language of photography, expand their views, and contribute to the development of photography by bringing the influence and prominence of Chinese contemporary photography to another level in the global art industry.’

‘This year's biennial is featured as part of the Special Exhibitions section of the 1st Beizhen International Photography Festival and will be held simultaneously at the Culture Industry Center of Beizhen and the CAFA Art Museum. The exhibition will showcase close to 1000 works by some 112 artists from around the world, accompanied by a series of seminars, forums, talks and public educational events. The CAFA Art Museum continues to bring advanced modes of thinking and organization from contemporary culture and the art industry into the field of photography and lens-based media in China, with the aim to enhance its cultural depth, academic scope, quality of communication, and globalized vision. By presenting photography as a universal, contemporary, practical and everyday medium of visual expression, we hope to reveal the specialized and in-depth reflections of contemporary photographers and artists on subjects such as history, social reality, art and the self, while inspiring more people to discover, explore, and reexamine this unique medium. At the same time, we also want to explore a new kind of curatorial system that puts emphasis on the social and public roles of university art museums by collaborating with the local government in order to contribute to the development of those regions that are still in state of developing culturally, as well as to expand the platforms for art and cultural exchange in a new era.’

Joan Fontcuberta (Spain)

In other words, the political expediency of presenting CAFA’s 3rd Biennial demanded that most of it would not be seen in its home town. ‘Troubled Intentions Ahead: Confusing Public and Private.’ Indeed. This looks like another case of government and private institutions just ticking the boxes for their patron bureaucrats and makes no sense in terms of drawing the kind of audience one would expect from the capital’s diverse groups of academic and non-academic punters. Art school students are not tourists so it is unlikely that any of Beijing’s art schools will transport their students to Beizhen to study what should be an important collection of photographs, let alone critique the curatorial muddle. More’s the pity, and I for one am curious to see how the work of a large number of Chinese photographers’ fare in the company of the well-known foreign practitioners picked for this show?

There is an awful lot of pretentious “art photography” in the world these days with much of it screaming “Look at me, aren’t I clever” in the way that fashion and advertising photography turns all kinds of tricks to gain attention. But more, perhaps, on that later?

Weronika Gesiscka (Poland). Full frame and detail from image

Eddo Hartmann (Netherlands). North Korea

My New Zealand visitor was not particularly impressed by what he saw and neither was I. Of the work of about 10 photographers on show the standout work for me was Richard Mosse’s large screen triple-image video literally combining negative and positive imagery, and possibly infra red, of and related to the flood of immigrants to Europe on and off the sea. It was an eerie dream-nightmare-like combination with a dramatic soundtrack. Julian, an accomplished filmmaker and producer, was less impressed. Rather than comment on individual works, my intention is to go back again and check my first impressions of this addenda to the unseen show in Beizhen city.

Here is the full 3rd Beijing Photo Biennial Artist List outed on 27 September 2018:
Aby Warburg (Germany); Aristotle Roufanis (Greece); Anni Hanen (Finland); Anna Fox (UK); Andrea Eichenberger (Brazil); Ariane Loze (Belgium); Berna Reale (Brazil); Bruno Morais & Cristina de Middel (Brazil and Spain); Broomberg & Chanarin (South Africa and UK); Barbara Probst (Germany); Beni Bischof (Switzerland); Chen Baoyang (China); Chen Haishu (China); Catrine Val (Germany); Claudia Andujar (Brazil); Candida Höfer (Germany); Catherine Balet (France); Carl Johan Erikson (Sweden); Dai Xianjing (China); Daniela Friebel (Germany); Dagmar Keller (Germany ); David Claerbout (Belgium); Dirk Braeckman (Belgium); Edgar Martins (Portugal); Eddo Hartmann (Netherlands); Emmanuel Van Der Auwera (Belgium); Eva O’Leary (USA); Erich Von Stroheim (Austria); Eleazar Ortuño (Spain); Gong Baoming (China); Guo
Guozhu (China); Gong Yingying (China); Gao Yan (China); Galit Seligmann (Israel); Gayatri Ganju (India); Gerhard Richter (Germany); Giuseppe Penone (Italy); Gisela Motta and Leandro Lima (Brazil); Hao Jingban (China); Hu Weiyi (China); Honoré d’O (Belgium); Ji Zhou (China); Jeff Wall (Canada); Joan Fontcuberta (Spain); Jewro Roppel (Kazakhstan); Jan Vercruysse (Belgium); Jo Ractliffe (South Africa); Letícia Lampert (Brazil); Laura Quiñonez (Colombia); Laura Pannack (UK); Luigi Ghirri (Italy); Latif Al Ani (Iraq); Lua Ribeira (Spain ); Léonard Pongo (Belgium); Alexvi (China); Li Lang (China); Li Longjun (China); Lv Jiatong (China); Luo Jing (China); Li Yong (China); Liu Zhang Bolong (China); Ma Haijiao (China); Marcel Broodthaers (Belgium); Marcel Duchamp (USA); Malick Sidibé (Mali); Martin Bollati (Argentina); Mário Macilau (Mozambique); Man Ray (USA); M.C. Escher (Netherlands); Mathias LØvgreen & Sebastian Kloborg (Denmark); Natasha Caruana (UK); Ke Peng (China); Patrick Faigenbaum (France); Pieter Hugo (South Africa); Rochelle Costi (Brazil); Roger Ballen (USA); Rosa Gauditano (Brazil); Richard Mosse (Ireland);
Rosângela Rennó (Brazil); Robert Frank and Laura Israel (Switzerland and USA); Song Dong (China); Shen Linghao (China); Su Jiehao (China); Shen Xuezhe (China); 宋兮 Song Xi (China); Song Ziwei (China); Sarah Mei Herman (Netherlands); Sara, Peter and Tobias (Danish); Shizuka Yokomizo (Japan); Shen Wei (USA); Taca Sui (China); Todd Hido (USA); Vanja Bucan (Slovenia); Viviane Sassen (Netherlands); Weronika Gesiscka (Poland); Wolfgang Laib (Germany); Wang Penghua (China); Wang Haiqing (China); Wang Tuo (China); Wang Yishu (China); Wang Zhengxiang (Taiwan China); Weng Fen (China); Wei Lai (China); Xu Bing (China); Xu Xiaoxiao (China); Xu Hao (China); Yang Fudong (China); Yang Yuanyuan (China); Yu Xunling (China); Zhang Jungang (China); Zhang Jin (China); Zhang Xiao (China); Zhang Yongji (China).

It appears that new tariffs on South Pacific and Southern Hemisphere practitioners in particular, along with the Russians, have once again prevented their inclusion in this international event. Maybe some other time ….? In the meantime, you can get some idea of what is on display at CAFAM from my rough installation shots interspersed throughout this report.

Richard Mosse (Ireland). Projected video

Richard Mosse (Ireland). Projected video (details)
Yu Xunling (China). Portraits of Xixi, Empress Dowager of China, c.1900

Cai Meng, CAFAM curator with copies of details from portraits of Xixi, Empress Dowager of China, c.1900 by Yu Xunling (China) purchased from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA.

John B Turner inspecting copy prints of Yu Xunling's portraits of Xixi,
Empress Dowager of China, c.1900. Courtesy of CAFAM

CAFAM’s ‘Confusing Public and Private,’ 3rd Beijing Photo Biennial exhibition is scheduled to be on until 4 November 2018. CAFA Art Museum, No.8 Huajiadi South St, Chaoyang, Beijing 100102.

The Beizhen show finishes on 28 October 2018. Their only physical address is given as Liaoning Beizhen Cultural Industry Center, Beizhen, Liaoning.

The following link will take you to CAFAM’S press releases in Chinese: When opened in MS Word just right-click “Translate” to read the items in English or another second language. Then save it as a PDF for your archive.

The 2018 Beizhen China Ist International Photography Festival, incorporating CAFAM’s 3rd Beijing Photo Biennial is over and I for one did not get to the tourist town of Beizhen to see it. Instead, I met Shi Chun, a member of the curatorial group at PhotoBeijing on 21 October. He confirmed my hunch that it was a governmental decision to take funds from CAFAM to pay for Beizhen’s first festival, and promised to send me the Beizhen/CAFAM catalogue and promply did so. (The books promised by CAFAM to Julian Ward and myself for misleading us about the opening of their minor chunk of the Biennial have never arrived, however.) As to the fate of the announced Academic Forum, the programme was spelled out in the catalogue – but it never happened because no money was allocated for it.

CAFA never bussed its students to Beizhen, I was later told, but some of the Beijing-based academic fraternity did attend the opening. It would be interesting to know what the attendance records were for the Beizhen festival, and what critical coverage it might have attracted? But I’m not holding my breath over this administrative misadventure which left CAFAM in the lurch.

This lost opportunity has not only done a disservice to the herculean efforts of its premier art school to build on the growing reputation of what promised to be a continuing event of truly international stature, but has also undermined Beijing’s claim to be recognized worldwide as China’s cultural capital.

Friday 2 November 2018

Bright Lights at Three Shadows: Shoji Ueda and Michael Cherney. Part I: Shoji Ueda

Bright Lights at Three Shadows: Shoji Ueda and Michael Cherney

John B Turner, Co-editor, PhotoForum, New Zealand, October 2018

Illustrations courtesy and copyright of Shoji Ueda Office and Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, unless otherwise noted.

Three Shadows installation view of the Shoji Ueda retrospective, October 2018

What is it about photographic prints by Eugene Atget or Adolphe Braun or Harry Callahan or Paul Caponigro or Olivia Parker or Paul Strand or Josef Sudek or Taca Sui or Wei Bi that have the power to draw one in like a Shakespearian play or a Leonard Cohen song? They are not merely images but also objects – objects of abstract sensual beauty and intellectual intrigue. They reward intimate scrutiny of their unique specificity, their itness, but resist attempts to fully comprehend what makes them so attractive? It is this sensual, experiential and intellectual something begging to be known that excites me about seeing the work of Shoji Ueda and Michael Cherney at the same time in one place.

I don’t know what the outcome will be, but trying to put my observations into words will help me better understand what it is that sets their work above the crowd in this inspirational juxtaposition of two exceptional artists with nothing and everything to do with one another.

It is a double marriage of form and content, of real life and art, and along with Zhu Jiong’s superb Paul Caponigro retrospective at the National Fine Arts Museum in Beijing, and Three Shadows’ playful Foam exhibition of contemporary Dutch formalist photography, the Ueda and Cherney exhibitions are among the most rewarding exhibitions I have seen in China.

 A note to art teachers:
These exhibitions demand and amply reward close scrutiny, so my inclination as a teacher is to urge every serious photography teacher, at any level, to book a trip for your students if you possibly can. Treat the gallery as a classroom. And encourage your students to see and discuss issues raised by these works about the nature of photography as art. My advice is to pack a lunch and take a pillow to sit on. Or ask Three Shadows to provide some seating. Encourage your students to share what they see, instead of lecturing them on what others have concluded from the works. Three Shadows can be a perfect classroom thanks to the architectural genius of Ai Weiwei, even if you have to sit on the floor. But the trick is not to look up at the work but to look directly at it. To give yourself time to figure out your feelings and thoughts about the images immediately in front of you. They are photographs of and about something – and beautiful objects as well. You might like to take a magnifying glass and torch to scrutinize the objects of your detective work. It is good fun to learn to see things we can’t see with the naked eye.

Ask the basic critical questions in the following sequence to get the most out of each picture. (Simply liking or not liking what you see is not a critical act in itself):

1.       Description: what is depicted in the picture? – every detail is relevant because the photographer has already cut out the irrelevant parts.

2.        Formal analysis: what are the underlying shapes, tones, colours, and textural details that form the picture and delight, repel or confuse your personal sense of visual balance or harmony.

3.       Interpretation: what meaning or meanings do you get from the combination of content and form, emotionally and intellectually? Is it light or dark, serious or funny? How has size, scale, texture and colour of the printing paper affected its look and character? It’s individual itness?

4.       Evaluation: On a scale of 0 at the bottom and 10 at the top, if you were the teacher, how would you rate the picture in terms of pictorial, social, historical and personal value? Would you like to own it and look at it some more? Or hate it? Or stop wasting your time and move on to something more interesting?

The good news is that unlike science or mathematics based on proven logic and experimentation, there can be no single answer when it comes to the analysis of artworks. Quite literally, one person’s failed picture can be interpreted as an exciting breakthrough, because different artists seek different answers to different questions. Each to their own.

Learning from personal investigation and experience is far more useful than remembering what others have said about an artwork, whatever the medium and product. The study of an actual photographic print, whether analogue or digital, involves confronting the final and most complete statement a photographer can make at any given time in their career, without the tactile distortions and totally out of scale digital impressions imposed by other media. (The inclusion of a dismal video representation of specific Ueda prints in the same room as the real thing at Three Shadows underlines this point, and just as inevitably, the large-screen projections of Cherney’s work seen at his artist’s talk at Three Shadows on 13 October were like dead ghosts compared to his living and deeply breathing prints in the same room.

I will start with the work of Ueda (Part I) before investigating the more complex nature of Cherney’s exploration which is going deep into the historical roots of Chinese (and Japanese) art. (Part II to follow.)

Part I: The Shoji Ueda Retrospective Exhibition
John B Turner, Co-editor, PhotoForum, New Zealand, October 2018. Illustrations courtesy and copyright of the Shoji Ueda Office and Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, unless otherwise noted.

Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Beijing, September 23rd to November 25th, 2018.
Curated by Masako Sato. Exhibition design by Osamu Ouchi. Sponsored by The Japan Foundation with support from the Embassy of Japan in China and ANA (All Nippon Airways).

Awake or asleep, I always found myself thinking about photography. – Shoji Ueda

Shoji Ueda: Our mother, 1950 

Shoji Ueda: ‘Scenery of the Dune with My Wife’, 1950

Shoji Ueda: Portrait on the dune, 1950

This exhibition of nearly 140 works represents Three Shadows at its timely and relevant best by showcasing a distinctive body of accomplished work by somebody who deserves to be much better known. Somebody who takes us back in time and reminds us, as did John Szarkowski in his 1966 classic The Photographer’s Eye, that we photographers owe our understanding of the medium from every photograph we have ever seen, irrespective of the direction we may take for our own work. 

Ueda was somebody who loved photography because it provided him with an emotional and intellectual outlet to enjoy and share aspects of his personal life in a space and way of his own choosing away from the demands and tragic whims of social and nationalistic political correctness. He couldn’t escape art politics altogether, and it was no coincidence that Ueda’s photographer contemporaries were happy to see him shunted out of the limelight for not being modern enough to be included on the expanding international art circuit in the 1970s when the Museum of Modern Art in New York produced the ‘New Japanese Photography’ show that spearheaded interest in Japanese photography in the West.

Shoji Ueda, 1949: from series ‘The Calendars of children, 1960 

Shoji Ueda: from ‘Little biography’, 1974-1985

Shoji Ueda: Not going anywhere, 1983

RongRong and Inri, the founders of Three Shadows, of course, are dedicated to doing that same necessary work for photography in China against many odds, widespread ignorance and a curious blindness to the immense cultural, social and historical value of photography as a means of communication and expression. China certainly knows how effective photography has been to propagandise its intentions and achievements, but it hasn’t woken fully to appreciate that deeply personal and honest depictions reflecting real lives and real concerns are a positive force for advancing the nation, no matter how esoteric they may appear. It remains to be seen if the digital generation, starting with their selfies, will be inspired to dig deeper and educate themselves about the work of those who use photography critically to link a personal philosophy with insight and appropriate technical skills.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), the great US humanitarian photographer, pinned the following quote by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) on her darkroom door to remind her that ‘The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.’

Shoji Ueda: 'Four girls Posing', 1939

Shoji Ueda: Dad, Mom and their children, 1949
Shoji Ueda would have known Lange’s work because he was an avid reader of international photography magazines and art books. Looking at his work it is had to escape imagining how he might have been instructed from the published images of the likes of Edward Weston (rim light) as well as Rene Magritte and the Surrealist films of his era (props and symbols), etc. But by contrast with Lange, pictorial invention was very much a part of his repertoire and delight and helped his career in advertising and commercial photography. Actually, as he likely observed, Lange herself subtly applied a harvest of pictorial invention to her remarkably eloquent documentary photographs. Both of them knew how to use bright sunlight and strong shadows to maximum effect. The lesson from both photographers is that being true to oneself is the path to creating a distinctive signature that sets one apart from one’s peers.

Shoji Ueda: A Cat and Me c1949 at Three Shadows. (Photograph by John B Turner: JBT©20181013-179)

 Shoji Ueda was born in 1913, the only child of a manufacturer of traditional geta footwear, which indicates he had a comfortable middle-class upbringing. He grew up in Tottori, on the west coast of Japan facing the Korean Peninsula. Tottori is famous for its extensive 100,000 years old sand dunes and Ueda, who remained in his hometown Sanin all his life, wisely utilized them as an outdoor studio for both his personal and commercial photography.

Above: crude installation copies of three family album-like photographs by Shoji Ueda from the 1960s

As the Three Shadows introduction puts it, and his subject matter attests, Shoji was much influenced by the Western avant-garde during his adolescence. His exposure to such work came not from first-hand experience but from books and magazines, which were the common denominator for international exposure for his generation, just as electronic representations are a major source for today’s budding artists. He formed his own group rather than align himself with any of the influential avant-garde groups of his time, which to a point seems to have made him more of an outsider and in turn might have dimmed his achievement. But most of all, ‘he maintained the passionate, uninhibited spirit of an amateur’ while simultaneously running a photography centre in his hometown. ‘His intricate compositions – prime examples of staged photography – featured his family and his close friends in his neighbourhood sand dunes arranged as if chess pieces….’ In some ways his work reminds one of a big family album, not unlike the oeuvre of France’s delightfully precocious Jacques-Henri Lartigue.

Shoji Ueda: Title? C.1949. This, judging by the paper stock and surface texture, might be the earliest and perhaps only vintage print in this retrospective. (JBT©20181012-118) 

Because publications rather than exhibitions were the main outlet for his work most of his photographs are small by today’s standards when digital printing has made it easy to make gigantic prints that pay no heed to optimum clarity and realistic scale. That is the main reason, along with the then relatively high cost of rationed photographic supplies in the post-war period, that the great majority of his prints are around 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm), big enough for the printed page in an age of “less is more”. The international exposure given by eagerly awaited publications is also a prime reason for there being so many similarities, albeit with distinctive differences, between some of Ueda’s images and those of the likes of Angus McBean, Edward Weston, Man Ray, Harry Callahan, Phillipe Halsman, Ralph Hattersley and perhaps even Ralph Eugene Meatyard, among those with a surrealist bent. Henri Cartier-Bresson, incidentally, thought of himself as a surrealist. Today the US-born South African photographer, Roger Ballen, is a prime example of a late surrealist, as are the hordes of digital neo-surrealist dreamers vying for attention today.

Edward Weston:'Civilian Defense, 1942

Daidoh Moriyama Crippled beggar, Tokyo 1965. MoMA, New York collection

Ken Domon Children c 1955 MOMA New York collection

Shoji Ueda’s comment that “Awake or asleep, I always found myself thinking about photography”, reminds one of psychologist Sigmund Freud’s influence, evoking an image of somebody trying to get to grips with a puzzling reality from a doctor’s couch instead of a sand dune. While Ueda’s sand dune images are featured here, I find myself particularly attracted to his delicate portraits and spontaneous images such as that of the boy pushing a calf.

As can be seen from the Three Shadows installation view below and at the head of this review, the exhibition designer Osamu Ouchi played with the surrealist theme by adding and juxtaposing ugly enlarged copies of Ueda’s images leading into the beautiful rows of distinctive and sometimes exquisite small original prints that exert their own quiet power to make us enjoy and think. The Ueda murals and the floor mats (designed to lead photo illiterates to the small originals) were attractive decorations and worked well - to a point. But like the dismal grey videos on display, they were more likely to distract visitors from discovering for themselves the special delights of the main meal. Furthermore, nobody had bothered to remove the ugly dust spots that the majority of self-respecting modernist photographers would have retouched to prevent that visual static from shattering the seamless illusion of three dimensions they had painstakingly crafted.[i]

This lapse in curatorial control with Ueda’s retrospective came as a bit of a shock because it was so obviously contrary to the understated delights of the photographer’s intention. On closer inspection, while trying to figure out exactly what kind of printing paper the photographer had used, I could see that some prints looked like unspotted “seconds”, prints that had not been finished for presentation for either an exhibition or publication. Was their inclusion a curatorial lapse? Or had the dyes or possibly pigment used to “spot” out the visual static faded over time? As they are, the dust-marked images are out of tune with the delicacy of the majority of the works on display. If so, in keeping with the artist’s sensibility, the simple remedy would be to restore them for re-presentation.[ii]

I could detect only three kinds of papers used by Ueda: two, the majority of them had a fairly high-gloss texture with one slightly more fibrous than the other. A possibly third and lightly textured paper was used for his lovely image of a woman and two children (his family?) standing in the snow (see illustration above). It is not mentioned when his actual prints were made but the fact that they are virtually all on what looks like a glazed gelatin silver print surface of the kind that was commonly used for reproduction in publications rather than exhibition because of its surface sheen. There are always exceptions, of course, such as Brassai who glazed his large exhibition prints, but this does raise the question not just about when Ueda’s prints were made and what they were made for? My sense is that these prints of his images made from the first three decades (the 1930s to at least the 1950s) were made around the 1960s or perhaps later? And as I write I am waiting to hear from the curator, Masako Sato, for her confirmation.

My facebook letter to curator Makato Sato:
‘Dear Ms Sato, I am reviewing the wonderful Shoji Ueda retrospective at Three Shadows and would like to know when the actual prints exhibited were made. I could detect two different print surfaces and possibly a third one which indicates they are gelatin silver prints, but I'm not certain if any were made about say 1947 (the dates given). And being essentially glossy (probably glazed) they have the appearance of prints made for reproduction rather than specifically for exhibition. I suspect that some were made later, rather than earlier, possibly in the 1970s or even later. My other question relates to the fact that some of the exhibited prints are not spotted, which suggests either that they were never exhibited or used for publication; or that if spotted, which surely a man of his refined sensibility would do, perhaps the spotting faded (if he used dyes instead of the pigment cakes that were not suitable for glossy prints)? Your help would be very much appreciated. Kind Regards, John B Turner.  [No answer has been received as of 1 November 2018]

No matter what, this is a major exhibition by a significant practitioner who had the foresight and finances to bequeath his own museum to preserve and promote his delightfully impressive legacy.

John B Turner, Beijing 1 November 2018.  (

John B Turner: Installation view of the Shoji Ueda retrospective at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Beijing, October 2018

Display of Shoji Ueda’s published work at Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. (JBT©20181012-108) 

Sand Dunes, a beautiful collotype portfolio of six Shoji Ueda’s works is available for sale at Three
Shadows Photography Art Centre in a Regular Set limited to 20 copies for RMB 47,000
(approximately $NZ 10,450, $US 7,200.)
Note: The following video has just been uploaded to Youtube: ‘He Took Pictures of Naked Women, His Wife and Sons and Celebrities in Countryside for All His Life’:

Contact details: 
Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Caochangdi 155A, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100015, P.R. China. Email:  Phone: 86-10-64322663. 
Open every day except Mondays

[i] Fortunately, this designer, unlike one at the Pingyao International Photography Festival of a few years back, did not resort to flooding the gallery with sand and driftwood to prove beyond doubt what sand and weather-worn dead trees actually look and feel like. But he neglected to add the naked bodies in the sandy landscape or ask the audience to take off their shoes to feel the sand.

[ii] This lack of respect towards the practice and intention of the photographer was very much in evidence in Three Shadows important historical survey, ’40 years of Chinese contemporary photography’ of 2017, in which it was clear that many of the actual prints exhibited had never been finished either for exhibition or publication but were the only examples available. It’s a tricky issue, but displayed and published without at least spotting out the obvious dust marks, the prints on display did nothing to justify their inclusion among provably accomplished peers, let alone enhance their maker’s reputation and that of Chinese photography on a world stage. Whatever is done or not done the important thing is that it is transparent so there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the state and context of work presented. That was not done and consequently undermined both the integrity and historical value of the enterprise.