How my attempt to do something different for the 2018 Pingyao photography festival ended in tatters
How my attempt to do something different for the 2018 Pingyao photography festival ended in tatters.
John B. Turner
12 September 2018
I thought my proposal to exhibit photographs of India by a New Zealand photographer and a Chinese photographer side by side was simple and straightforward. It would showcase two outstanding photographers of similar age and experience and allow direct comparison of the work of image makers from two different countries experiencing life in a common second culture. While it has been normal to see foreign and local Chinese work presented side by side as standalone displays, it has been rare to see them included in a single display.
Knowing how difficult it is to slow down and really look at a body of work in the chaotic, packed environment of a photography festival, and seeing how many nonphotographers and potentially serious practitioners attend the Pingyao International Photography Festival, I thought it would be useful to design 'A beginner's guide to reading photographs' to help the general audience understand something about the fundamental process of analysing pictures. To realize that there is more than merely expressing personal likes and dislikes (superficial evaluation) when it comes to being able to critically analyze and appreciate a photograph. The process, which I taught for many years, involves learning to consider four basic aspects under the general headings of description, formal analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. It is easily learned and quickly becomes a useful habit for reading and enjoying pictures.
Alas, due to the outcome of my proposal, that extra, intended as large wall labels referring to specific details which reveal the different ideas and approaches of my paired photographers had to be abandoned for another time and place, as I will explain.
Pingyao has been my favourite Chinese photo festival due to its diverse and all-encompassing offerings which range from recent student’s work from local and international art schools to top Chinese and foreign practitioners. This year, the US photographer, Neal Slavin has top billing for his group photographs. Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka were among those featured in the past. To ensure it lives up to its international aspirations, PIP, under its artistic director Zhang Guotian, and its overseas exhibitions manager Amy Liu, put a lot of effort into including practitioners from a wide spread; 19 countries will be represented in 2018 during the festival which is held from 19 to 25 September each year. With hundreds of Chinese photographers exhibiting, PIP is one of the best places to go to get a fair idea of what's going on in Chinese photography across the board. (See 'The Pingyao Experience: Enjoy the Chaos' here)
My exhibition proposal of 16 May 2018 was pitched as follows:
‘Destination India: The photographs of Cai Huansong (China) and Julian Ward (New Zealand). Curated by John B Turner (NZ/China) 'India, I wrote, 'has long been held as a desirable destination for photographers for its unique and fascinating history and culture: it’s difference from the West and much of Asia. Numerous famous foreign photographers, including Margaret Bourke-White, Brian Brake [a New Zealander], Henri Cartier-Bresson, Steve McCurry and Marc Riboud early became known for their work which introduced India to a world-wide audience in the 20th Century. Today, with the opening up of China, an increasing number of Chinese photographers are choosing India, their giant neighbor, as their first foreign destination. This exhibition of recent black and white photographs by the Chinese photographer Cai Huansong (b.1953) and the New Zealander Julian Ward (b. 1948), provides an opportunity to compare and contrast their approaches to the India they discovered for themselves as independent photographers of note from very different backgrounds.’ [My emphasis.]
Julian Ward is a prolific New Zealand photographer known for his often quirky people pictures and his exquisite landscapes made off the beaten tracks. Since 2010, from the small, sparsely populated islands of New Zealand, with less than 5 million people, he has extended his reach to wander the vast and ancient subcontinent of India with over 1.3 billion people.
Consequently, when I discovered Cai Huansong’s photographs of India at the 2016 Guizhou photo festival at Zunyi, I was immediately struck by the density of information he was capturing in his pictures and how different they were from Ward’s. I was also intrigued by the seemingly random little splashes of colour he introduced to his otherwise monochrome prints. I wanted to know how and why he did that; and whether he was working from full-colour digital files and retaining a little colour, or shooting in black and white and painting in the colour parts?
That’s when I got the idea of showing their work together to create a dialogue. Working on the exhibition, I knew, would allow me to figure out answers for myself. In the meantime, Cai’s subtle and quirky colourizing seems rather Chinese, to me. It’s not the sort of thing that Western documentary photographers following in the footsteps of Walker Evans or Berenice Abbott would do. And to be honest, I’m not sure that it works. Neither Cai nor I speak the other's language, but when asked he simply told me via WeChat's translation app that he introduced the colour because India is a "very colourful" place. Which begs new questions about his intentions. Nevertheless, what I did see is that he is an astute visual historian who packs a lot of cultural background and context into his pictures. Many of Cai's images have a rich formal elegance, but for him, the constant challenge to make pictures as pictures, which motivates Ward, appears to have a lesser role compared with his emphasis on documentary evidence.
Cai's main purpose seems mainstream Chinese to me; it comes out of the serious endeavor of the Chinese Communist’s propaganda and documentary traditions, to "serve the people". Ward, on the other hand, delights and excels as a free agent who very much follows his own muse. Cai’s images may seldom be as graphic, quirky, or surreal as Ward’s but they do reveal a personal point of view which is not without its own gentle touches of humour.
One of the things I wonder about is to what degree living in China's densely populated cities, in contrast to New Zealand's lightly populated islands, may have impacted on these photographer’s choice of subject matter and approach? To find a crowd to disappear into in New Zealand, it used to be necessary to seek one out at a racecourse, rugby match or political protest. The opposite seems true for photographers in China’s cities, where photographers appear more enthusiastic about seeking signs of individualism away from the unavoidable crushes of peak hour traffic and popular meeting places. Cai Huansong seems comfortable in India's big crowds, and it is evident that he has been welcomed into people's private spaces, however, while Julian Ward tends to avoid the big crowds.
Ward is up front with individuals, whether they react to his camera or not, and tends to show small groups, whereas Cai invariably includes the setting of individuals and groups to ensure that the context of their being is recorded. His people are woven into a cultural and historical tapestry.
Both photographers, born five years apart, and now gainfully retired are at the top of their game. But due to their different locations and opportunites, they are not yet equal. Julian Ward has become a master printer of his own work; he exhibits with two reputable Wellington dealer galleries, and his work has begun to sell over the past decade. Previously he self-published books to make his work available and now has a constantly growing website: www.julianward.co.nz.
Cai Huansong, on the other hand, lives in Guandong and has no dealer gallery nor website to promote his work. He has exhibited quite widely and won prestigious awards for his work. However, like the majority of China’s thousands of highly competent photographers, he is yet to fully adopt the professional standards of archival printing and presentation expected by serious collectors.
My desire to demonstrate this difference in print quality and presentation was thwarted by circumstances. Cai did not have a set of exhibition prints for me to draw on, and Ward was reluctant to ship his exhibition prints from New Zealand. Furthermore, PIP had not yet approved nor allocated space for our proposed exhibition. That’s when it became clear that PIP was undergoing major changes and the likelihood of my proposal being accepted plummeted.
First, I was asked to cut back on the number of images (30 each) that I had proposed, based on the photographers' choice of images and sequencing. (It was their India that I wanted to see, not the imagined version of somebody like me who has never been there.)
Second, I was told that the subjects of religion, sex and violence had been declared unacceptable by government censors. It’s easy to understand why certain images about sex and violence might be banned – because the festival organizers are wooing the general public. These kinds of vague blanket bans, however, come with a cost because they induce uneven and arguably ridiculous self-censorship based on a lack of specifics or a degree of transparency that would admit legitimate argument with the authorities.
As I have commented before, Chinese local and national government officials representing the sponsors of such festivals seldom demonstrate trust in their own art or educational experts to balance the different needs and expectations of a diverse audience of professionals, students, amateurs and the curious public.
Will sexist soft-porn advertising images, such as those emulated by students in the commercial training schools, be accepted as harmless in contrast with the work of somebody with the courage to deal honestly and realistically with their own gender concerns? And thus encourage others to understand and better deal with their personal and broader social issues? Might not the depiction of certain forms of violence, which also come in many different shades, also have educational value? How can blanket bans help us sort the wheat from the chaff?
As to religion, how can one possibly depict India without any reference to the impact of multiple religions on Indian life? (Until recently, Pingyao had a devoted Buddhist photography section all of its own and always included some remarkably innovative work.)
Official censors can and will remove whatever their leaders dictate; that's their job. I, for one, would like them to show more respect to the photographers, curators and festival committees by publicly justifying their actions. With no obvious violent or untoward sexual content to consider, and being unable and unwilling to second-guess invisible censors, or discern disturbing traces of India's religions, I took to removing six of each photographer’s images on the main basis that they either repeated an idea or had not sustained my interest, and resubmitted my proposal for the two-man show.
It was not long, to my chagrin, that I found out just how difficult it had become for PIP’s foreign exhibition program to include a Chinese national because foreign and local Chinese exhibitions are separately conceived and funded. To attract esteemed foreign participants, who in turn attract tourists to Pingyao, the Shanxi government fully hosts its foreign guests. This includes providing travel and accommodation along with complimentary digital printing and/or framing of their exhibitions, not to mention the ever-helpful volunteer translators. Featured Chinese participants, I expect, get similar star treatment. Most of China's own photographers, however, are expected not only to get their own prints made but also to rent their exhibition space. Unfortunately for them, PIP's upmarket progress has caused what used to be a relatively modest rental to skyrocketed to RMB 500 (NZ$111) a metre for inside spaces and about RMB 300 (NZ$66) a metre for outdoor displays. Although many of China's prominent photographers seem relatively well-off, it is likely that these price increases will put PIP out of reach for many. It will be interesting to see what effect the cost increases at Pingyao will have on the quality of their exhibitions in the future?
My proposal for including Cai Huansong could not be accepted, I was told, because it would open the floodgates for more locals, as they have in the past, to lobby curators to be included in shows financed by the foreign exhibitions section. (In China, the custom is for photographers to pay curators to include their work in exhibitions, which helps to explain why top-rated curators occasionally promote surprisingly mediocre work.)
Even though the main purpose of my proposal was in tatters I was prompted toward seeking sponsorship for a show of Cai's work, and even considered the possibility of making a large-sized album of his prints to display alongside Julian's work. Things were getting too expensive and too complicated for Cai, however, so he reluctantly bowed out.
Julian Ward’s travel and accommodation had already been booked by PIP, so despite my disappointment and having to rewrite the introduction, I opted for a modest solo show from New Zealand. This will be Julian's, second visit to China since 2002 when he was making a promotional film for Wellington's Victoria University. When he and I had a joint exhibition of street photography at Pingyao in 2012 he was unable to attend because he was in India at that time. Now I can look forward to seeing his new photographs of China.
In the meantime, I am seeking venues in China, India, New Zealand and elsewhere who would be interested in working with us on a two-person show of Cai and Ward's photographs of India. Please contact me at email@example.com to discuss possibilities.
About the photographers:
Cai Huansong (Choi Woon-Chung) was born in Shantou City, Guangdong Province, China, in 1953. His early interest in photography began in 1971 and he attributes Lin Sun Xing, former deputy editor of Guangdong Pictorial, as the greatest influence on his photography which began in earnest in the early 1980s. A winner of the China Photography Award, he is now well-known as a photographer and critic. He is a member of the Research Committee of Photography History of the Chinese Photographer’s Association, a part-time professor at Northeast Petroleum University and a former art director of Chinese Photographer magazine. His work has been published in numerous magazines and featured in photography videos. He has been widely exhibited in China, including the 10th China Photography Festival; first Shenzhen International Photography Festival; Wang Meng Art Museum in Sichuan; Chinese Academy of Arts, Beijing; Lishui Photography Festival and 2017 Dali International Film Exhibition; and in Japan and at the Atlanta Photography Festival in USA in 2010, and at 2011 New York International Photography Festival. He first visited India as an independent photographer in 2012 and made 11 more trips up to 2016.
Julian Ward was born in England in 1948 and emigrated to New Zealand as a child. Trained as an engineering draftsman, he became a maker of educational films for the NZ government, and since the mid-1970s has ursued photography as his preferred art. He has published four books: Face Value (1993); Just A Word…. (1996); Wellingtonia (2006); and Wellington Streets (2014). He has been included in numerous group exhibitions, including a two-person show with John B Turner at the 2012 Pingyao International Photography Festival and has had more than five solo exhibitions in NZ since 1979. He first went to India in 2010 and revisited several times, most recently in 2018. His publishing and exhibition history can be seen at www.julianward.co.nz
About the Curator:
John B Turner, born 1943, New Zealand. Compositor, Government Printing Office, Wellington 1960-65. Worked as a news photographer, mural printer, and later as the photographer at the Dominion Museum during 1965-1970 in Wellington. Lecturer in Photography, Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, 1971-2011. Curated landmark exhibitions 'Nineteenth Century New Zealand Photographs’ (1970); 'Baigent, Collins, Fields: three New Zealand photographers’ (1973). Founding editor PhotoForum magazine 1974, co-editor at present. Studied history of photography with Van Deren Coke and Bill Jay, Arizona State University, Tempe, U.S.A. 1991. Co-author with William Main, New Zealand Photography from the 1840s to the Present (1993). Edited Ink and Silver (1995) and Eric Lee Johnson: Artist with a Camera (1999). Member Global Nominations Panel Prix Pictet Prize, London, 2009 to present. Curated `To Save a Forest.... Photographs by leading New Zealand conservationists: Martin Hill, Ian Macdonald and Craig Potton' for the 2014 Pingyao International Photography Festival. Book of his own work, Te Atatu Me: photographs of an urban New Zealand village, published 2015. Curated 'Tom Hutchins Seen in China. 1956' for PIP Pingyao in 2016 and published a book of the same name. Cocurator with Dr Phoebe H Li of the exhibition and book 'Recollections of a distant shore: a photographic introduction to the Chinese in New Zealand' for the Overseas Chinese History Museum, Beijing, 2016. www.jbt.photoshelter.com