(The first in a two-part series from assistant curator of photography Lisa Sutcliffe, who organized both of our current collection exhibitions of Asian photography: The Provoke Era and Photography Now. Lisa posed a single question to the artists whose works are included in Photography Now.)
Photography, with its ability to “mirror” reality, has a more direct connection to the visible world than most other media, including painting and sculpture. It can also alter our perception of reality, either through the artist’s unique perspective, or by manipulation. Examining artistic decisions can reveal quite a bit about how a photograph is understood. Why was this picture made? Who is the intended audience? What did the artist decide to keep inside the frame or to crop out and how does that change our interpretation of the scene? Or perhaps the artist digitally manipulated the image to create something from his or her own imagination. In the digital age, the photographic medium is being redefined and artists are freer to create whatever image they imagine.
Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea presents SFMOMA’s recent acquisitions of photographs by artists working in Asia, and was conceptualized as a companion to our current exhibition of postwar Japanese photography. Even as globalization and technology have allowed for faster and more fluid cross-cultural influence, the artists represented in the show embrace varied approaches and offer diverse personal visions. Many record the changing urban fabric and the development of a new migratory population. What they all have in common is an interest in expressing themselves with photography.
I began to wonder how the rapid cultural transformations, especially in China, might be influencing the growing interest in photography. In addition, I was hoping to find out what intrigues these artists about working with and manipulating the visible world. With this in mind, I asked each artist in the exhibition to answer the same question: why do you work in photography and how do the particular qualities of the medium affect your artistic decisions?
I was surprised by the poetic nature of the answers, and I would like to highlight a few common themes I noticed in the texts. Many of the artists express a desire to simultaneously depict the outer world and the inner self – to transcend reality. They discuss the existence of multiple realities and how different ways of seeing and multiple points of view can be compressed into two dimensions. And there was a strong desire to record the changing environment – either as a means of saving a piece of history, or as a commentary on rapid development. It is heartening to see that even with the digital revolution photography is still ideally suited for this type of cultural examination. I hope you enjoy reading the following responses as much as I did.
Feng Bin (Chinese, b. 1962)
Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher who lived more than 2500 years ago, once stood by a river and said: “Everything flows like this, without ceasing, day and night.” In my opinion, photography continues to be the best method of arresting that “flow.” Its contact with reality is more direct when compared with other forms of art.
I very much appreciate traditional Chinese lifestyles, which are doomed to gradually disappear under the effects of economic development and population expansion. My projects up until now include documenting Beijing Hutong, ancient villages in my hometown, and the residential community in Beijing constructed from the 1950s through the 1980s. For me, photography is a tool to save the things I like from fading away and to present the world the way it appears to me. I believe most photographic works are subjective enough to reveal the artist who made them. I choose to work with a large-format camera, as the slow, methodical approach it requires allows me to observe in a more meditative way. With the focusing cloth over my head, I am quite separated from my surroundings and left alone with a world on the ground glass. As the moments flow in the world, they flow in me as well. By freezing those moments in still pictures, I’m presenting my view of the world in that constant flow. And photography becomes a way for me to explore the outside world as well as my inner self.
Luo Dan (Chinese, b. 1968)
From an early age, I perceived the world by thinking through images. I have a multitude of visual images and fragments in my memory. Although there are numerous roads in the world, I am just walking in this way right now, using photography to connect me to this archive of mental images. Photography gives me great strength, and is a means of communicating with myself, of raising a question and answering it. The window of photography seems to present a series of riddles, and the answers are sometimes clear and sometimes vague; like memory, they’re unreliable. I believe the answer is always inside or outside the window. Fortunately, each of us has the window.
Chen Nong (Chinese, b. 1966)
Recently, it has become easier and easier to present anything that could be seen through our eyes in a photograph. However, I don’t really think a photograph can mirror reality; everything has multiple viewpoints, which depend on your personal insight, or your angle of view; perhaps what the photo shows us is something primal. I cannot deny that this is why photographs fascinate me so much. I like to intuitively find an image and let nature take its course.
Wang Yishu (Chinese, b. 1973)
Obviously, the world still has its surprising secrets beneath the surface.
Life is a journey. Photography is one way to reach the unseen through the seeable. I tried to imagine a vision that only belongs to me, trying to explore some very basic ideas and rules. These photos exemplify this: they lead to questions about these hidden secrets and they are also the answers I received.
Miyako Ishiuchi (Japanese, b. 1947)
I chose photography because I was interested in the darkroom. An artist’s atelier, where an art work is generally born, needs light. No matter if it is painting, or sculpture, art is normally created in the light. However, to make a photograph, every possible light source has to be closed off. Even a thin ray or a tiny spot of light is not allowed. I was thrilled by the fact that you need to create a space of absolute darkness in order to create a photograph. It is also interesting to think about the fact that the science, photochemistry, and machineries of this 19-20th century invention have not changed much since the origin of the medium, and it is still available to us in the 21st century.
I think that capturing and cropping a scene in a rectangular format is a very intentional act of expression. A photograph is a reproduction of the surface of what you see, but the image of the photograph continues beyond the frame, and reflects the artist’s self, with many layers of concern and intention, widely, deeply, and beautifully. I want to make photographs that don’t draw attention to photography’s technical ability to accurately record. However, the medium’s abilities and limitations do sometimes affect my artistic decisions, and these technical considerations do form part of the background of my artistic creativity.
Asako Narahashi (Japanese, b. 1959)
I studied oil painting, but I was so bored sitting in rooms waiting for paint to dry! During my college years, I worked with a team making a film, but I think I prefer working autonomously. I was very much attracted to photography because of its rapidity, its quick reactions, and systematic work flow. It gave me a well-balanced life with outdoor and indoor activities: going out for shooting and staying in the darkroom alone to make the prints, no team-work needed. Every part of the process can be done alone.
Going outside, taking photographs, using a lot of films, making contact sheets, and seeing each shot — After all of that, while I’m making a selection, I sometimes notice an attractive image I was completely unaware of when I photographed it. I find more than I expect to find, and this ‘discovery’ brings me great pleasure. It feels like a kind of a gift from heaven. I believe this interesting experience of ‘discovery’ in work comes from the depth of photography. I feel happy that, even though I wasn’t noticing it in the moment, I released the shutter in response to ‘something’ and then I’m glad I’m able to find the shot later in my contact sheets.
For my works, I don’t need the modifications available with digital imaging, and I don’t stage settings. I look at the thing in front of me and take pictures of it. I’m there when I release the shutter, and after the thing has been transformed into a two-dimensional photograph, I encounter it newly, and look at it again. I make public what I saw, and how I saw it. The entire process—including discovery—is photography for me; nothing more and nothing less.
Hiroyo Kaneko (Japanese, b. 1963)
A photograph is a mediator between time and space, the audience and the photographer.
It is here in front of us but the image is from another time and place. Compared to other media, a photograph does not hide its origin; as you indicate, it has the ability to accurately mirror the world.
A photograph approaches the same level of vulnerability and adaptability as a human. It can evoke something invisible such as mood, emotion, a sense of history, or a social criticism.
Like people, photographs attempt to absorb personal moments and subtly reveal their varying facets.
I think it’s this quality that drives me to the mystery of working in photography.
— Lisa Sutcliffe, assistant curator of photography
(Look for part two, with responses from Naoya Hatakeyama and others, on Nov 9. Photography Now: China, Japan, Korea is on view through December 20.)