Portraits and propaganda: The Chinese Photobook

As this unmissable survey reveals, in China, the photobook has had a unique social and political dimension

When Martin Parr and Gerry Badger published The Photobook: A History in 2004, they triggered a small but significant landslide in publishing that is continuing to transform our perception of photographic history. Their watershed overview led to two more influential volumes and there have been hefty national surveys by other researchers devoted to the impact and evolution of the photobook in Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Latin America.

At last year’s Rencontres d’Arles photography festival, Parr and two Dutch artists, Thijs groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren (who collaborate as WassinkLundgren), mounted a show of Chinese photobooks they had collected everywhere from local flea markets to antiquarian booksellers in the West. This exceptional feat of excavation, covering more than 100 years of production, much of it unseen outside China, has been published by Aperture to coincide with the show’s installation at the Photographers’ Gallery in London (until July 5). The Chinese Photobook runs to 448 slab-sized pages and has a heavyweight price tag to match.

For long stretches of its history, the Chinese photobook is a completely different proposition from its counterpart in countries where individual photographers, working under their own names, enjoy the freedom to select their subjects and depict them however they wish. At its most refined, the photobook is a work of art that distills its maker’s attitude to life, to society and sometimes to politics. The books published after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 exist to show-off the purported achievements of the Communist regime, its farm produce, factories and buildings, and to glorify its Chairman, Mao Zedong, idolised as the ‘Red Sun in Our Hearts’. The most striking – produced by organisations such as China Workers Publishing House and People’s Fine Arts Publishing House – are highly art directed pieces of propaganda assembled by anonymous teams whose sole directive is to proclaim the collective will of the state.

Looking at these books as an outsider is a bittersweet experience. There has been a tendency, since Mao’s death in 1976, to savour socialist realist graphic art for its naivety and kitschness. Many PRC-era photobook pictures share the same remorselessly upbeat aesthetic. The authors assign two pages to a colour spread from Shanghai (1959) showing a line of beaming, well-dressed women, probably watching a parade, who wave their scarves as balloons rise into the air behind them. As a piece of image-making, it’s the equal of 1950s capitalist advertising.

Clockwise from top left: Spread from Burtynsky – China by Edward Burtynsky (Steidl, 2005); Cover and image from The Chinese by Liu Zheng (Dragon Work Chinese Photo, 2000); Spread and gatefold from Box – Pass It On by Peng Yangjun and Chen Jiaojiao (Shang-Xia Ltd., 2010).
Clockwise from top left: Spread from Burtynsky – China by Edward Burtynsky (Steidl, 2005); Cover and image from The Chinese by Liu Zheng (Dragon Work Chinese Photo, 2000); Spread and gatefold from Box – Pass It On by Peng Yangjun and Chen Jiaojiao (Shang-Xia Ltd., 2010).

Yet these images of orchestrated social harmony mask a terrible lie. Mao’s catastrophically bungled Great Leap Forward economic plan, launched in 1958, would cause the death by famine of an estimated 35 million. In Mao’s nightmarish Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966, uniform ‘Mao suits’ replaced personal clothes, though the smiles were still fixed in place in the photos.

The more lavish books produced during these years wouldn’t have been seen by ordinary citizens, who couldn’t afford to pay dozens or even hundreds of times the cost of a standard text book. Print runs were usually only a few thousand copies. Some books were produced as gifts, some circulated as tools of ideological instruction and some went to public libraries. One of the most spectacular productions, China (1959), which came in an ornamental box, was created to impress foreign heads of state and was never available for sale.

As the authors show, photography as an art form wasn’t entirely expunged in the 1950s and early 1960s when the medium’s primary purpose was to serve the party. A period of reform followed Mao’s demise and, in 1976, unofficial publishing was already flowering, leading to what the authors term a “renaissance” in Chinese photography from 1979 to the present. In 1986, a publication titled Flashback “broke propaganda norms, by publishing photographs hitherto considered taboo, and by simply showing scenes of daily life”. 40 Years of China Photography (1988) printed previously hidden photos from the 1960s by Li Zhensheng of brutal and humiliating public treatment of enemies of the state. In 2003, Phaidon collected Zhensheng’s pictures, taken at great personal risk, in the book Red-Color News Soldier, which The Chinese Photobook naturally includes.

Books criticising the authorities’ ruthless suppression of the protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989 could only be published outside the mainland, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as London and Paris. Even The Truth about the Beijing Turmoil, which gives the government’s account of the events, is banned now in China.

Clockwise from top left: from Gli Impressioni di Manchiu-Cuo (Impressions of Manchukuo), documenting the visit of an Italian delegation sent courtesy of Benito Mussolini (Manchukuo Imperial Government, 1938); Two further images from The Chinese by Liu Zheng (2000); Two spreads from No. 223 by Lin Zhipeng, Taipei (Revolution-Star Publishing and Creation Co., Ltd., 2012)
Clockwise from top left: from Gli Impressioni di Manchiu-Cuo (Impressions of Manchukuo), documenting the visit of an Italian delegation sent courtesy of Benito Mussolini (Manchukuo Imperial Government, 1938); Two further images from The Chinese by Liu Zheng (2000); Two spreads from No. 223 by Lin Zhipeng, Taipei (Revolution-Star Publishing and Creation Co., Ltd., 2012)

Despite this setback to reform, photographers continued to investigate the changes and challenges besetting their rapidly developing society. A book by Xu Yong about the demolition of traditional city centre ‘hutong’ housing districts appeared as early as 1990. A Changing Shanghai – Through the Camera of an Ordinary Citizen (2004) makes its point with before-and-after shots of the city’s burgeoning skyline. Recent years have seen the publication of taboo-busting projects about menstruation, self-harm, prostitution, and gay and lesbian life. The Chain by Chien-chi Chang, published in Taiwan in 2004, is a troubling study of mentally ill patients chained in pairs for supposedly therapeutic purposes.

As well as Chinese photographers, Parr and WassinkLundgren’s widescreen survey also includes the perspectives of foreign book-creators. Many of the earliest photobooks, from the 1900s to the 1930s, were put together by visitors marvelling at “Peking the beautiful”, the “grandeur of the gorges” and the “culture of the nude in China”. In the 1950s and 1960s, photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud from France and Caio Garrubba from Italy brought their sympathetic cameras to bear on people in the street. Much of the focus today by large-format documentarians – Edward Burtynsky, Sze Tsung Leong and Nadav Kander – is on the disorientating scale and speed of urban construction.

This unmissable, painstaking survey is a huge contribution to the appreciation of the Chinese photobook and the history these volumes reveal, and the writers have gathered a mass of information essential to our understanding. In the final chapter about global perspectives, recent photobooks receive a lively critical sounding from Gerry Badger, much like his writing in the trilogy with Parr. It’s a shame this less reverent approach wasn’t used in the chapters handled by Gu Zheng, Raymond Lum and Stephanie Tung, who incline to be drier. But perhaps the issue of artistic quality in the PRC books is redundant, or just tasteless, when books are authored from an ideological position by the state? No matter how impressive they look in retrospect, they are irrevocably defined by the conditions of repression.

Lead image:  Clockwise from top left: Pages from Pictorial Review of the Sino-Japanese Conflict in Shanghai (Wen Hwa Fine Arts Press, Ltd., 1932); Spread from Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts (People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1967); Pages from The Chain by Chien-Chi Chang, Taiwan (Trolley, 2004). Rick Poynor writes a weekly column about photography at designobserver.com/profile/rickpoynor/81. The Chinese Photobook, Martin Parr and WassinkLundgren (eds), is published by Aperture; (£100), aperture.org

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