Chinese Photography

The use of photography as an art form and as photojournalism in China has an interesting history and its future potential is bright. Photography as an art was slow to develop early on due to its isolation from the west and photographic technology. Political change from the 1930s to 1980s meant photography was used as a political and social aid for the government. The images from China heavily portrayed the cultural ideas of the political movements. Today work from `Chinese photographers mirror the expansion of China’s international relations, so new styles and applications of photography are helping shape China’s image.

When the first images of China started appearing in the 19th Century they were a window into what had been a mysterious, closely guarded nation to the rest of the world. Photographs of China were highly interesting to the western world and the photographer explorers that journeyed to China were held in high regard in the art world. The majority of photographers capturing images of China were foreigners. From 1846 to 1912 in Imperial China there were 84 recorded photographers, only 24 of them were Chinese and only 2 of them weren’t from Hong Kong. Chinese photographers weren’t held in the same status as foreign photographers regardless of how good the images were.

Felix Beato, a British photographer, was the first to record the vast variety of China’s culture in each region. He was often the only westerner that the locals had seen and the camera was not common in China either at this time. The reaction to his presence was not always as welcoming as he’d hoped. He photographed in a very journalistic style, recording day to day life in rural areas as well as busy city life.

In the 1930s a Dutch photographer Ellen Thorbacke also documented China but in a way that hadn’t been done before. She took portraits of the Chinese people, often with experimental techniques, and made “micro-stories” written as a short biography of each subject composing a macro view of Chinese society.

Up until 1937 photography of China was most taken by westerners but after the rise of the communist government photography was used as political and cultural motivation. 5 themes were retained as “model dramas” and were used to depict China. They showed the spirit and industrial glories of the new nation.

Photography as an art form was limited but many photographers preserved their work as a record of history. Photographer Li Zhenshen compiled his works in a book named Red-color news soldier: A Chinese odyssey through the Cultural Revolution. He was a pupil of Wu Yinxian who photographed Mao in the 30s in Yanan. He taught Li to be a witness to history. The preface on Red-colour news soldier was “Let history inform the future.”

At the end of the cultural revolution in 1976 photography opened up as an art form. It was a new art form and techniques and development of style had to be learned. The China Photographic Publishing House introduced the China Modern Photo Salon by the book entitled Contemporary Chinese Photographs. The organization decleared;

“As we are young and inexperienced, there is still much we must learn. But it is our intention to keep in tune with the march of our time and we are filled with confidence. … We are aware, however, that this is only the beginning.”

We see the one side of China in photographs, the historic monuments, the culture and people. The tourist view. Some photographers decided to be social critics and photograph the side of China that isn’t normally in the worlds view. They record modern China’s history and development. As an art form, contemporary photography is not was widely collected as traditional art forms.

China’s photographers are become more successful in the world market as the country continues to develop and form strong international relations. Due to the late start in photography it will be a while until they are thought of in the same light as other established photographers by critics. Often the style of calligraphy featured on a photograph is not widely liked. However it is part of artists tradition to include a story or poem to make for a more complete piece. At the moment China is developing a national identity. The photojournalists are gaining international interest for their documentation of new China. In the next 20 years as the country develops the creative industries international connections will bring Chinese artists and journalist to the fore front and help portray the China of the future.


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