Photographing China

by Andrew E. Nelson

China: The Photographs of Lois Conner

Foreword By Jonathan Spence
Essay By Jeremie R. Barme
Notes By The Photographer
New Work: Gallaway Editions, 2000
Lois Conner
Laurence Miller Gallery
New York, New York
September 14-October 28, 2000
(Extended Through November 4)
New York-based photographer Lois Conner has photographed in China for more than 15 years, and the evolution of her relationship with China, and the pace of China's own change, are recorded in a new book, China: The Photographs of Lois Conner. Lotus, an exhibition at the Laurence Miller Gallery in New York City, coincided with the book's publication.

Her fascination with China began during Conner's graduate studies in photography at Yale. An art history class on Chinese scroll painting introduced her to both the cinematic narrative of long scroll paintings — viewed by unrolling the scroll in the right hand, and simulta­neously winding the previously viewed portion in the other hand — and the landscape of southern China. At first con­vinced that the jarringly vertical limestone karst formations depicted in the scrolls were exaggerations, if not outright inven­tions, Conner would eventually go to see for herself, with the aid of a 1984 fellow­ship from the Guggenheim Foundation.

The camera that Conner took along was not the 8" x 10" view camera she had used as a student at Yale. Instead, she car­ried a "banquet camera," a view camera producing a 7" x 17" negative and original­ly designed for photographing large groups of people — as at long banquet tables. In Conner's hands, the banquet camera's broad negative becomes a com­plex narrative, forcing the viewer's focus to move through the image in a way that approximates the scroll-painting's linear story. Some of her photographs, made from several negatives printed in series, expand the narrative structure to wall-size.

Reflecting the centuries-old influence of scroll paintings, Conner's earliest pho­tographs of Guangxi are pictorial in the extreme, muted images of a fantastic land­scape contact printed on a heavyweight tracing vellum, sensitized by hand with a solution of platinum and palladium salts.

Conner has returned to China almost every year since her first photographic trip there, and the work has gained complexity as she has come to know the country and its changing face. She travels alone, buoyed by a talent for languages, an in­stinctive fluidity with her camera and a back strong enough to carry 40 pounds of camera, tripod and film up stairs, over mountains, through the desert and on-and-off innumerable trains, bicycles and camels.

Excepting four pictures taken in India, the Laurence Miller Gallery's exhibition Lotus showcased Conner's photographs of China. But rather than structuring the exhibition as a digest of China: The Photographs of Lois Conner, the exhibi­tion's title and organizing theme refer­enced Conner's long interest in the Asian lotus, a photographic touchstone. Slightly more than half of the exhibition's contents were photographs of lotuses — from leaves to flowers, stems and seed pods — and of depictions of lotuses, in paintings, decorations, iron fences and other settings.

Conner's depictions of lotus plants make them seem at once achingly exotic (freighted with suggestions of Odysseanintoxication and Yogic trance) and pro­foundly earthbound. While her horizon-less photographs of lotus in still water can reduce the plants to a calligraphic dance of stems and blossoms, perfectly inverted in the water's reflective surface, they are as likely to depict the tangles of seed pods and wilted leaves, sinking and decaying just below the surface. The latter depic­tions save the lotus photographs from the trap of the languidly picturesque, but the images still suffer from a measure of sameness, and in the exhibition quickly blended together into an atmosphere of beauty and decay seemingly uncon­nected to any particular photograph.
The exhibition's photographs of depictions of lotus flowers in art and architecture — including the afore­mentioned photographs from India — are stronger, in their overt engagement with contradiction. One of the strongest, Mysore, India,(2000) depicts a wall cov­ered with what look like campaign posters of a waving man, decorated liberally with a lotus blossom motif. The image at once combines the seedy and the mystical, as does Shanghai, (1999), a richly dark night­time image of fabric effigies of fish and lotus blossoms, fixed on stilts above a river. The downward angle of the camera, however, frames the assemblage against a background of stained concrete pillars holding motley buildings above murky water.
The decision not to attempt a survey of the new book's contents makes more sense upon examination of the book. China: The Photographs of Lois Conner is an enormous selection of Conner's richly contradictory images of contemporary China. The fact that the photographs are all contemporary, with the oldest in the book from the mid-igSos, is to varying degrees difficult to believe. The weathered towns and blasted landscape of western China's high-desert Gansu and Xinjiang provinces receive the same thoughtfully merciless gaze as the skyscraper rooftops and tangled traffic of Shanghai and the high-rise warrens of endless Hong Kong apartment blocks. And the bamboo scaf­folds still in use in modern Chinese building construction echo the bamboo scaffolds of laborers trimming trees, in the same year and in the same city.

China makes the case, visually, that such contrasts are an inextricable element of life in China. As her essential under­standing of these small ironies increases, Conner has begun more frequently to turn her camera upon the people she meets in her travels. The portraits that result (for they are, in the truest sense, portraits) clarify and confound at once, in the direct intensity of the subjects' gaze, their simultaneous wariness and curiosity, and the irresistible complexity of the large rectangular negative.

In her Notes in the book, Conner writes affectingly of the (sometimes overwhelming) attention she receives while photographing, telling for example the story of making an early-morning photograph beside a lake in Hangzhou and finding as she set up her camera that a crowd was gathering behind her, soon to number some 300 curious souls. In effectively turning the camera around, Conner creates some of the book's strongest pictures, like the deadpan Guangzhou, Guangdong, (1993), four fash­ionable ladies (three dressed in jackets from the same pattern) arrayed before a background including (left to right) a crowd of pedestrians, a parka-ed child sitting on the ground, five distinctly Caucasian fashion mannequins, a pile of gravel and three men mixing cement.

The sweep of China carries the reader from images of landscape seemingly untouched by human intervention, to photographs in which all is the product of the human hand, where the rivers are of concrete instead of water and moun­tains are replaced by buildings. And then we return to the countryside, along the way our gaze returned by a handful of the 1.3 billion Chinese from Tiananmen Square to the steppes of Inner Mongolia.
Conner's relationship with China is an engagement as deep as that of Brassa'i with Paris or in many ways as strong as the humid familial bonds that fueled Sally Mann's years-long examinations of her children and family. Conner's eye and her exquisite prints (reproduced better in the book's tritones than anyone has a right to expect, the tones richly saturating a heavy uncoated paper stock) bring to a par the components of her China, melding to­gether water, stone, trees, sand, concrete, paper, mud, construction, destruction and the calm bemusement of China's people as they are confronted by a small fearless woman and her large camera. Returning to China over and over again, Conner and her camera have themselves become a part of the landscape.

At this writing, Conner is back in China, photographing.

Andrew E. Nelson is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas. Lois Conner was his first photography teacher.