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Talk of the Day: Pioneer in Chinese 'humanistic photography'

2012/04/22 19:32:41

In 1979, not long after China's Cultural Revolution ended, a group of young Chinese photographers formed a professional association and held a joint exhibition in which they declared the beauty of the photographic art lies in the rhythms of nature, in the reality of society and in the pleasantry of daily life.

Wang Miao is one of those pioneering Chinese photographers whose bold declaration changed a country where all forms of art were supposed to "serve politics." Now, Wang's works of art are on display at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei.

Below are excerpts of a major Taiwanese newspaper's reports on Wang and the significance of her works in the solo exhibition in Taiwan:

China Times:

The exhibit is titled "Joy and Sorrow of China: A Look Back at Wang Miao's Photographic Career."

In a circle usually dominated by male photographers, the achievement of Wang Miao, a small woman, stands out.

Born in Beijing 61 years ago, Wang was a junior high school student when the Cultural Revolution started. Her mother jumped from a high building to her death after being ruthlessly persecuted by the Red Guards, who also seized all her family property.

Wang was forced to "learn from farmers" in rural areas for three years and was "returned" to her household address in Beijing only after she had contracted liver disease.

One of her neighbors was a photographer at Beijing's National Palace Museum, who was busy day in and day out toting a camera -- a job that Wang said she was very envious of.

"So my dad and my future father-in-law chipped in more than 300 yuan to buy me a second-hand camera in Shanghai," Wang recalled. She was 21 when she first owned a camera.

At first, she had to explore everything pertinent to taking photos all by herself. After taking photos of museum collections, she became a disciple of several senior photographers whose jobs were taking pictures of the artifacts in caves in northwest China such as Longmen, Yungang and Dunhuang.

One of the "masters" -- Huang Xiangkun -- taught her to "seize the moment of shooting, rather than shoot at posed objects." This became a principle that she has followed ever since.

By age 28, she and others had formed the "April Photography Association," which helped her become a pioneer in humanistic photography in China and helped her win a reputation as "one of the most influential photographers in China."

Her photography career has been full of incidents. Once, when she used an old camera to take the picture of a snowy scene, the military accused her of spying.

In a 1974 photo titled "Inside and Outside the Cage," she captured people -- from within a cage -- looking at the monkeys from outside the cage. That photo created a stir when China's thought police accused her of "implicating that socialism has imprisoned people in a cage in which they do not enjoy freedom."

Another photo of hers, titled "Fish-selling Woman," was said to be "promoting free market economy" -- a charge that could have put the author in jail at a time when socialist China was yet to open up to the world economy.

One of her "troublemaking" photos shows two boats next to each other at a lakeside. She titled it "Dating," drawing criticism that she was hinting at "socialism dating capitalism" -- when "capitalist roaders" were charged with being "counterrevolutionaries," a crime that was also heinous enough to get people sent to prison.

"I was just shooting people, events and objects that I encountered in my daily life, and yet an invisible political pressure was everywhere to be felt," she said.

For a time, she said, she simply could not hold a camera and capture any human beings.

That sense of pressure was with her until 1985, when she was assigned by the China News Service to cover Tibet for three months. In Tibet, her lens no longer focused on the "minor scenes and minor people around me" but were extended to "the infinite sky and the immense land."

"Tibet's sky, land and people totally changed my world view, allowing me to bravely take pictures of people. The fear was gone," she said.

Wang, 61, has been a CNS photographer since 1979. She was later assigned to work in Hong Kong. She has extensively covered the religions, festivals and daily routines of people in northwest China, Tibet and China's border areas, using her humanistic approach.

In 2003, she was elected as China's "Photographer of the Year" and in 2006, the Chinese Photographers Association honored her with a "lifetime contribution" award.

In addition to helping other Chinese humanistic photographers and mentoring younger-generation professionals, Wang has also worked hard to promote exchanges among photographers in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

"It's a great pleasure to play the role of a bridge" for photography lovers in these four places, she said. (April 22, 2012)

(By S.C. Chang)