Wang Chuan: Photography as Your Choice

TIME: 2020.1.10

Wang Chuan: I’m Wang Chuan. The topic I want to share with you today is “Photography as Your Choice.” If you look back at the 180-year history of photography, compared to painting with a history that claims to be 25,000 years old, or even 40,000 years, the history of photography is too short to be mentioned. But if we look at its profound influence, its popularization, and its full development today, there’s no doubt that photography is a miracle in the history of human visual media. Many people are trying to admit that the camera is a magical invention.

However, many people find that even if one has been obsessed with photography for a long time, he/she cannot explain how magical the camera is. Of course, this won’t prevent him/her from having a fascination with photography. A camera can always help us extract what we care about from the very complicated and chaotic reality and instantly turn it into an image and grant it meaning. So this alone actually endows it with a kind of “magical” that Sontag said. In retrospect, after it was born, countless people have engaged themselves in photography numerous times. I think one of the purposes (for them) is to record for the world to see. People who desire to express themselves and present themselves also account for a big proportion.

Since 1986, I have dealt with other people and the world with just a paintbrush and paper. I did that through painting. But a certain amount of basic training was required if one wanted to get started in this way they have to have a preliminary knowledge. Painting delayed my school work but built my confidence as compensation for time and time again. The enthusiasm for painting culminated before the exam, and lasted until I was studying at university. There were many reasons why it gradually cooled down, the most important reason, I have to admit, was the camera. In September 1986, I had the first Seagull DF-1 Camera, with no metering modes, with almost nothing. When I got it, I put down my paintbrush unconsciously and later I decided to study photography.

After I graduated from the postgraduate program in 2000, photography became, for the next 20 years, the main means of my creation. I gradually stopped painting. But recently, especially since 2016, I suddenly realized that painting has never really left me. If I look back at my personal experience of creation from 2000, I would roughly divide it into two phases. In the first phase, I was using large or medium format cameras and films. On the surface, it was professional photography, but I would rather call it a stage of painting-like image creation, because PS software has been introduced during this phase, which has demonstrated an unparalleled advantage in image synthesis during this process.

After 2008, my interest shifted, and I began to regard photography as a visual medium to understand. And I began to value its functions, attributes and language features.

I remember that after the end of the 1990s, there were a large number of people with the background of art or design, who devoted themselves to the creation of photography and video. I think they had similar experiences with Photoshop in many ways, which was very personal. This was the problem I thought about thousands of times since my creation stage before 2008. Namely, what’s in your hand is the mouse or the paintbrush? Sometimes I felt as if I was painting, because when I drew these graphics with my mouse, what popped up in my mind are the depth of field, the focus, the matching color temperature and so on. That is to say, at this time, in the creation of painting, many concepts of photography and of images have been naturally implanted and introduced. It is a process of mixing.

It was because of the mixed nature of this process that it created a dilemma, and I was even a little bit antagonistic—I doubted whether the things I was doing were pure enough. However, I came to understand later that everyone has a true calling. So, you don’t need to fight against it; in fact, you may not be able to defeat it at all, and it’s not necessary. At this stage, I thought that Photoshop software not only pulled the painting into photography again, but this time the strength was unmatched and unprecedented.

The question of the relationship between painting and photography is not a coincidence of personal experience, but a very important academic topic that is interrelated and concerned. However, it is in recent years that people have become aware of it. In the process, I think it is worth mentioning that Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge is very inspiring and influential to me. What behind the two systems of painting and photography is the relationship between the naked eye and the optical system—two different ways of viewing. Hockney, I think, is so great that as a famous painter, he frankly admits painting and painters’ seek help from the optical system, which has been generous to all and has lasted for a long time. He traces it back to hundreds of years ago.

At the same time, as a painter, he has conducted research in a very empirical way and demonstrated his judgment. Interestingly, we’ve accepted his idea but never come to look down upon such masters as Da Vinci or Caravaggio. On the contrary, I found my understanding of them too one-sided. They’re actually the first group of people advocating and practicing today’s popular technical art. They’re marvellous. I went to the  Central Academy of Craft Art, as it was formerly known, to pursue my undergraduate degree, before my postgraduate degree. I received a systematic and professional education. I think the basic logic of professional education will, with the accumulation of knowledge in a certain field and the cultivation of skills, gradually develop into a comprehensive quality concerning thinking habits, your creative consciousness, creative ideas, your working methods, as well as your own criteria for judging yourself and the external world. This is the basic logic of professional training.

At that time, I majored in Illustration as an undergraduate. I thought I could be an illustrator for a lifetime, and I did it for over 20 years. However, such a situation didn’t hinder me, not at all, and later I turned to photography. If you do the math, the two phases have overlapped with each other for some time. I’ve worked as a photographer for nearly 30 years. But it didn’t prevent painting from returning to my creations from 2016. It didn’t prevent me in my research from continuing to do something across the sector, either. Therefore, all changes are motivated by one’s internal needs instead of external trends. That’s what I think, personally.

I feel that the world has been changing fast. And actually, so are you. The latter is more needed and worthy of our very sensitive real-time investigation, because from this perspective, “cross-border”, which has been happening all the time, has never been the purpose. First and foremost, you have to belong to a certain field with a border. Why? In the field lies your value and meaning. Sometimes when discussing with students, I’m often asked, “Why do you take pictures? What motivates you to do that?” Even as a teacher at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, I insist that the primary task of my photography shouldn’t be to provide an aesthetic model, as this is no longer the most important thing. In fact, through photography, you’re driven to think or to prove some of your ideas—they gradually become the most important reasons and motivations for taking photos. Sometimes, you may have a hunch that the action of photography will help you test and will lead the way for you. It is the photos you’ve been taking in practice that show you the real path. It’s a clear personal experience.

In short, the longer you spend on photography, the more you’ll feel that it’s not a simple image acquisition but an extension of thinking. When I was a graduate student, my tutor Mr. Fred was always telling us about the Cask Effect. I think he meant to remind everyone that photography is not a piece, nor a point, but a complete system—it should be understood that way. So, during the two years I was studying with him, in retrospect, were at the critical turning point from the film era to the digital age. Looking back, I’ve done a lot of practice in digital imaging, in which I think the principle he noted not only is effective, but also sometimes goes beyond that in the digital field.

In the whole transitional period, in fact, we may hear a variety of different voices and experience different kinds of anxiety. No matter how fierce it came at the time, it has become the past. The transition gives me the two most important tips: first, it comes without any sound or due consideration, regardless of what role you played in the past development. Because of this, film makers like Agfa have gone, and image giants like Kodak haven’t staged a comeback. Second, even in the case today of fully digital, even intelligent images, you’ll always find useful the photography in traditional form. It never fades away and furthermore, it shows an ability to regenerate like a new tree sapling. The two points above are of particular interest to me.

Now, when we’re holding the camera, running around with our mobile phones, and adjusting the machines, what on earth are we doing? Sometimes it is necessary to consider the question. In my opinion, all the photography is a collision between objects, or a world before us and the thoughts in our mind—a projection of our consciousness. All the photos we take intentionally or unintentionally are our choice. Therefore, I’m talking about the essence of the photography—that is, the choice in some way. All the so-called technical means of photography are the ways we demonstrate and confirm the choice. Moreover, the styles, genres, effects, etc. of those images can also be a way to emphasize the confirmation of our choice. If the opinion is agreed, we’ll have further judgments on how close a photo can bring us to reality and fact. However, a photo can never be taken as the reality or fact. Why? That’s not just because photography is inherently technical, but because photography as a medium is naturally subjective, which has completely broken through the limitations of its technical principles. As for the objectivity of photography discussed by people more often, I’d rather think of it as being based on comparisons with paintings, not on comparisons with objects.

We’ve read a lot about family photo albums, in which memories of the family are always emphasized. It’s also true even in the most familiar ones including the first chapter of New York photography textbooks. Such consciousness is deeply rooted, of which I have always approved. However, I do think that it is no longer as unswervingly as I used to. Why? Because I lost all the data on a hard disk a few years ago, which I think is common to us all in this digital age. In this age, such an accident is a disaster. Fortunately, tens of thousands of images were retrieved at last. But there was one problem: the original names of the files and folders were all replaced by a new automatically-generated serial number. At that time, you’d instantly know what’s space-time reversal—the original order was disrupted and thus the relationship between the photos was completely disrupted.

This is the first time I came to realize how important the file names were. In this case, I realized that I’d always fail to adjust these sequences by memories. At least for a considerable number of the pictures, it was impossible to do that, because the information and content carried by those photos were quite limited with different priorities. So, it demonstrated great uncertainties about photography and video and reminded me of an annual academic report by Cambridge University that I had read, which said: neither words nor photos are the memory itself, but the medium for its activation. After the accident, I kind of believed it.

The uncertainty of photography, I think, originates from the constant state of photographic images, with accuracy, concreteness and obscurity coexisting. This ambiguity of photography is actually rooted in the image, and more importantly, is produced in the viewer’s mind. However, even if I browse through some photos taken before, I’m not sure where and why they were taken—they can’t offer any clues. Of course, it doesn’t matter: in the eyes of other viewers, these images become visible and readable with some meaning, due to some complementary content generated in their minds.

Therefore, a photo, no matter how clear it is, can’t eliminate its ambiguity, which exists in many ways. I think this, without question, should be regarded as a very specific manifestation of the complexity of photography. Therefore, I understand more clearly why the theory of photography has gone through modernism and turned to postmodernism, which then turned to the relationship between pictures and later to the social and cultural context of the entire photography collection. Why? Because the research methods of modernist ontology alone can no longer deal with the complexity in photography.

At times, these problems can actually be very tricky. Sometimes I think that if I were an average photographer and practitioner, I would never touch them, time-and-labor-consuming; and if I were an average user, but with the best equipment, advanced techniques, and good luck, photography would definitely do me good. But the problem is that those “ifs” can’t be true. To deliver education and to be a teacher demands “know-how” of yourself. Moreover, in the face of photography, such a special medium, its constant changes, as well as its constantly evolving problems and crisis, I think educators must pass their judgment anytime, anywhere, take a position, and explain your choice at the same time. This is the greatest difference from the average practitioners. Therefore, it’s very tough to know “why” in complex photography. And for fickle photography, “know-how” is all the more long-lasting and endless.

In this case, we must recognize that this is “photography”. It’s just how it is. In 2004, I first read about the complexity of photography from an interview with Jeff Wall, which at that time, was completely confusing for me. Had it not been from Jeff Wall, I wouldn’t have believed it. So, I thought it might be important to understand the topic as well as its meaning. It took me a few years to explore. This was not anything you could understand from the very beginning. Recently, so wide-ranging and heated discussions have been provoked on whether photography is itself or not, on whether photography is dead or not, and on whether there is a future for photography or not. I think they come from the sudden acceleration and intensification of changes in  photography in recent days, which make the simple, one-dimensional, rigid way of thinking and understanding lose ground. All the people are bound to at a certain point on the whole trajectory of photography, or at a certain stage of photography and are prone to be distressed in the process, which is commonplace.

This round of change is undoubtedly driven by the technologies of photography, which hasn’t made photography at all simple. In fact, the new technologies have been applied to photography and made it a lot easier, without which the following consequences wouldn’t have been possible. But there are still some problems that are complicated by the change of technologies and thus become less clear. But in turn, we have to admit the fact that this round of technological change has directly led to cheap and popular photography. I remember that since 2001, I’ve been concerned with the popularization of photography, thinking of it as one of the most important topics in contemporary photography. So, the development of photography is actually its popularization—it goes from a small group of users to common people. That is the way it develops.

However, in the last 30 years, its development has accelerated. Why? I think it’s because this round of change is different from the previous ones; a round of popularization has been achieved by the application of digital technology to the production of images as well as the spread of cheap and intelligent equipment, including personal computers, the Internet, and later the new smart phones. Therefore, photography has once again become popularized in both its volume and strength, in the way the production of portable cameras and fast films have done. This round, however, is completely unmatched by the previous ones—it has changed the process and structure directly from the production of an image, it’s processing, dissemination, reading, and so on. Therefore, we’ve been directly thrown into an era when images overflow and substitute words. The change has not only affected our understanding of photography itself, but brought a great change to social life as a whole.

Many people agree that the history of photography can be regarded as a history of technologies in some ways. Moreover, the evolution of schools compared with that of styles is clearer and more independent in the history of the technological development of photography. In my class, when many students came to me, asking, “Sir, can we borrow the Hasselblad Camera from the studio?” I know exactly what they’re thinking—They want to borrow it just because of the legendary brand of Hasselblad. Then I ask, “Do you know how to use a light meter?” “No” is the common answer. For the younger generation who grew up with  intelligent equipment, which follows the automatic and electronic equipment, the light meter is strange and unfamiliar. They know nothing about that. From this, we can see that technologies have given a very dazzling aura of photography, which photographers in the past felt proud of and which they found distinctive. It does make sense.

But today, for the same reason, such aura has gradually faded with the advancement of technologies, the technological advancement of photography itself. On the other hand, more people have the opportunity to touch this system anytime and anywhere. This is a very interesting phenomenon. In this case, photography has come into contact with a large group, resulting in an integration. Such contact and integration can be said to make everything about it different. Generally speaking, when it comes to the first reaction of popularization of photography, everyone will talk about mobile photography. I admit that it is, out of the question, a very typical and important part.

In a deep mountain ditch in Daixian County, Shanxi Province—difficult to find this place again—there is a temple, a scenic spot. I saw people there trying to attract tourists by building something. They weren’t, however, building on bricks and tiles, but instead, by means of an inkjet printng—the entire wall was wrapped in inkjet images. It was said that photography was pervasive, and I thought this was a case in point. However, to this end, we’re not sure whether you should be pleased, or should be a little anxious and conflicted. However, we have to say that we’ve become accustomed to the external world with images involved in the construction. For this topic just now, this situation is not only a result of popularization, but also a cause of that in some way.

In Hong Kong in 2016, in a small alley behind a photography gallery, a place dedicated to the classic Leica Camera and photos taken with these cameras, I was very serious and asked someone to take a couple shot of me with an image of  Sean Penn. However, after taking the photo, I left, while he was still on the wall, at a temperature of 40 degrees. I didn’t know how long he would stay, as he had to wait until the next inkjet sprayed onto his face. This proves what I said just now. We can hardly imagine an external world, or life without photography. What is important is that in turn, these facts, as prompted in this case, have begun to affect the generation and use of new images, which has become a source of experience.

Then, the photographic behavior produces images, while the images in turn influence new photographic behaviors, even thinking. There are many cases of such a cycle in photography, full of typical photographer’s paradox. At the end of last year, there was a seminar at the Academy of Fine Arts, Tsinghua University, with the theme of “Coming Image”, where I delivered a speech, trying to explore the concept and status of the intermediate world between our inner world and the real external world, constructed by the images. The barrier has a dual nature—it participates in the world construction, but replaces the real world; it brings extra information, but at the same time, blocks our sight; it can stimulate our desire to watch, but at the same time, it can also hold us back from exploring the real world. In short, it’s a paradox.

I think it seems that we don’t have the will, the ability, or even the strong need to get rid of such an intermediate world. Since we’ll always encounter the problems brought by the images and their limitation, I think we’d better adapt ourselves by just paying attention to the worth of the status and volume to photography today and tomorrow. Baudrillard once said, “The world will wave to you, and the world will invite you to take photos.” I don’t know whether the world today or tomorrow will do the same. Who knows? Maybe it has learned enough about photography. However, in our world, people are still longing for more about photography. In the exhibition I planned in 2015, a famous saying of Master Hongyi, “Zhí xiàng ér qiú, zhǐ chǐ qiān lǐ执象而求,咫尺千里(Truth is far from appearance)” has created an expression. Such Buddha’s view can be regarded as an insight. He seems to hint and remind us more than 100 years ago that even  photography can bring us closer to reality, it always keeps a distance from the facts; at the same time, he also tells us that if we only rely on images and photos, our interpretation will usually deviate from the facts.

However, it’s useless, anyway. Although we all know that human beings have created media, which will in turn counterclaim humans, our thoughts, and our actions, we’re still enjoying photography today. If there’s an endless game between people and images, between people and the medium, I hope that in this game, we’re not and won’t be the one who is being controlled. If the image can be manipulated, I think that our vigilance against the medium of photography today will do no harm to its development at all. We should remain rational and make photography a choice for us, or yours, when facing the future world. That’s all. Thank you.