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Black & White Photography in China: the Rhetoric of Time as a Definition of Genre.




Long after its time had apparently expired, when the time for its most perfect -its ¡®classic¡¯- realisation had already past, the genre of black and white photography continues to thrive. Why? What permits its survival into the age of colour and digital reproduction? I want to suggest that this survival, its charm and its force, is due to the particular sensitivity of black and white photography to the representation of time. Just as in the history of art many effects of meaning are traceable to the painterly use of time, so with the history of photography.


All photographs have a special relationship with the past, this is their time of making (insofar has they have a relationship with reality, a record of a referent) this might be called their first meaning. However the significance of the image lies in its second or figural meaning and so on the form of time it represents.


This sense of represented time may come from within time (past, present, future) or from ¡®outside¡¯ time (sacred or surreal). So in temporal terms the black and white photograph may be said to exist in five broad modalities (after our, human, experiential relationship to time): Classic (past); Documentary (present); Oracular (future); Sacred (the outside of time as eternity); Surreal (the outside of time as the time of dreams, of the imagination). These may be found in combination in different parts of the photograph, or further nuanced by other factors (image content, context, title, etc).


The ¡®Documentary¡¯. In Chinese photographic history the most popular form of the black and white photograph has been the documentary type. If the ¡®classic¡¯ is the dominant aesthetic form of the black and white photograph in the West (spread through globalisation and its immanent possibilities to the rest of the world) then in China the position of dominant aesthetic form had been taken by the representation of the present; the documentary or ¡®realist¡¯ photograph.


Yet how does the documentary photograph work in black and white, when our everyday reality is normally perceived in colour? Technically the event of any photograph is always already in the past; in this sense the black and white photograph¡¯s initial effect of ¡®pastness¡¯ is truer than the colour photograph¡¯s claim to immediacy – yet this effect would also count against the black and white photograph to reveal the present. In fact, the black and white format -the setting apart effect- confers value, in effect reframes the content, offering it up to the viewer as important, worthy of selection, worthy of our attention, ¡®newsworthy¡¯ (an extension of the image-making process itself). Furthermore the lack of colour conveys thoughtfulness (again the sense of a remove), a seriousness colour images often seem to lack. The remainder of the present effect is due to the nature of the image-content itself. We are called to recognise the content as ¡®timely¡¯ in the sense of present interest or of recent origin, so forestalling the temporal reading of pastness (as the ¡®usual¡¯ meaning of black and white when opposed to the presence of colour). These two semiotic aspects of the photographic sign working together offer us a sense of the event captured, a kind of ¡®present preserved¡¯ (or ¡®pastness deferred¡¯) where the relatively short time lag can be forgotten in the construction of a picture of ¡®what is going on¡¯ – a kind of documentary ¡®event-horizon¡¯ where the time taken for the arrival of the image can be ignored (the event is chronologically well in the past by the time we see the recorded image). The black and white image, here with its sense of the ¡®reported present¡¯ or ¡®present continuous¡¯, is the key to the ¡®gritty realism¡¯ effect; to presenting a present which is lacking in colourful embellishment, so told in ¡®black and white¡¯ – the rhetoric of black and white as the ¡®colour¡¯ of truth.


In summary, the origin of the documentary image in black and white photography has bequeathed to us a code, a habit of thought, of reading, that still remains even in our world of colour reproduction. This code is anchored however in the lack of immediate presence (lack of colour) of black and white. This effect is constitutive of the black and white photographic experience and now (particularly in the West) usually points us away from the image as a record of recent time (and so to the ¡®Classic¡¯ effect, the past as art, or other effects such as the ¡®Surreal¡¯ - in effect to the ¡®art photograph¡¯). With the documentary image however, this lack of presence (lack of colour) is read as a proof of its existence as a record of the actual, usually recent, past (black and white as the illusion of directness through indirectness).


An example of the recent dominance of the documentary mode in black and white photography, can be found in the collection, Photographing China: Highlights of 50 Years of Chinese Photography (Beijing, CIP, 2006): in the chapter dedicated to black and white photography called, ¡®Rendition in Black and White¡¯ (pp. 849-863) nearly all of the images are of the documentary variety (including those of an ethnographic or anthropological character). Including, for example, Xie Hai Long¡¯s (½âº£Áú) famous work on the Hope Project, (Xi Wang Gong Cheng, Ï£Íû¹¤³Ì) (pp. 396-399). While examples of this genre are innumerable, we could single out Hou Dengke (ºîµÇ¿Æ), Wheat Hands (Beijing, 2000) who offers unsentimental, representations of rural life. The documentary style is deemed most suitable for depicting everyday life, especially people¡¯s labour: as in Lu Nan (ÂÀéª), The Four Seasons: The Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants, (Beijing, 2005), where the lack of colour successfully avoids the tourist effect, using gritty black and white to tell the ¡®truth¡¯ whilst including some poetic moments (figures in a landscape) and in the recent exhibition in the Inter-gallery Beijing: Lu Nan (ÂÀéª), Prison Camps in Northern Myanmar (Beijing: CLP, 2009).


The ¡®Classic¡¯: the Past Valourised. The potential pastness of any black and white photograph is first of all suggested by its relation to its past history as an event that has always already happened. Another reminder of the past lies in the history of the genre itself; black and white was an early stage in the history of the technical recording and reproduction of the image and so the first language of the documenting of the past as past. The formal–rhetorical aspect of the black and white photograph begins with its fundamental contrast with the colour image -colour as the way we see the world and ends with the temporal ¡®mood¡¯ of the black and white image as read from its content and its means of expression. If colour suggest the present, then the distancing effect of black and white configures the ¡®flavour¡¯ of the past, rendering it as an image seen at one remove - an image that mimics memory. If the actuality of the past (recorded event) is foremost, then we are in the realm of the documentary image (the presence of the past as present): if it is the temporal sense of the past that is to the fore, then we have a ¡®classic¡¯. The ¡®classic¡¯ effect precisely consists of the predominance or insistence of this memorial effect. An effect that is responsible for creating the aura of the past, a sense, or illusion, of something that has survived; a sense of (ever)lastingness; an island of the past in the present. A capturing and transport of the past (the presence of the past as past), this special sense connotes a record (which is actually a creation) of value. This sense of pastness, of what survives in the memorialising process is accented in black and white photography, where it comes to mean: what is worthy of survival. What is valuable; what is ¡®classic¡¯. (As what is recorded becomes¡­ what is worth recording).


The first generation of Chinese photographers either were, or have become, ¡®classic¡¯ in their mode of presentation almost regardless of the genres they favoured. Chen Chuanlin (³Â´«ÁØ), Guo Xiqi (¹ùÎý÷è), Hu Junlei (ºú¾ýÀÚ) and Lu Shifu (ÂÀÊ©¸£) all offer landscape (or hua niao) images in which the sense of conserving (or making) a valued past joins art historical progress in producing the classic effect. Another historically important photographer employing the classic mode is Lang Jingshan (Àʾ°É½), Master of Photography: 1892-1995 (Beijing, 2003). In the next stage in the history of Chinese photography we can find an example of the official ¡®classic¡¯ style from before the period of ¡®opening-up¡¯ in the works of Sha Fei (ɳ·É), The Collected Photography of Sha Fei (Beijing, 2005) – the ¡®classic¡¯ effect of these ¡®sacred documentary images is an effect in part due to the passing over of that particular horizon of expectations. The changing ¡®effects¡¯ of these images are also a reminder that the history of aesthetically or formally superior black and white photographs is to become ¡¯classic¡¯ over time (as with the images of Edward Weston or the Family of Man collection in the West, all originally conceived as ¡®documentary¡¯). More recently the classic or past effect has been reintroduced into China as one of a variety of available effects, as, for example, in the work of Zhang Hai Er (Õź£¶ù), Gao Bo (¸ß²¨), Adou (°¢dou), Cai Weidong (²Ìණ)and Han Lei (º«ÀÚ).


The ¡®Sacred¡¯. Often found supporting the classic black and white photograph is a sense of the sacred. The picture is felt as ¡®timeless¡¯ – as if transcending history. However this sense of the sacred is a sense ¡®this side¡¯ and not a pointer to a place ¡®elsewhere.¡¯ Access to the outside of time proper, a pointing to the impossible category of ¡®not time¡¯ is found by reading space as pointing to another time, a time outside of time, eternity. This effect can be signaled by: the sky, the heavens, an upward movement or diagonal (the image¡¯s bottom right to top left) or line of sight, an empty space, white space (or black space) and the varieties of horizon. The reference point is impossible, is eternal; the genre is the ¡®Sacred¡¯. This visual rhetoric is found in Western as in Eastern painterly traditions, and both traditions feed into the history of Chinese photography. So when Hong Lei (ºéÀÚ) in Han Tsungwoo, Han Lei, Hong Lei (Beijing, 2006, Plates. 17-44) explores the space traditionally left empty at the top of the landscape (shan-shui) painting, we are referred to the outside of time that is the symbolic value of such spaces in Western and Chinese art. So certain landscapes by Feng Jianguo, in Vision of the West (Beijing, 2007), Lang Jingshan, Master of Photography: 1892-1995 (Beijing, 2003) and Han Lei, Strange (pp. 31-47) while strongly redolent of the ¡®classic¡¯ photograph, also strongly suggest the rhetoric of eternity in their evocation of Nature as sacred, as natural home to the Sublime.


The second genre reference to the sacred can be found in the portrayal of the ¡®micro-sacred¡¯: the genre of finding transfigured moments in the everyday, in unlikely places and details. This discovery of the sacred in the details of passing life is also to be found in more intimate examples of the landscape genre and in the hua niao hua (literally, ¡®flowers and birds¡¯ paintings, the nearest traditional Chinese equivalent to the Western ¡®Still Life¡¯ and the decorative images that it has inspired). Indeed decorative forms, patterns and images can also be read as carrying a trace of the eternal in their formalisation, their ideal status as measured by their distance from the concrete and temporal.


The ¡®Surreal¡¯. In some ways this form is as old as experiment and juxtaposition in photography and had already achieved in the ¡®thirties the notoriety that has given this category its name, ¡®Surrealism¡¯. This is the genre of the unusual, the de-familiarised, or un-canny (familiar, at home, yet frighteningly ¡®not-at-home¡¯, so unfamiliar). Recently exemplified in the surreal back and white images of the internationally renowned Japanese photographer, Kon Mitchiko, where fish and vegetables configure human and other forms – resulting in an art of strange anthropomorphism whose effect upon us can only take one name¡­ the ¡¯Surreal¡¯.


If normally content-led due to its reliance on de-familiarisation (content of expression), this category nevertheless uses the temporal qualities of the black and white image (means of expression) to push its sense of removal in time even further away; from the past to the very edge of time, into the time of dreams. The surreal-type photograph is formally identifiable by its tradition-breaking juxtapositions. Structurally and semiotically speaking we are presented with the double negation of ¡®not-not time¡¯(neither inside nor outside). Phenomenologically, that is in terms of our experience, we perceive something ¡®inside¡¯, here before us, which feels ¡®outside¡¯, outside of the range of our normal experience - perhaps ¡®normally¡¯ limited to the realm of fantasies or dreams. Both ¡®outside¡¯, but also, ¡®not-outside¡¯. With no pointers guiding us to the thought of infinity, we are left with an experience which is just unreal, ¡®this side¡¯ – the ¡®Surreal¡¯ effect.


Perhaps the classic Chinese practitioner of this kind of photography is Rong Rong (ÈÙÈÙ). See for example Rong Rong and Inri, East Village (Chambers Fine Art, China, 2003). See also Han Lei (º«ÀÚ) Strange (Beijing, 2003, pp. 55-91) and Chinese Avant-Garde Photography since 1990 (Beijing, 2004, pp. 366-371) and Wang Yao Dong (ÍõÒ«¶«) (CAGP, pp. 372-377). This ¡®mixed¡¯ technique, documentary style shots with surreal details, remains popular to this day - not least among the current crop of young photographers. perhaps amounting to a genre; very many recent colour exhibitions include this style of image, as for example, ¡®Hetero-Imagery¡¯ (ÒìÏñ), 798 Photo-gallery, Beijing (May 2008). Furthermore, in the exhibition ¡®Outward Expressions, Inward Reflections¡¯ (Three Shadows Gallery, 2008), Qiu (Çð) and Lu Youpeng (¹ÓÒÅô), both favoured the surreal sense evoked by the use of a ¡®timeless¡¯ dream world of ritual, masks and myth.


Seeing the future; the ¡®Oracular¡¯ image. The temporal genre of question and invitation, amelioration and hope - as well of anxiety and foreboding. Formally speaking, the future can be found in the abstract, the veiled and indistinct, in the sense of a lack of presence as bearing future meaning. As well as the depiction of a situation yet-to-come, such photographs may also suggest the sense of an ideal, of things as they should or could be, as opposed to how they are. The black and white image as oracle. Extending this idea, it is also possible to conceive of the oracular black and white photograph as an interrogative voice, asking the question, ¡®will it be like this?¡¯


Images with a future deixis, which imply a next stage, or can be read as a cause to a future effect constitute a direct semantic method of indicating the future - see the ¡®conjuring¡¯ and ¡®cocoon¡¯ images in Rong Rong and inri, Tui Transfigurations (Timezone 8, China, 2004. pp.160;162). Effects due to the employment of abstraction and visions of a limit, or beyond a limit, suggesting the future, can be found in Hong Lei (ºéÀÚ) in Han Tsungwoo, Han Lei, Hong Lei (Beijing, 2006. Plates. 18 and 22) where the empty space that dominates the image can be read as the heading of the viewer; our voyage through life is taking us, we do not know where¡­ Similarly indistinct backgrounds may equally be read as a referral to an almost forgotten place in our past, or as somewhere as yet undetermined in the future. Such a suggestive indistinctness is found in Rong Rong & inri, Beyond (Walsh Gallery, Chicago, 2005) where empty spaces and figures facing away from the viewer (that is, facing in the same direction as the implied viewer of the picture) suggest a looking forward to an open or ideal future (the peak as future destination is a meaning that can be added to the mountain¡¯s usual value derived from its traditional sacred meanings).


In contradistinction to other ethnographically inspired photographs, we have a powerful example of the interrogative voice in black and white photography in Gao Bo, ¡®Sketch Portrait¡¯, (1996) in ¡®Convection¡¯, (Three Shadows, Winter 2007-8, photographs from the permanent collection). This image incorporates smearing and handwriting – graffiti or note style, which de-presences the image, re-presenting it as a source of difficulty (it is important that the ¡®deformation¡¯ occurs on the level of the image and not in the world of the image, for these temporal effects to come into play). Indeed such a deformation may combine the tenses (past, present and future) as when we perceive a pre-existing problem, its presence and the possibility of a solution (or the continuation of the problem state into future¡­). Oracular. The status of a question posed.


The epochs of Chinese photography, viewed through the lens of their temporal affiliations, are as follows: 1) Inception to 1949, ¡®classic¡¯ and ¡®art-photography¡¯, (some ¡®documentary¡¯ for news purposes).

2) 1949-1976, ¡®Socialist Realism¡¯, the ¡®documentary¡¯, and its religious form, where the present is portrayed as eternal (possible due to our existential sense of being in an ¡®eternal present¡¯, ¡®eternity¡¯ as an extrapolation of this).

3) 1976- 2000, the continuation of ¡®documentary¡¯ and ¡®Socialist Realism¡¯, with the rebirth of ¡®art¡¯ and experimental forms in the 1980s.

4) 2000 to present, growing influence of ¡®classic¡¯ and ¡®art-type¡¯ effects, especially of the ¡®surreal¡¯ type, as the (formal) experimentation of the previous period continues. But, interestingly, the ¡®documentary style is still dominant, even featuring in today¡¯s ¡®art¡® photography format as background to the ¡®surreal¡¯ detail¡­


Black and white photography in China has long moved beyond the domination of the mythic present of ideological realism. The reform years have until recently seen the hegemony of another kind of documentary style with, and in occasional league with, surreal-type trends (this trend, allied with conceptual, or post-conceptual overtones, still persists as a major trend among young photographers today). The lyric effects that are making a (re)appearance on the Chinese photographic scene, whilst still often dealing with surreal type images, nevertheless also show a capacity for other-worldliness, such as in the beginnings of a ¡®found-beauty¡¯ or ¡®micro-sacred¡¯ tradition (in landscape and urban detail) and also in the use of ¡®classic¡¯ effects allied to a sense of recording a lost or disappearing past (as ethno-documentary incorporates a retrospective or mourning).


Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2010



About the author. Dr. Peter Nesteruk is a former lecturer in critical theory, now based in Beijing, who has published on literary and art history, the interpretation of poetry and the theory of drama. He has published on time and the image in art history and has contributed theoretical art criticism to exhibitions and collections in London, Rome and Beijing.