It comes to my mind that you cannot pick up a magazine, newspaper or listen to the news lately without hearing about China. It is either our greatest enemy or our partner in the fight against various countries we don’t like. It is source of exploited cheap labor, or they are stealing American jobs. It is in danger of polluting the earth to epic portions and about to gobble up all of the remaining resources or an untapped source of intelligent workers. The rising middle class of China’s new market economy has been the ‘it’ story this year. So I guess it is no surprise that many artists have flocked there to record the transition. I wrote a previous post about how it feels when you see another photographer do something you are working on, that generated quite a few comments and posts by my fellow bloggers. I have been thinking about it quite a bit lately. I guess there are certain subjects that are so large and hard to pin down, that it really does not matter how many people work on them. Dorthea Lange and Walker Evans WPA Farm Project work is very different but certainly equally valuable, even though it tackles the same subject.

Perhaps what is more interesting is that the China work is so similar. The massive and rapid cultural and economic shifts in China are extraordinary. And what is being created is not developing over time in a natural way, but seems more like development on steroids. Which does not leave much time for these new cities to develop personal characters. One thing that makes America unique is that are cities tend to have very different personalities. While Chicago and Boston have certain things in common, their souls are quite different. Suburbs on the other hand often seem indistinguishable, but that is another post. What I find interesting in Sze Tsung’s work for instance, is his consistency. His color palette and light never alter, in a way that is almost oppressive. It makes me wonder why he shoots that way. When I look at the images, I start to think that the individual character of old China is being wiped away for a ubiquitous pre-fab future.

Daniel Traub also is looking at the collision of the old & the new China, his images capture more of the emotional loss to me. They have a critical sentiment. But that I mean, we tend to feel sentimental about change, sometimes even over things we did not much care about to begin with, I think his photos make us question nostalgia? While the landscape is changing, are the people better off? Are we romanticizing the past, incorrectly?

And Zhou Hai’s B&W images are reminiscent of Charles Sheeler’s classic images on American industrialism. Borrowing that language and applying it to China to me is probably the most accurate statement. China is going through the same rapid growth we experienced as America transformed from an agrarian rural based society to an industrial urban powerhouse. No wonder we are so nervous.

I have selected a few examples, but I am sure there many other people doing good work on the subject, I know there are quite a few Chinese photographers recording the changes of their country, who for some reason I can’t seem to find now that I look. Art Forum has an article every month about rise of Chinese art. So in the end, I guess it is better to shoot what to matters to you even if the subject is been explored by others, as long as you have something else to to say about it. But it is an interesting issue in photography and one each photographer must confront. No one ever seems to give painters a hard time for doing another a piece of fruit with a skull… well they didn’t for a long time.

Sze Tsung Leong

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Edward Burtynsky

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Daniel Traub

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Zhou Hai

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Charles Sheeler

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