WassinkLundgren and Martin Parr: Collecting The Chinese Photobook - Art Collector

Interior selection from Selected Stage Photographs fromRevolutionary Model Operas, Beijing: China Photographic Publishing House, 1976, from The Chinese Photobook, Aperture, 2015. Courtesy: The Photographer’s Gallery, London

By Emma Capps

The turbulent and politically charged history of modern China is explored in a current exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery in London that traces the production of Chinese photobooks from 1900 until the present day. Curated by Martin Parr (photographer, collector, and co-author of The Photobook: A History, volumes I-III) and Dutch photography duo WassinkLundgren, The Chinese Photobook is a rigorous and tightly assembled overview of this strong, but under-recognised tradition.

It was 2007 when WassinkLundgren and Parr began trawling the flea markets in Beijing, picking up what they could, and gradually, over the years, assembling a collection of photobooks several hundred strong. A sample of their findings is on display at the gallery, where visitors slowly ebb through the space, examining key works held in vitrines, and presented through enlargements, video screens and an interactive library.

The range on display is remarkable – from the compact
Palace Lanterns (1960) in which accordion style pages fold out to reveal delicate photographs of mid-century Chinese lighting designs, to the worshipful and overstated China (1959), a dazzling coliseum of a book that promotes, in hypercolour, the purported glory of the People’s Republic.

Alongside the exhibition, the group have also produced a book (at almost 500 pages, it’s more of a tome), which covers hundreds of works and an incredible diversity of styles and movements. Released by Aperture in May,
The Chinese Photobook is sure to become a collector’s guide through this under-surveyed territory.

I spoke with Thijs groot Wassink, the London-based half of WassinkLundgren (Ruben Lundgren lives in Beijing) about the exhibition, which will be leaving London to tour China later this year.

Interior selection from Gli impressioni di Manciu-cuo (Impressionsof Manchukuo), documenting the visit of an Italian delegation sent courtesy Benito Mussolini. Fengtian, China: Manchukuo Imperial Government, c.1938. Courtesy: The Photographers Gallery, London

Can you tell me how the process of collecting informed the exhibition? It seems that the sheer amount of books (and time spent gathering them) was what formed the thematic directions of the show.

Initially we had no idea what books were out there, so it was like buying in the dark – if a book was interesting, it became part of the collection. So for two or three years we had books just piling up and it was only afterwards that we started seeing certain groups, certain chapters emerge. Later on, when we started to arrange what we’d been finding in chronological order we realised there were certain time periods for which we had very few books, so then we’d have to accommodate that. For example, one period for which we initially had difficulty sourcing books was the 1930s and this was because Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, so most of the books published during that time covered the invasion and were actually produced in Japan.

So did this mean you had to cover quite a lot of ground when sourcing the books?

Most of the collecting was done in Beijing, at the Panjiayuan flea market, at auction houses, or online at Kongfz [a site akin to eBay]. But we also bought books in the West and in Japan, and Hong Kong and Taiwan – so all over really.

I'm interested in the aesthetic shifts in publishing that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. What changes can we see in the kinds of images that were produced during this time?

In the early days of the People’s Republic of China the images you’d find were more like snapshots – so even though they were propagandist, in looking at them it's easy to imagine how daily life must have looked at that time. However, during the later years, the direction and post-production of the images became much more exacting; the people in the photographs look happier, but the images bear less and less resemblance to what was happening in real life. Basically, they got better at propaganda; and had bigger budgets.

Another interesting thing that was happening during this time was that propaganda books were being censored after publication, when images of political leaders who had fallen out of favour were scratched, cut-out or pasted over by the owners of the books (as in Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts, Beijing, 1967). This form of post-post-production shows the level of active paranoia during that time, and these censored books work in two ways: on the one hand they show the image the State wants you to see, while on the other hand they are documents of fear.

Interior selection from Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts. Beijing: People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1967, from The Chinese Photobook, Aperture, 2015. Courtesy: The Photographer’s Gallery, London

The exhibition pays close attention to the tactility of the books on display. As someone who also publishes books, what role do you think the form of a book plays in our ability to interact with its content?

In terms of my own practice as an artist making books, I always feel that images are extremely context sensitive. I think in order to make any statement, you need to control the context – and books are a great way of doing this. The type of paper, size, or thickness of a book can be just as telling as the images or text within it. A good example of this in the exhibition is the tiny booklet which was used by Mao in 1949 to declare the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. In its images, it shows Mao’s ambitions, but in the production you see the economic reality shining through – they had absolutely no money.

That’s one of the remarkable things about the show – the way in which the meaning of the books expands once you learn of the particularities of their context.

Yes – Nature, Society and Man from the April Photography Society is another good example of a book that you'd easily overlook if you didn’t know its context. These two small volumes (published in 1980 and 1981) contain sets of printed photographs covering an enormous variety of subject matter. Some images are documentary, some more commercial, and others are extremely experimental. At first glance there seems to be no link at all between the various images, but when you realise that this is one of the first books that was published after the opening up of China, and that it was preceded by more than thirty years of extreme control on every book produced, it starts to make sense. Nature, Society and Man is this explosion of artistic freedom – a move away from the political in as many directions as possible.

The Chinese Photobook exhibition will be on display at The Photographers’ Gallery until 5 July 2015. The publication, The Chinese Photobook (Aperture, 2015) is available through Aperture’s website.

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