Xu Yong’s exhibition shown in Hamburg, Germany from February 11 to March 16, 2019

This year’s June will see the 30th anniversary of the deadly suppression of the 1989 Chinese student movement. The movement represents the peak of China’s gradual move towards openness and social liberalization in the 1980s, its untimely, violent end was a traumatic rupture of civilization which China had last experienced during the infamous “Great Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s.
Since then, the subject of the student movement has become taboo in China, the taboo enforced both online and offline, targeting “professional” dissidents as well as common relatives of victims of the military crackdown.

To do our part in keeping memory and awareness of this turning point in Chinese history alive, the Hamburger Sinologische Gesellschaft (Sinological society) advanced the idea of having an exhibition of Xu Yong’s negatives, eventually implementing the exhibition in cooperation with the Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Hamburg (Center for political education), as well as the Bücherhallen Hamburg (Public libraries). It was decided to hold the exhibition from the middle of February to the middle of March.

My part was the task of curating the exhibition, which gave me a chance to get in contact with Mr. Xu, to work out the details of the exhibition in a half-year long process of deciding on the final shape of the artworks as well as their presentation in the exhibition alongside information about the student movement and the artist, among other things.

Xu Yong

Mr. Xu (*1954) is an internationally acclaimed fine art photographer based in Beijing. With more than ten published photobooks under his belt, and being represented by international galleries, he does not need to pursue a project like this just for shock value or the publicity. Presenting the negatives to the public (which he originally did for the first time in 2014) as a form of historical testimony is a matter dear to his heart.

Many of Xu’s earlier photographic artworks, among them his photos of Beijing’s Hutongs from the 1980s, published in 1989, already touch upon the passage of time, or photography’s relationship with time.

The NEGATIVE/SCANS are the culmination point of this pursuit. They were taken by Xu, presumably without “artistic intention”, when he was 35. He had left the Beijing Advertising Company, where he worked as a photographer, the year before. In 1989 he had started his own company and at the same time began to exhibit his own art photography. Such was his situation, when the student protests began to unfold in the middle of April.

30 years later, Xu Yong has already carved out his place in the Chinese art scene. The publication and exhibition of the negatives as an artistic statement by Xu, now 65 and looking back on a successful career, is at the same time both a brave jab at history and the forces shaping it, as well as a symbolic return to his beginnings as an artist. The passage of time itself integrates the author Xu into his artwork, transforming his role from that of a witness in 1989 to one of a conceptual artist in 2019.

The Artworks

The colors of these negatives, which I exposed 30 years ago and kept deep down in some drawer, are slowly fading away. Due to the circumstances, they cannot be exhibited as regular photos. Because of this, I used the method of digital scanning to capture the material form of the negatives, which is almost like recording the photographic records of that year a second time.

The pictures contain the traces of the oil used in the drum scanner. These traces are – just like the images on the film – the most direct proof of the uniquity of our world. The pictures appear inverted, because they have not been corrected, but the technological progress allows us to transform the pictures into their correct form, by using the digital devices we constantly carry with us.

As far as I am concerned, the most important message of these artworks is the form of the negatives in itself. It expresses what I want to express. Maybe it can prompt the viewers to reflect on the essence of photography and the relationship of the film age and the digital age, especially in China.

— Xu Yong

The 20 artworks on display are reproductions of snippets of 35mm color film in their raw, negative shape, enlarged to 60cmx60cm. Using a properly set-up smartphone, the viewer can reverse the negative colors and see the “true” historical picture inscribed in the material artifact of the film strip.

Compared to the negatives already published by Xu in book form in 2014, the shape of the negatives exhibited in Hamburg differed slightly: This time the scans of the negatives showed the film base around the picture area of the film, including sprocket holes and oil traces from the drum scanner used to digitize the negatives. This alternative shape was suggested to Mr. Xu by me, hoping to strengthen the perception of materiality of the negatives in the shape of the artworks.

The name of the group of artworks displayed in the exhibition was accordingly extended to “NEGATIVE/SCANS”, to cover the difference in regard to the “NEGATIVES” already published in 2014.

The Exhibition

The exhibition was displayed in the entrance area of the central library of Hamburg’s public library system. While it is an unusual location for an art exhibition, its daily average of around 4000 visitors from all walks of life, who would pass the exhibition on their way into the library, ensured a high visibility of the artworks and the issue of the student movement of 1989. In theory, about 120.000 visitors of the library would have had the opportunity to see the exhibition while it was on display, but of course it is impossible to say how many of those took a closer look.

From my personal point of view, when I sometimes went to the library to check up on the exhibition, every single time there were people taking a closer look at the artworks. The central library also reported a Chinese gentleman had contacted them to tell them that the Chinese characters on the banners of the demonstrators in the artworks were all wrong, showing up as mirror images of the normal characters. This mirror image is of course an intentional part of the form of the artworks, but I’m glad someone even noticed and took the time to ask.

For the end I saved a little practical joke: The picture below is a scan of a negative, which I — exposing Fomapan 400 ISO film through a 1:2.8/55 Micro-NIKKOR — made of one of the artworks in the exhibition. Looks like you don’t necessarily need a smartphone to decode the images. On a film negative, the negative shape of the artworks is reverted to a positive image too.

Perhaps the choice of medium through which we engage with historic images is not all that important after all, the importance is in the engagement with the images themselves.

Progressive progress – digitizing film using a slide copier

In the Sachsenwald near Hamburg.
The Sachsenwald near Hamburg. Digitized using the new process.

In the last few days and weeks I have been too busy to get much real photography done, but I was able to at least improve the speed of my workflow, using a slide copier attached to a digital slr.

The problem

Until now, it took me a long time to get the photos I made into a presentable form. One of the reasons for this was my trusty “Epson Perfection V370 Photo” flatbed scanner. While I cannot fault the quality of its output, it takes about three minutes to scan a negative, which for the usual film strip of 36 negatives quickly adds up to serious time. Furthermore, this is not even counting the time needed to clean up the resulting files (removing dust spots from the pictures, adjusting the grey values, etc.).

The solution?

I decided to try a different approach, using a digital slr to photograph my negatives and thus reduce the time to get digital files. For this, I now use a slide copier, a machine originally used to make copies of slide film (or negatives) with a normal camera. It basically just consists of rails to keep the film to be copied at a precise distance from the camera and provisions to adjust this distance as needed. The one I got was manufactured by Pentax as an accessory for their cameras sometime in the 1980s. Thanks to Pentax still utilising the same lens mount (the infamous K-mount) on today’s digital cameras, it is no problem to seamlessly connect it to a modern camera for producing digital copies of the negatives.

Pentax macro bellows with slide copier attached to a Pentax K-x.
Pentax macro bellows with slide copier attached to a (digital) Pentax K-x.

The process

This is how I do it: The slide copier is connected to a tripod and the camera is attached to its back. The adjustments needed to set the right distance between the negative, lens and camera are done in advance, based on measurements I took before with a test negative. Then the whole apparatus is aimed at a white curtain in direct sunlight, to provide a uniform, strong lightsource to illuminate the negative. After the right exposure setting for the negative has been set on the camera (the histogram displayed by the camera is extremely helpful for this), a full film can be quickly “scanned” with little need for further adjustments. (Perhaps a slightly dense or thin negative might require some exposure compensation, again, I keep an eye on the histogram provided by the camera.) After about a quarter of an hour, the digital files are ready to be uploaded to the computer.


The advantages to this process are manyfold. Speed is first and foremost. Using the time saved on digitizing the film for doing the digital darkroom work, I can finish the photos much faster. Secondly, the direct manual settings on the digital camera allow for much more control of the scanning process (at least compared to a consumer-level scanner).

Since this is a “lo-tech” approach, it can also be easily upgraded and used for a long time: Just connect the latest digital camera to the back and the quality of the digital files will keep up with the latest technological advancements. (Or the advancements of second-hand gear, one or two generations behind…)

Finally, while the principle of capturing light shining through the negative with a digital photo-sensor is the same as with the scanner, the files produced by the camera seem to have much more “bite”.

Disadvantages (or room for improvements)

Of course there are disadvantages to this process, too. Most obviously, the slide copier was designed to be used with film cameras, in other words, to use the “full frame” sensor format. Because the digital cameras at my disposal all use the cropped sensor format (APS-C), the scales and measurements on the slide copier change in relation to each other. This for example precludes the use of most of the excellent macro lenses designed for it. I had to make do with a SMC Pentax-M 40-80mm F2.8-4 Zoom lens, set to a focal length of somewhere around 70mm. Of course this lens is a far cry from the optical quality needed for precise reproduction, but for now, the quality is acceptable. Maybe in the (far) future I will invest in a prime lens of around 70mm focal length (perhaps an enlarger lens?), or even (gasp!) a full frame digital slr to bring all the measurements back into their normal range.

But there is no urgency. For now, I am happy with the results. Of course, when using 35mm film it also seems a bit pointless to engage in pixel peeping like this.

Addendum 31.01.2017: Later on I improved the slide copier setup somewhat, you can see it here.