Biting the bullet: a fast ride in photo history with Tom Ang in China

Biting the bullet: a fast ride in photo history with Tom Ang in China

Essay by John B Turner, Beijing, 3 November 2018

John B Turner:  Tom Ang & Samantha DeGennaro, Jinan West Railway Station, on the way to the Seventh Jinan International Photography Biennale, Shandong Province, China , 2018 (JBT©20181027-339)

John B Turner: Tom Ang & Samantha DeGennaro, Jinan West Railway Station, on the way to the Seventh Jinan International Photography Biennale, Shandong Province, China, 2018 (JBT©20181027-339)

As a guest of the organisers of the Seventh Jinan International Photography Biennial in China’s Shandong Province a week ago I was booked on the bullet train from Beijing to Jinan with a visiting group of Italian photographers and curators whom my wife and I helped to shepherd through the vast Beijing South Railway Station with their suitcases and baggage to our carriage. As it turned out, there were seven Italians with a New Zealander among them, plus two men from Bangladesh. I was sandwiched between an Asian man with a soft hat who had his camera out and was shooting from his window seat before the train left the platform. A tall Italian man, who needed the hallway leg room more than I, sat on my right.

There was something familiar about the window man who spoke fluent English and wasn’t Italian after all. When I asked him his name and where was he from he said “Tom Ang, from Auckland.” Well, blow me down: it was the prolific photographer and author of dozens of technical and “how to….” books whom I had all too briefly got to meet in Devonport a decade ago. He had greeted me with a “Gidday mate” to identify himself at the station but I hadn’t heard him in the melee of introductions and dishing out advice to the group. Tom had been roped in at the last moment to take the place of an Italian FIAP (International Federation of Photographic Art) leader who could attend only one of two competing invitations from distant provinces.

Cover photograph: Richard Avedon ‘Carmen (homage to Munkácsi), coat by Cardin, Place Francois-Premier, Paris, August 1957. ©Richard Avedon Foundation.

Cover photograph: Richard Avedon ‘Carmen (homage to Munkácsi), coat by Cardin, Place Francois-Premier, Paris, August 1957. ©Richard Avedon Foundation.

Travelling at up to 300 kph on the smooth riding bullet train, Tom and I swapped notes and critical opinions at a faster than normal pace for one and a half hours. I seldom have an opportunity for serious discussion with distinguished visitors to China because I am an outsider and they are whisked away by their hosts for a delicious meal as one of the responsibilities of art political networking. Tom Ang, I learned, had been commissioned and published by Dorling Kindersley, of London, to write his version of the history of photography, which was published in 2014, and which I had yet to see. So there was more than usual quizzing curiosity from me to interrupt his photography on the train to Jinan.

I wanted to know if any New Zealand photographers, or Australians, had been included in his history, and if not, why not? What we do in the South Pacific and southern hemisphere, in fact, is seldom acknowledged by our European and US-centric brethren (my efforts in 1980 to get Beaumont Newhall to at least include an 1850s Antoine Fauchery image of an Australian Aboriginal corroboree in his revised history failed to move him, and basically, significant practitioners from our neck of the woods continue to be ignored).

There is no language barrier getting in the way for us, so it is easy to understand why the thousands of outstanding photographers in China have also been ignored and why they are anxious to gain some recognition among the pantheon of famous foreigners promoted in the West.

Tom Ang delayed his answer about who was included until he could show me his book in our Jinan hotel that night. So, I pummelled him with questions about who in New Zealand he considered to be world-standard photographers – or not – and why? He had obviously acquired a vast and intimate knowledge of hundreds of significant practitioners from all over the world since we had last met. Unlike too many lazy editors, who just select from published sources, I discovered that Tom had well and truly done his homework by searching for alternative images from the usual suspects, along with work by lesser known practitioners from a wider range of specialisations including sports, natural history and science to make his comparisons and final choices. He had, for example, gone out of his way to represent Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ as a full untrimmed print including the border of the negative and its inscription. That’s what independent curators and historians do. Ang also provides new insights by paying more than usual attention to the technical equipment and processes by which photographs are made. He is one of the best writers on technical issues for photographers but does not ignore the motivational and philosophical issues, which, I think, is why his books are translated world-wide for a large international following.

My main interest, however, is the images and their meaning and where they might fit into the vast impossible-to-complete, fast-growing histories of the medium which of necessity have to be treated as tribal, nationalistic or pseudo-international fragments of a huge jigsaw puzzle. Room has to be made for the Vivien Maier’s and Tom Hutchins’s of the world, those accomplished practitioners from Down Under and elsewhere who for whatever reasons have not received the attention and recognition they deserve.

The Australian photography historian Gael Newton created a superb but short-lived survey exhibition, Picture Paradise: Asia-Pacific Photography 1840s-1940s (Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 2008) that opened the door on work from that region, but already it needs to be revised and enlarged upon for us to see how far the seeds of Daguerre, Talbot and other inventors were blown and took root outside of their privileged and wealthy Northern Hemisphere bases. I didn’t have time to ask Tom Ang if he knew about Gael’s landmark survey, but we had plenty more to discuss. I’ve ordered a copy of his history of photography and expect to find some of the answers to my questions in it.

But to cut a long story short, Tom, whom I admire as an independent thinker, does not think as highly of many of New Zealand’s best-known photographers as I tend to. We often found ourselves in full or partial agreement about the legacy of some prominent locals when it came to noting their strengths and weaknesses. Whether they deserve a place at the international table when measured by the toughest yardsticks that we gods of opinion can muster, is another issue. And while our subjective enthusiasm, niggling, nitpicking and philosophising might have found them wanting by comparison with the likes of our heroes, the Cameron’s, Marey’s, Thomson’s, Atget’s, Lartigue’s and so-on’s of the world, it was clear that neither of us have lost our idealism and passion for photography. Publisher’s restrictions and blind spots were also discussed because such books are a team effort.

I do know, however, why we need PhotoForum, Craig Potton and Robbie Burton, Rim Books, Te Papa Press, Victoria University’s and Otago and Auckland University’s presses, Baker+Douglas and all kinds of Penguins or Thames & Hudson-type publishers to help do our own thing. It may be rather tribal, perhaps with an occasional global accent, but it’s always worthwhile when done to the best of our ability.

Thanks Tom! We can agree to disagree on some of our evaluations, but your selection of “alternative” images by those who could not possibly be left out is a brilliant entry into the delights and challenges of making sense of cameras and photographs of note. Including over one thousand images is not bad either.

Tom Ang lives in Grey Lynn, Auckland, when he is not on the road as an internationally recognized ‘photographer, traveler, author and academic’ with over 30 published books to his name. Much to our detriment his remarkable skills and output have largely been neglected by New Zealand’s art and academic circles. (He writes in plain language for a general audience). His Photography: A Definitive History won’t be definitive, I know, because nothing can catch up with the exponential growth of photography, but it is an invaluable addition to the inevitably fragmented narratives of the medium’s histories. Ang, who was born in Singapore, grew up in London, and lives in New Zealand, provides an informed photographer’s view of photography’s history that is lively and refreshing.

For more on his background and a list of some of his books see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Ang. For more information his website is www.tomang.com.


John B Turner was 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. Co-curator 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