Solange Brand – Pekin 1966: Petites Histoires de la Revolution Culturelle (Review)

Cover of Pekin 1966. Copyright © Solange Brand. All Rights Reserved.

Brand, Solange (2005): Pekin 1966. Petites Histoires de la Revolution Culturelle. Rennes: L’oeil electrique. (ISBN: 2-9516484-1-3 )

This October I had the opportunity to help with preparing an exhibition at Hamburg’s Institut Française: “Pekin 1966” with photos taken by Solange Brand. As a reward for helping to put the photos on the walls, the other students and me got a copy of Mrs. Brand’s photobook. I want to share my impression of the book in a short review:

The Photographer

Uta Lauer, Solange Brand and Sophie Udave (left to right) at the opening of the exhibition in the Institut Francais Hamburg on 31.10.2016.

Solange Brand went to Beijing in 1965 when she was just 19 years old, taking up the position of a typist at the French Embassy in Beijing, where she worked for the next three years. She was thus a witness of the Great Cultural Revolution, which Mao Zedong unleashed in 1966. During her spare time, she roamed the streets of Beijing with a camera (other places would have required a special permit), taking photos of China and the Chinese during this spectacular period of history. The fact that the cameras she used were all Pentax SLRs established a direct connection with me: I also use Pentax SLRs regularly. While today the name doesn’t carry the same weight anymore as for example Leica or Nikon, Asahi Optical’s Pentax was the first 35mm SLR developed in Japan, and the cameras of Asahi Optical Company offered a high quality at an affordable price, thus becoming something like the Volkswagen of SLR-cameras during the 60s and 70s. Obviously back in 1966, around the time when Asahi Optical, confident of their cameras quality, used the advertising slogan “Just hold a Pentax”, Solange Brand had no reservations to use a Pentax to record her experience of Beijing-life. Much later on, in the 1980s, Solange Brand became art director at the renowned Le Monde Diplomatique, a post she held for 25 years. Only recently (2005) has she decided to publish her wonderful photos of that bygone era.

1966. Nord-est de Pekin. Copyright © Solange Brand. All Rights Reserved.

The Book

The book is printed as a leporello, meaning all the photos are printed on one long strip of paper which is folded like a concertina to fit between the two covers of the book. The covers can be securely connected with a little red ribbon to protect the folded paper. It is possible to look at the photos “page by page”, but you can also unfold the whole strip and look at all photos side by side. This creates two effects with the reader/viewer: When folded and leafed through page by page, the thick twice-folded paper of the pages, combined with the “historic air” of the photos evokes the feeling of holding a photo album in hand, reminding us that these photos were in fact taken by Solange Brand and in a way we — as the viewers — share her own personal memories of Beijing in 1966/67. When unfolded, the effect is similar to seeing the photos on the walls of an exhibition space, allowing the pictures to communicate with each other and the viewer in a way that trancends single pages. You will need about a dozen meters of space to unfold the book completely, though.

Accompanying the photos are a short essay by Françoise Denoyelle, university professor at Louis Lumière (Paris), testimonies by a handful of Chinese people living in China and abroad collected by Kate Fletcher and Marina Le Guennec in 2004, as well as a short text by Solange Brand herself. These are all in French, but most editions of the book sold internationally contain a leaflet with English translations of the texts.

1967. Gardes rouges sur la route de Tianjin à Pékin. Copyright © Solange Brand. All Rights Reserved.

The Photos

The photos which Solange Brand took during the three years she was in Beijing are remarkable in more than one aspect: Non-propaganda photos of China from this time are rarely published. While it is not difficult to find shots from old family albums on chinese fleamarkets, it is next to impossible to find simple scenes of everyday life: Film was a scarce commodity, and even if private persons would have been able to get their hands on a few rolls of film, it would have never been “wasted” on simple shots on the street, instead beeing used for commemorative shots of marriages, birthdays, funerals and the like. This would be true for black and white film, but even more so for colour negative or slide film, which was hard to get even for the professionals of the press apparatus. Photos taken by outsiders like Solange Brand thus offer a rare glimpse on ordinary life during extraordinary times. Her status of an outsider might even have helped with getting these “incidental” photos: Unable to speak Chinese and not being versed in the complex political situation of the time, she had no choice but to naively photograph who- and whatever she encountered on the street, not judging the scenes by political or social significance, but on their aesthic and emotional appeal to her. The result are photos that — even ignoring their historical background — are a pleasure to look at: The colours are subdued and down to earth, contrasting sharply with the “heroic” colour palette used in other photos of China during that time. Looking at the photos, you can almost feel the dust and sand in Beijing’s skies. Furthermore the photos are composed with a good feeling for rhythm, which invites the viewer to take some time to immerse oneself in the pictures and savour all the little details they contain.

The photos are printed on two pages — right across the fold — which I normally abhor, but in this case the leporello folding of the book still allows the pages to be completely flat when open, thus not marring the pictures.

1966. Camions de militaires en route pour une manifestation. Copyright © Solange Brand. All Rights Reserved.

My Impression

As someone who also tried to come to terms with China photographically, just hearing about them I was immediately intrigued by the photographs of Solange Brand. Seeing them for the first time when putting them on the walls of the Institut Français proved to be no disappointment: The photos are of the highest quality, capturing the extraordinary aspects of ordinary situations, which for me is a mark of great (documentary) photography.

Especially when compared to the rigid way Chinese propaganda photos of the same time period depict their subjects, Mrs. Brand’s photos seemingly offer a much more “real” depiction of China in those years. But where does this sense of reality come from? Perhaps from the imperfections in her photos? The dusty, smogfilled air of Beijing? The motion blur of bicyclists? Persons out of focus in the fore- and background? Instances of camera movement? Even though most probably just artifacts of her equipment, these things ultimatively also represent “choices” made by the photographer in confronting the subject matter which shaped the final picture. (Coincidentally the common propaganda photos represent another set of possible choices of how to deal with China as subject matter.) Choices like avoiding the use of a tripod, flash or other kinds of artificial lighting and refraining from posing the subjects (or spending too much time on framing a scene) all result in the mentioned “imperfections” and thus a spontaneous, authentic quality of the photos, or at least an impression of that, which gives the viewer the feeling of seeing a vivid visual eyewitness account. But does this understanding of the equipment’s technical limits as explicit or implicit (creative) choices turn “documentary” photography into a mere style within the bigger context of art photography? Is there more to be discovered in these pictures than “beauty”? Are they “authentic”? Keeping in mind that Solange Brand did not speak Chinese in 1966/67 and didn’t have a clue about the inner social and political situation of China, how could her photographs be more authentic than the ones taken by professional chinese photographers of the time? Do we feel her naive approach ensures she didn’t forge or fabricate aspects of these pictures? What are we seeing here in this pictures? Chance or intention?

These are questions which can be asked about many photos, not just about the ones taken by Solange Brand, or taken in China. I don’t feel qualified to answer these questions, but I do feel fortunate to have met Mrs. Brand and saw her pictures. If you have a chance to see her photos in an exhibition, go for it. If not, the book is also a wonderful way to discover her pictures of China.

Update (08.07.2017): Fairly recently, Solange Brand made most of her photographs available on a homepage, including some not even printed in the book. Absolutely worth a look!

Xu Yong – Negatives (review)

The Cover of Xu Yongs "Negatives".
The Cover of Xu Yongs “Negatives”.

As part of the work on my dissertation, I research the different photographic representations of certain turning points and events in Chinese history and as far as events go, they don’t get any more iconic than the ’89 student protests on Tian’anmen square.

Today is the anniversary of the violent crackdown on the ’89 Democracy Movement (or vulgo Tian’anmen Square Protests) in Beijing and other cities. On this occassion I want to discuss a photobook released last year, which the library of the Asien-Afrika-Institut of Hamburg University was so kind to acquire just a few days ago, making it accessible for me:

Xu Yong 徐勇. Negatives. Dortmund: Kettler.

(ISBN 978-3-86206-529-5, bound copy 48€)

The Photographer Xu Yong 徐勇

According to the information provided in the book, Xu Yong was born in Shanghai in 1954 and is now living in Beijing.

Photographic works of his include:

Hutong 101 Photos 胡同101, 1989

Opening Beijing 开放北京, 2001

Xiaofangjia Hutong 小方家胡同, 2003

Backdrops and Backdrops 布景与背景, 2006

Solution Scheme解决方案, 2007

18% Gray 十八度灰, 2010

This Face这张脸, 2011

The Book

The book itself is lavishly produced, the cover done in linen and protected by a clear plastic dustcover reminsicent of an oversized strip of 35mm film. This dustcover bears a negative print of the “Goddess of Democracy”, a statue made from plaster and styrofoam which the protesters erected on the square, directly vis-à-vis the portrait of Mao Zedong hanging on Tian’anmen.

The 64 negatives in the book are reproduced in a fantastic quality on thick, coated paper. Most negatives get their own page, with none printed across the gutter. This makes it possible to concentrate on appreciation of the pictures. Some of them are printed smaller, in groups on one page, but they are still large enough to clearly make out the scenes. The negatives are accompanied by three short essays written by Shu Yang 舒陽, Gérard A. Goodrow and Martin Rendel. Especially outstanding is the one by Shu Yang discussing the use of the negative as a part of the photographic process and – perhaps as an answer to problems posed by digital imaging – as a possible final product of photographic creation.

The Photos

The photographs in this book all show different scenes of the protests on Tian’anmen Square, with the catch that they are all reproductions of part of the negative film strips, complete with sprocket holes on the upper and lower border of the pictures, showing the picture in its original, negative form, basically the way the camera recorded them. They have even been reproduced as mirror images, the way the light from the lens draws them in the camera, though the authors didn’t go as far as to print them upside down, which would ultimately be correct. (The picture drawn by a camera shows an inverted image: Left becomes right, and up becomes down.)

To allow the non-photographer to make sense of the scenes, the author suggests using a smartphone or tablet with the colours of the screen or camera-app inverted, thus revealing the picture “hidden” in the negative. This brings the pictures to live and adds a sense of immediacy and viewer participation, which is acknowledged as intentional in Shu Yang’s accompanying essay.

negative 6...
negative 6…
... and negative 6 with inverted colours.
… and negative 6 with inverted colours.
Negative 25...
Negative 25…
... and negative 25 with inverted colours.
… and negative 25 with inverted colours.

My Impression

Originally I just wanted to lay hands on this book as an example of “recently published photographs of the Tian’anmen incident”, but the way the pictures are presented turned out to be much more interesting than their immediate content.

Printing the pictures as negatives, and thus perhaps forcing the viewer to decode them by him/herself powerfully underlines the fact that the photos we encounter day to day, no matter if in books, newspapers or now online in blogs and the Facebook, are the result of a process controlled by someone. The final shape of photos is thus no longer strictly bound to reality, the way a negative is. This is no new development, for also in analog (or chemical) photography, the negative needs to be processed to become the final print or photograph. The question of authenticity and truthfullness has thus been discussed as long as photography exists.

It has become somewhat acute again in the general photographic public over the last few weeks, following the discovery that renowned National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry (his most famous picture is the portrait Afghan Girl) used post production techniques (i.e. Photoshop) to change the shape (and thus also content) of some of his pictures, from adjusting small details to even removing or adding persons to a picture. This sparked a wider debate in the photographic circles on the standards to which photojournalism and photography in general are held accountable to or should be held accountable to. Finally McCurry had to acknowledge he is no longer a photojournalist, but a “visual storyteller” on the page of Time Magazine.

Encouraging the viewer to use his/her smartphone for this decoding is a spark of genius. Not only is it the tool with which most photographs are produced now, its ubiquity also makes it the way through which most social unrest and protests are percieved today. In other words: if new demonstrations were to happen on Tian’anmen square, the tool they would be recorded with would surely be the smartphone, like it has happened with the Umbrella Movement of 2014 in Hong Kong, for example. Viewed through the smartphone, the pictures in this book gain an uncanny topicality, removing the historical distance to what happened in China during the summer of 1989 and keeping it alive and present. I feel deeply moved by this book and recommend everyone to take a look inside if you havn’t done so already.