The invention of photography coincided with the mortification of modern China. In 1839, the year Henry Fox Talbot presented his early photographic experiments to the Royal Society, China’s “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of imperialist powers began with the first opium war. Through the second half of the 19th century, foreign photographers joined the armies of soldiers, diplomats, traders and missionaries swarming over China. In the late summer of 1860, the Italian photographer Felix Beato captured the carnage of the second opium war, and four decades later the “punitive picnic” of the Boxer war was photographed on new Kodak Reloadables. Compositions designed to shame a defeated China were staged and sent around the world in newspapers, periodicals, photobooks and picture postcards: images of privates playing hockey around sacred temples; officers lolling on imperial thrones and picking over the emperor’s apartments; grisly public executions of suspected Chinese Boxer rebels.
“The Chinese Photobook”, an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London, starts with this agonising “opening” of China by imperialism. The first photobook on display, “China: From Earth and Balloon”, is a collection of images taken by the French army during the Boxer war, and is predictably rich in European military swagger. Across its pages, hot-air balloons—used by the French army to take some of the first aerial photographs of a previously sequestered Beijing—loom over a low-rise capital city now powerless to resist the all-powerful foreign gaze.
But the exhibition’s narrative, which takes us from the 19th century to the rebellious creativity of the post-Mao photographic avant-garde, is not one of foreign domination alone. In the first half of the 20th century, photography became a mainstay of China’s own flourishing domestic mass media. The photographic industry in Shanghai enabled the rest of China to visualise modernity through shots of the city's Art Deco skyscrapers, Dionysian dance halls and burgeoning movie industry. In photobooks from the 1920s and 1930s, images of the “modern woman” (captured in daring knee-length dresses, her hair fashionably permed or bobbed, her gaze confidently flirtatious) became emblems of a chic new urban culture. “The Living China” from 1930 features a riverbank shot of a typically winsome “Chinese movie star” carefully posed to show off her trim silk-stockinged calves.
The curator’s selections and juxtapositions generate some surprising comparisons. During its occupation of China and colonisation of Manchuria before and during the second world war, Japan mobilised its most skilled photojournalists and graphic designers to produce self-congratulatory books on the country’s “civilising mission”. (Some of these books refused even to dignify the invasion with the term “war”, belittling this brutal conflict as “the China trouble”.) Page after glossy page depicts the Japanese colonial state of Manchukuo as a bountiful, multicultural Lebensraum in which Japanese and Chinese pose harmoniously together under luxuriant trees. (The Chinese photobooks on the war—illustrating the horrors of Japanese invasion—underline the grotesquerie of the propaganda.) Given how ruthlessly Japan suppressed communism in northeast China, hunting down and destroying the Manchurian Communist Party, it’s ironic that the influence of Soviet visual and print propaganda on the slogans and graphic design in these books is so obvious. “Arm in arm with Japan,” one of them trumpets, “Manchukuo has created an ideal empire”.
The irony continues with the Mao-era photobooks (“The Great Hall of People”, 1959). The Chinese communist regime that captured power in China in 1949 staked much of its moral mandate on claims of patriotic resistance against Japanese invasion. So it’s curious that the books produced by the official publishers and authorised “friendly” foreign photographers—stuffed with portraits of benevolent leaders, beaming peasants, shiny tractors and magnificent railway bridges—bear a close technical resemblance to the Japanese propaganda brochures on Manchuria. It is easy now to deride the obvious falsity of these stagy, sanitised images, and their omission of the violence of Maoist politics. But they remain historically important because of the near-absolute monopoly that they once possessed in representing the People’s Republic to domestic and foreign audiences.
The post-1989 section features the most aesthetically successful work in the exhibition: uncompromising and arresting. For the last three decades, Chinese avant-garde culture (in fiction and film, as well as photography) has sought relief from the bombast of Mao’s “revolutionary realism and romanticism” in the naturalistic and the hyper-mundane. “This Face” (2011), for example, takes a long, cool look at the seedy realities of post-Mao China. It presents hundreds of portraits of a prostitute—sometimes made up, sometimes managing a seductive smile for the camera, sometimes sallow with exhaustion—during her breaks between clients in the course of a working day.
The contemporary photobooks are also a showcase for intensely personal commemorations, in protest against the war that Maoism waged on private life. The makers of “Box—Pass It On” (2010) asked individuals to contribute photographs, private letters and stories. The resulting volume is a moving treasure trove of wedding and family portraits, identity cards, even Mao-era ephemera such as Young Pioneers scarves and ancient train tickets. One contributor—whose family had Nationalist connections—describes the confiscation of the family photo albums during the Cultural Revolution; when they were returned ten years later, the faces had been defaced with blue biro crosses.
Ranging from the imperialist to the nationalist, from the instrumental to the aesthetic, and from the airbrushed to the gritty, “The Chinese Photobook” tells a story of the powerful contrasts of Chinese history, and of Chinese individuals’ ongoing struggles to represent themselves through the traumas of foreign invasion and communist dictatorship.