Connected \\ March 15, 2023
Photography and Its Many Manifestations in Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China
As a photo historian, I have always been haunted by one question: What is photography? This question burned exceptionally strong in me on January 19th, 2012, when the news of the Eastman Kodak Company filing for bankruptcy protection broke; on September 13, 2013, when I started a fellowship at the George Eastman Museum; on June 18th, 2018, when I entered PEM’s storage area for the first time; and on September 24, 2023, when exhibition Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China finally opened to the public after four years of preparation.
What is photography? I ask myself the same question over and over again.
John Thomson, Curio Shop, 1868–1872, Albumen print. Peabody Essex Museum. Gift of George J. Harrington Jr., 1993, PH27.26.
The question is much more difficult to answer than it appears. Photography is first and foremost an image-making technique that consistently embraces and also is challenged by the everlasting evolution of technology. Photography is also a form of artistic expression, a means for public and domestic archival preservation, a mass-media and propagandistic strategy and an entertainment apparatus. Smartphones and other technologies have successfully democratized this medium. Everyone today has a chance to create quality photographic images, employ them for their own purposes and master their creation – but that ability further complicates the questions of what photography is and what it could become.
Today, as I look at the photographs selected for this exhibition for the umpteenth time, some thoughts appear in my mind. Photography is also a tool for us to capture, freeze and forever preserve our affection for beloved possessions. It has the ability to tangibly convey the intangible aspects of our memories — the parts that are immaterial, insubstantial, and amorphous—but also register our feelings, sensations and perceptions. It can grasp an invisible layer of our memories and ourselves and present it onto a physical substance by assigning a shape to the shapeless.
Lu Yufan’s Grandma series reminds me of the essential nature of photography. This work was created after the death of the artist’s grandmother and was treated by Lu as her memorial. In this work, this young female artist acted out her grandmother’s daily life as a way to process her grief. She employed a thermal imaging camera and captured her residual heat after actions such as sitting on her grandmother’s favorite chair. For me, Lu’s work suggests a systematic relationship between photography and memory. More importantly, she successfully broadened the boundary and definition of this medium by capturing something as invisible as the residual body heat of a person who was previously alive. It represents the immeasurable, invisible sensation of warmth generated by the love of a grandparent or a family bond. Through an unconventional camera, Lu explores a new way to express her grief and memories of touch, closeness and time spent together.
The photographer Lu Yufan. Courtesy of the artist.
Although I hesitate to consider this young artist’s work revolutionary, it has challenged my working definition of photography and pointed out the potential of this medium. Every time I look at Lu’s piece, I cannot stop myself from revisiting how photography was understood during its early era, especially the prominent French novelist Honoré de Balzac’s (1799–1850) theory of the “spectral layer.”
The French photographer and caricaturist Nadar (1820 –1910) recalled in his memoir My Life as a Photographer that his friend Balzac believed “all physical bodies are made up entirely of layers of ghostlike images, an infinite number of leaf-like skins laid one on top of the other.” Thus, “every time someone had his photograph taken, one of the spectral layers was removed from the body and transferred to the photograph.”
Rather than criticizing his friend or portraying Balzac as anti-science, Nadar’s words underscore his own talents as a photographer who could not only record a sitter’s likeness but also capture their inner psychological realms. He believed his photographs – just like his friend’s writing – had the ability to mirror and trace the external appearances that register people’s inner lives.
Lu’s work also captures this “spectral layer.” For me, that layer is from her grandmother and herself, from her memories of their close relationship and from the time they spent together. The artist writes to her grandmother that “During your last days, I was thinking of so many ways to preserve a beautiful image of you... I stroke the image [photograph] of you, trying to trace you in my mind — just like how you once held me with your hands, leaving your warmth on my body.”
Her work conveys the sensation of her grandma’s warmth, preserved in her memory and imprinted in her life. In Lu’s hands, photography extends beyond its traditional boundaries and captures the elusive traits of human temperature and human touch, freezing the fleeting sense of a past presence. From this perspective, the boundary and concept of photography are broadened. New aspects and potential are added to this medium.
As a whole, Power and Perspective considers photography in the context of how this medium responded to invasion, war, trade, travel and the desire to know an unfamiliar place during its earliest stages. Lu and other emerging artists offer their own contemporary and personal perspectives in dialogue with the historical images. This exhibition is not only about the past, as it also examines the present. This exhibition inspires its audiences to think about the intellectual and philosophical realms of photography and reconsider what it was, what it is and what it can be.
Liang Yingfei. Born 1990, Guangdong Province. Works in Guangzhou. Detail from The Pearl River Delta Community, 2016-2022. Pigment prints, embroidered silk. Courtesy of the artist.
Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China is on view at PEM through April 2,2023. Join us for a virtual roundtable Thursday, March 23, 2023 from 7-8:30 pm about artists responding to historic collections. Our speakers include three contemporary Chinese photographers featured in Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China: Shi Yangkun, Liang Yingfei and Lu Yufan. The roundtable will be moderated by He Yining and is co-presented with Asia Art Archive in America. The program will be in English and Chinese, with live translation. Go HERE to register.
See this video below to learn more from our curators.