Lu Nan is China’s foremost documentary photographer, his iron grip on reality is leavened by a feel for the lyrical to be found in even the most disturbing of images…
This article will not only examine the sources of this lyricism, but will also suggest, with reference to several of his best known works, that the evocation of a privileged relationship to time, most especially to the showing of the future, lies at the heart of his gift.
In the now famous image ‘Mental Hospital, Sichuan, China, 1990’ (Pl. 39), is it the past or the future (again read as presented in the blurred background of the picture) that is forgotten or unknown and counterpointed by the ‘eternal present’ of the masque in play in the picture’s foreground? This question is undecidable – that is, we may read it both ways – this effect, of a blurring, occlusion, or uncertainty, of the past and the future (together with the two main significant features of the foreground, the individual’s mask-like expression and the ritually symbolic ring of inmates, both instances offering a closed-off final meaning) is nevertheless part of what makes this a great photograph.
If there is something more disturbing than a mental hospital with its reminder of the fragility of our sanity, the ephemerality of our sense of self, it is the remainder of our mortality, the fragility, brevity and provisional nature of our very existence. In Lu Nan, On the Road: The Catholic Church in China (Intergallery, Beijing, 2008) we are provided with just such a glimpse of the one event in our future which is predictable: our death – along with one kind of response to the dilemma posed by this fact; the religious positing of an otherworldly after-life.
‘A Corpse, Shaanxi, China, 1995’ (Pl. 55) is a beautiful picture replete with classic, painterly, overtones, bearing sublimated reminders of our shared fate as human beings. Here we can see how black and photography mimics the act of mourning making reality palatable by its representation as a form of lyrical sadness. The dark spaces in the image allow us to project, to be reminded of, our uncertainty as to our future. An uncertainty which hinges upon an ineluctable certainty.
By contrast, in ‘A Child’s Funeral, Yunnan, China, 1993’ (Pl. 16), the framed grave space, centre-ground, a brutal wound in the earth’s ground, is the, just of-centered, focal point of the picture – and so by implication the hole into which we are all heading. The background may also be read as a future and also otherworldly destination if conceived as the promised land of Christian religion, the heaven that, just maybe, awaits us on the ‘otherside’.
If the ultimate symbolic end of the deixis, in ‘Worshippers walking towards the consecrated land, Shaanxi, China, 1992’ (Pl. 3), the ‘pointing-up’, or movement upwards, into light, in this picture is the realm of the sacred and the otherworldly, then, this end is not shown, or not yet achieved. Indeed, in the world as depicted by this image, such an end still lies in the future of the image’s participant-characters (and so of ourselves as we enter the world of the photograph by lining-up our present with that shown in the image). And so face together what comes with the congregation who are headed ‘up’ the hill, real and symbolic (and away from us, who perhaps follow, or if not literally follow -for this would be impossible- nevertheless ‘follow’ in the sense of ‘understand’) moving towards this very real and potently symbolic end….
By contrast to the emphasis on last things in the images discussed above: if we turn to Lu Nan, The Four Seasons: the Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants (Intergallery, Beijing, 2007) and look at ‘Mother and Daughter, Tibet, 2001’ (Pl. 78) we find that quite another set of feelings about the future awaits us. For it is impossible to see the image of a newborn without our thinking of the realm of possibility, of the child’s potential, of the future in an open, positive light….
Also from The Four Seasons: the Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants is the now famous picture of peasants in the fields: ‘A Family Resting From Labor, Tibet, 1999’ (Pl. 63). In what is primarily a documentary image, the painterly elements quickly come to the fore; what ever its origin, the attention to the formal arrangement of the content (figures of peasants in a rural landscape) immediately marks this image out as one with the potential to become ‘art’ (so bridging the traditional divisions between art photography and documentary photography). This ‘art’ element is reinforced by the depicted content’s relationship to the past, its existence as a citation of the tradition of rural life, the peasant in (western) art history; the depiction of back-breaking work in the fields, and the attendant poverty). This combination of the painterly and documentary, is here most obviously (because found in one of his most beautiful images) the source of Lu Nan’s individual style; the combination of documentary reference or intent with the lyrical expressiveness due to painterly arrangement of content (so increasing not only the image’s significance and also the degree of formal beauty due to the foregrounding of form). We feel we are (as if) before a painting.
But paintings are usually in some combination of colour. The image before us is in black and white. The result is that we have a clash of the (colour) painting tradition and a particularly photographic form of expression. A kind of dissonance, or seeing double, as two very different frames of reference compete for our attention. The effect is one of standing before a somehow ‘de-presenced’ painting (due to its lack of colour): or, conversely, of a photograph with an added ghostly dimension (the uncanny addition of feeling that occurs with the appearance of a pattern, or formal arrangement, within an otherwise realist work of art, like the presence of a natural event as a symbol in realist literature). A kind of translation resulting in sense of elevated reality – and our privilege to be witness to its epiphany.
Which finally is the ‘classic’ feel that is the sole possession of black and white photography. The discovery of a latent lyricism and sense of un-improvability whose effect is the transformation of genre from documentary to classic; a transformation in seeing and classification which may have taken other documentary photographs decades to achieve in the West. Of photographs which begin as avowedly ‘art’ photographs (if you like, the Steichen/Stiglitz tradition) and are consumed as ‘classic’ photographs, that is they are popular as prints and as posters, we may say that they usually do not usually offer us such a persistent sense of their existence as record. So we are returned to the riddle at the heart of the survival and continuing success of black and white photography: the success and meaning of the ‘classic’ black and white photograph (a question best answered with reference to its constituting moment, its semi-present, lacking colour, mode of expression which signals a past referent as well as a past survived, so become.. a ‘classic’). Art as the cure for incurable, the memorialisation of a pain which must not be forgotten but needs to be lived with…and none more so than in the case of the depiction of art’s apparent anti-thesis: labour.
In another implied contrast, this time to received images in the popular realm, to certain tourism-type images, as to other forms of ethnic-exoticism or exotic ‘othering’, we see in ‘Grandmother and Granddaughter, Tibet, 2001’ (Pl. 90) also in The Four Seasons: the Everyday Life of Tibetan Peasants a non-exoticising image taken from Tibetan culture. Here perhaps largely because in black and white, with the colour, of ‘local colour’ excluded, so excluding such ‘colourful’ meanings, we see an image resisting stereotypes (insofar as a passive image can resist our human attempts to find significance through stereo-typology). This is a classic anthropological documentary image, showing documentary force; a memorializing in the present: but which may also include lyric feeling (or otherwise ‘classicizing’ elements due to the effect of formal arrangements in black and white) This drawing on a sense of the past -by emphasizing the pastness of the image content- may indicate the passing of a way of life. (This image, along with the collection of which it is a part, also avoids the other cliché, now becoming popular with ethno-photographers, a ‘high art’ form of the depiction of others, as a form of ‘authenticism’ depicting ‘others’ as possessors of ancient wisdom, in true touch with Nature).
The sense of the image as poetry, the lyricism which such a signature feature of Lu Nan’s work is in part due to composition (to the positioning of elements in a frame), in part to the use of space as time, as symbolic temporality: at times referring us back to our memories; at others pointing us in the direction of the future – at still another time pointing us right out of time… into eternity…. Time, temporality, our sense of always being positioned between a past and a future, perhaps the closest element to our moods, is never far when we are faced with the emotional content of the image; with what it is when the baldly representational is transformed (often in spite of the depicted content) into art.