Edited by Lui Heung Shing. Contributions by James Kynge and Karen Smith. Various photographers.
Taschen, Los Angeles, 2008. Hardbound with dustjacket. 424 pp., black and white / four-color illustrations throughout. 8¾x13½".
China, Portrait of a Country Edited by Lui Heung Shing. Contributions by James Kynge and Karen Smith. Various photographers. published by Taschen, 2008
Editor Liu Heung Shing began gathering images for this forty-year survey of Chinese photography in 1997. He searched China for photographers once employed by the Maoist government either as official photographers or with the state-run media, elderly men and women who still had negatives in shoeboxes under their beds and prints they had shown no one for decades. Liu says that many remained hesitant to show certain images, and that regrettably several of the photographers died before his book was published. What he has assembled through the work of 88 photographers is a remarkable record of Chinese history beginning with the formation of the People's Republic in 1949 and continuing to the present day.
The economic and agricultural reforms of the Great Leap Forward resulted in thirty million deaths from starvation in China. The Cultural Revolution gutted the cities of intellectuals and professionals who were relocated to the countryside for re-education. The photography commissioned by the Maoist regime during this time was of course propaganda, and much of the fascination of this book lies in the shifting perspectives viewers will have of such images. Liu argues that the images by the best photographers, although commissioned for propagandistic purposes, still provide a surprisingly "frank and factual report of the passion and conviction that transformed the nation." Thumbnail color images depicting the covers of China Pictorial, the official magazine of the period, put such images in their original context. When they are presented singly, images of workers performing their daily "loyalty dance," scenes of preadolescents practicing military maneuvers with wooden staves, or the ritual humiliation of priests and landlords, have left far behind whatever patriotic emotions they were once intended to stir. We can only guess at the complex emotions such photographs produced among a population undergoing drought, economic collapse, and almost total isolation from the outside world, but they remain scarifying lessons in the effective construction of such images.
Deng Xiaoping, who has just been reinstated as Vice Premier, sits to the left of Mao, in Mao's study in Zhongnanhai. To the right of Mao is his chief body guard, Huang Dongxing, and behind the group stands Mao's personal staff.
Several photographers emerge as the most striking image makers. Hou Bo was Mao's official photographer until 1961, and her images provide a fascinating document of how the leader wanted to be perceived. Xiao Zhuang's career involved both time as a military photographer and as an official photojournalist who was banished in the 1970's and rehabilitated a decade later. She continued to work into the 1990's and so provides one of the most in depth records of the time. Li Zhensheng worked as a regional photojournalist supportive of Maoist policies in the 1970's, but his growing disenchantment with the regime led to his stockpiling private, unprintable images which have already been the subject of another book, Red-Color News Soldier (Phaidon, 2003).
Although photographers have remained subject to censorship, the chapters dealing with the 1990's show the beginnings of socially engaged photojournalism as well as the beginnings of the contemporary art scene that has made such an impact on the world art market. It is in the final chapters that we begin to see the China we at least think we know today.
In the Taschen tradition, this is a doorstopper of a book. The short introductions to each chapter are greatly supplemented by detailed captions that offer historical context for the hundreds of images. Appendixes provide a map, a time line for the period, and brief biographical sketches of the photographers.
—Charles Dee Mitchell