Comprehending the Marvels of Nature:
Thirty Years of Wang Dajun's Landscape Photographs
Essay/ Lin Lu
In the history of Chinese photography, many noteworthy elements have influenced the course of Chinese photography. Certain historical and cultural environments and backgrounds have been ignored; once they are unearthed, perhaps they will provide unprecedented inspiration. For example, in the 1980s, a recently-revived Chinese photography stood ignorantly at a crossroads, not knowing where it had come from or where it was going. Therefore, certain courageous, wise, and strong photographers stood up, and relied on institution to direct and perform a beautiful and lively image drama. Regardless of whether the times create the heroes or the heroes move the times, these people have naturally left an indelible and living imprint on modern Chinese photography. The school that was perhaps most conspicuous was not the documentary photography that was later so dominant, nor was it the conceptual photography that was to flower for a time, then be quashed by ideological restraints. It was landscape photography, which continued to admire nature. This admiration expressed through the lenses of Chinese photographers awakened countless thirsty souls, allowing us to feeling the grand power of communication between man and nature.
Let us begin with one of Wang Dajun's works from that period. In November 1988, a highway in Dangxiong County, Tibet runs straight through a vast desert, dividing one third of the golden surface of the picture from the rest. We are faced with a fully-laden truck and the confident back of a herdsman passing alongside it. Livestock, dotted like stars along the roadside, slowly wander into the frame. This is a real depiction of a natural and human scene from western China in the 1980s, which very few people have seen. It is a magical and enticing momentary image, blending golden sections of light and shadow, and revealing a road to the human and divine realms that is both unobtainable and well within our reach.
Although the photography world is much larger now, moving well ahead of the rest of China, I believe that we can still relate to this very symbolic masterwork. German photographer and critic Joan von Schubert had already made an important discovery. "In the 1980s, photography would never again be simply an auxiliary tool to serve the visual and memory functions of humanity or simply add poetic value; it was a medium for the integration of and communication between cultures." Italian photography professor and art critic Greenberg Simon also admitted, "The most notable features of photography in the 1980s were freedom and increasing artistic equality. After 150 years, photography finally cast off its inferiority complex." When you open this catalog, which is a careful crystallization of the last thirty years of Wang Dajun's work, you can see that, although his work from the early 1980s to the present is merely a drop in the ocean of Chinese photography, he has created a rich body of work for us to consider. In the late 1980s to the early 1990s, Wang Dajun and two other Chinese military photographers named Yuan Xuejun and Wang Jianjun (collectively known as the Three Juns) revealed their exploration of landscape photography, which deserves to enter the annals of contemporary Chinese photographic history.
Wang has only selected 100 works, cutting to the heart of his unique creativity in landscape photography. Here, I will consider his work from an aesthetic perspective.
Are the aesthetics of landscape photography based entirely on light and shadow? Light and shadow are certainly the basis for photography; whether you understand the matter from the perspective of physics or art, the importance of these two elements cannot be exaggerated. In a scientific sense, if optics did not exist, neither would photography. The production of photographic techniques and the research and development of optical theory are inseparable. At the same time, if there was no light, there would be no shadows for it to produce and objects would have no form or features. The camera would be unable to sense light, so photographers could not even begin to discuss using light to create perfect forms. In photography, the language of light and shadow can transmit various information about the photographed object, including form, volume, texture, color, illumination, spatial depth, and natural states. People often misunderstand photography; we usually believe that the objects we see are as we see them, but actually the light acting on the surface of the object plays a significant role. The color, strength, and direction of light will influence our opinions of the true appearance of certain objects. When we see a familiar face, room, landscape, or thing, our eyes and brain will make up for poor illumination. Cameras cannot change peoples' visual impressions, and this determines whether or not the photographer has the ability to direct light. We feel comforted when photographs represent something familiar, but we feel wonder when photographs help us discover a beautiful side to a familiar scene. Therefore, light is the most important physical basis for photographic art. The use of light has become an important way for photographers to express thoughts and feelings and realize artistic ideas. When Wang Dajun first started chasing light and shadow in western China, the two wise eyes behind the lens captured the charms of light, producing a unique symbol of life and creating a natural image that countless people would praise. In one scene, we see dusk in Gongbujiangda County. The silver cables crossing the deep blue sky give the picture an extreme succinctness, with the clean lines and simple colors and shadows. Amidst the calm, the viewer gets a hint of something; if you look very closely, you can see the silhouettes of a farmer and a plow ox vaguely set off against the distant mountains. They become a visual focus for the photograph. Light and shadow cleverly create a mysterious atmosphere in which man can be one with the universe, turning the common into the magical. Turning to his romantic work featuring Siguniang Mountain in Xiaojin County, the mountain top is encircled by floating clouds. With this mystical shading, it seemed as if the mountain peak had been given a silky scarf. Light and shadow perfectly partition the space, as the picture can be divided into thirds horizontally. Each layer slowly unfolds from the glittering, glowing silver of the peak to the meandering undulations of the mountain ridges to the slopes hidden in darkness in the foreground. Due to light and shadow, each band has an emotional resonance. Just as Wang said, "The magical beauty of western China allowed me to emphasize the changes in light and shadow as I photographed landscapes. I attempted high-contrast, low-light, and cool-colored photographs, featuring pure hues, clean compositions, and infinite tonal changes. At the time, these kinds of images of western Chinese landscapes were very rare; they naturally blended light and shadow, color and feeling for a powerful visual impact. The photographs shone before the viewer's eyes, causing quite a stir among the public and receiving praise from my peers."
The aesthetics of landscape photography also focus on the moment. The importance of the moment is a given. When naturalistic photography was born, the English photographer Peter Henry Emerson was the first to mention photography's ability to capture a moment. People gradually began to realize that, when the photographer presses the shutter button, the camera only records that extremely brief moment in real life. Although photography has much in common with two-dimensional art, specifically painting, in that these forms represent a two-dimensional fragment of a living scene or landscape. In painting, however, the artist can capture, choose, and collect subjects and paint and change the work repeatedly over a long period of time. The "moment" in any painting is no longer the natural moment that the artist directly observed; the painting contains the numerous conceptual elements bound up in the artist's repeated observation and experience of the subject. In contrast, photography takes an objective event in a moment and directly represents life; the entire creative process is contained in capturing that moment. The flows of time and the breadth of space determine that a given moment cannot be repeated. As an ancient Greek philosopher once said, "You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are always flowing past you." In a sense, the momentary nature of landscape photography is closely related to the charms of light and shadow. As a photographer waits for changes in light and shadow, he is attempting to capture a moment that cannot be repeated. Moreover, once living things that are moving appear in a landscape photograph, such as the bobbing antelope flashing before the lens, gloomily silhouetted yaks, or the figures of children moving under the brightly colored flowers, they provide magnificent extensions to the momentary language of landscape photography. For example, a picture taken in May 1990 in Chayu County, Tibet shows an old tree that takes up nearly two-thirds of the foreground; it is covered with flowers opening beautifully. Four children are running around under the flowers in a perfect little dream. Here, people see a sense of movement, and these young children dressed in Tibetan clothes give the photograph a distinct regional character. All at once, they are separated in space and time from spring in southern China. This is the mastery of a moment. The picture is no longer a simple expression of movement; the deep poetry of folk customs is laced into the image, a flawless blend of landscape photography, people, and geography. Because of that long waiting process and the magical capturing of that moment, the click of the shutter at that natural wonder has already synchronized with Wang's heartbeat.
In the aesthetics of landscape photography, quality is especially important, especially in the treatment of surface detail, and closely related an increase in quality of life. Beginning in the 1990s, Wang Dajun's photographs began to use large format instead of medium format, gradually approaching the perfection of visual space. "At every scenic site, I attempted to photograph depth, clarity, and perfection; I emphasized the work's systematic, integral, and artistic nature, pushing the image to the peak of perfection." The saying goes that success and failure are in the details. It is no coincidence that many of the world's best landscape photographers prefer to confront nature with medium and large format cameras. If the photographer uses the lens like a feeler to approach nature's most delicate points, the wonder of life is sure to have an unshakeable impact on the viewer. When you see an excellent and richly detailed landscape photograph, you will linger over the landscape for nearly a minute. With this mastery of detail, we are able to attain the highest perfection with the waters of Aba, the mountains of Jiangzi, and the clouds of E'Mei, where we find an even richer spiritual attraction. I remember that American photographer John Sexton once traveled to photograph the ruins left by the Anasazi in the American southwest, just as Ansel Adams traveled all over the American west. After a difficult wilderness hike, Sexton finally found the ruins along the edges of the gorge. He used a large format camera in an attempt to tell us about a precise feeling; people used to live here, and their fingerprints still remain firmly fixed on the moist windows. This indescribable awe is the unifying response to the quality of Wang's work. For example, in November 2003, the ice-covered land in Songpan County, Ngawa Autonomous Region, Sichuan was sparkling and clear. In the moment that the distant sun set behind the mountain, creating a single point of light, the majority of the foreground is a maze of details waiting to be found in the shadows. These details are naturally Wang's focus. From the ice, snow, and shadowy trees to the distant monastery, the scene unfolds, slowly progressing from natural to spiritual worship. From the minute details, we experience the grandeur of the monastery. In November 2007 atop Mount E'Mei in Sichuan, Wang photographed a scene foregrounded with icicles and snow that seemed like the undulating waves of the ocean, evoking the sounds of waves crashing against the shore. Because of the slow shutter speed, the sea of clouds in the middle ground appears living and impenetrably thick. The middle ground and the foreground form a clever contrast; between movement and stillness, everything is supported by rich detail. He almost brings us to the site to encounter the numerous mysteries and glories of natural and historical remains; we eagerly anticipate walking from this superlative creativity into an unknowable future.
The aesthetics of landscape photography are bound up in light, shadow, and the moment. Can high quality influence these elements? Yes, but not entirely! Wang's thirty years of practice in landscape photography tells us that the highest realm of landscape photography is still intense literary cultivation. He said, "A successful landscape photograph must be able to arouse emotion in the viewer, such that he feels the full force of the meaning the photographer wanted to express and receives aesthetic enjoyment and mental stimulation. This requires the photographer to be learned in ideas, culture, and art. Over the years, I have worked hard to build this cultivated foundation, systematically studying literature, aesthetics, history, and music. I have conscientiously researched the history, geography, customs, religion, and culture of the western plains. I have viewed masterworks of landscape photography from China and abroad, contemplating and contrasting them, in an effort to improve my own work." If you want to learn poetry, you must study everything but poetry. Wang deeply understands this profound mystery, so he has cultivated himself in order to confidently travel into this vast universe. Only by accumulating experience can he discover the wit of light and shadow, capture that fleeting moment, and recognize high-quality detail, thereby transforming landscape and figures into an image with significant visual impact. By combining all these things together, nature forms a series of resplendent scrolls. Whether color or black and white, the vastness of the western mountains or the distant deserts of faraway lands, the photographs are an externalization of the photographer's spirit and comprehension. Nature also brings the viewer into this endless landscape space. I really like the moment that he captured at Qinghai Lake in July 1990. As the black clouds pressed down on the city, suddenly a blast of sunlight burst forth from the clouds. Under this golden light, a single seagull hovered, performing an elegant dance. This moment made me think of Maxim Gorky's popular masterwork The Song of the Stormy Petrel. "Over the gray plain of the sea the wind gathers storm-clouds. Between the clouds and the sea proudly soars the stormy petrel, as a streak of black lightning. Now the waves on wingtip touching… In the froth of anger — clever demon, — he has long heard weariness, he knows that the clouds won't cut the sun — no, the sun will triumph!"
It is not by chance that these photographs echo with world literature. I also discovered that many of Wang's works have interesting points of commonality with the creations of outstanding photographers worldwide.
Like English photographer Bill Brandt, Wang Dajun excels at leaving space to breathe in a picture with strong structural characteristics. He always enjoys finding an escape in an oppressive space. Some works even rather resemble the blurry ink effects in traditional Chinese ink painting; after heartier aesthetic tones, a sudden flash of illumination immediately pulls the viewer back to reality and out of the Utopian dream world. This is also true of the photograph taken in November 1989 in Ganzi County, Tibet, because it is simple and full of living power; the entire photograph is covered in green, even the sky is a grey-green. In the middle of the picture, like a bolt of green lightening, extends a link from the vast universe to the earth, as if a heavenly boulder, green as jade, has appeared out of the earth. From Wang's lens, we can understand how French photographer Jeanloup Sieff interpreted the moment. He hoped to capture landscapes that would never appear again. Sieff often mumbled to himself, "This moment has been. It has been precious." He even believed that the moment in landscape photography was more important than in portrait photography. "Never again will such a light, such clouds be the same. I make photographs in order to show what will never take place again, even though I know that photography has no value whatsoever as an objective documentation." Through Wang's lens, we almost see a trace of light and shadow perpetually lingering between presence and disappearance on a snowy mountaintop. We can hear the sound of a tree growing. In an uncharted area of Jiuzhaigou, Ngawa Autonomous Region, Sichuan in February 1991, Wang took a photograph of a tree, no, two trees. The tree in the foreground still has a few golden leaves, which give off a tenacious vitality in the light. The tree in the middle ground is already covered in snow, unyielding against the cold of nature. This varied and lively dance has almost never stopped, but it has already become a moment in nature that has disappeared, never to return. It might be most appropriate to interpret Wang's works as American photographer Christopher Burkett understands nature photography.
"The world untouched and undefiled by man is one of indescribable beauty and wonder: a world filled with light and peace. The miracle of life unfolds before our eyes, and is seen in the tapestry of creation. All of our world, each living cell, every stone and drop of water, even the air and light around us, reflects and mirrors the glory and presence of the Creator and calls us to respond with wonder and praise. … The purpose of my photography is to provide a brief, if somewhat veiled, glimpse into that clear and brilliant world of light and power. To the extent that these photographs help show that way, is the extent to which these images succeed."
As an ancient Chinese Zen master once said, "Before I studied Zen, I saw mountains as mountains and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains were not mountains and waters were not waters. Now, I have reached a level of understanding, and waters are once again waters and mountains are once again mountains." As in Wang's works, human understanding of the world is gradually and continually changing. Since more Realist elements appeared in his photographs of Erlang Mountain in Tianquan County, Sichuan, taken in March 1981, he has always searched for a deeper visual language. A military vehicle has already driven by, sheltered by the icicles in the foreground. Another vehicle drives straight up, revealing an expansive natural moat behind it. Soon afterward, when we stopped in front of Jueba Mountain in Mangkang County, Tibet in January 1989, we suddenly realized that Wang had drawn on mystical support from heaven and started to write about life's hardships. We were still in a car, and we were still in the wilderness, but the massive mountain range had already become a grand microcosm of natural power. Under the mist and mottled shadows, we did not see a confirmation that humans are masters of the universe; the scene was a poem about humanity's arduous trek through nature. This was not the end of the journey; we could almost see the world's future meditations that melded man and nature in October 2009 on Golden Peak of Mount E'Mei, Sichuan. Wang took a miraculous image that is difficult to describe; the temple on the Golden Peak faded and reemerged against the blue sky, as the golden Buddha bathed in the rising sun like a soaring ancient allegory located in the heart of every devout person. There are always latent dangers in our conceptual worlds; when the perfect character from an imagined world is lost in the real one, everyone becomes extremely confused. Therefore, the photographer hopes to use "true" landscapes to retrieve "truth" for himself. After thirty years of honing his skills, Wang is finally allowing us to see the black and white pictures he began taking in 2009. He quietly returned to a pure and minimalist style, and the ultimate value of these pictures may lie in this purity and minimalism. The famed American western photographer David Muench always said that he needed to bring a special sense of presence back to the photographs, such that the photos did more than convey geographical information; he wanted to "allow the pictures to speak for themselves."
Friedrich H?lderlin once said, "Man dwells poetically on this earth." If this line had not been interpreted by Heidegger, it would not be as famous as it is today. For Heidegger, "poetry" was no longer an artistic pursuit; it was an important basis for resolving the meaning and value of human life, to the point that it becomes a life philosophy. We must finally consider the poetics of life, which help a limited life seek an eternal home. Now, for a photographer, can this final consideration be presented in his landscape photographs? Wang's answer is surely in the affirmative. Everything in nature continues to multiply, without beginning and without end. Every person is only a brief guest on this earth, residing here for a short time before moving on. If we want to extend this short time beyond a moment and move towards eternity and freedom, we should aestheticize existence, harmonize existence with nature as an integral whole, or clash with nature and cause people to think. In Wang's romantic work, shot in Songpan County, Ngawa Autonomous Zone, Sichuan in July 2004, mottled colors transform nature's growth into a lively rhythmic symphony. The shimmering layers of color were like an altar to the romantic gifts of nature. As the colorful waters gradually unfolded, we suddenly saw the original and unassuming Huanglong Temple, quietly hidden in the lush greenery. In the process of making nature more poetic, life becomes an eternity of tension and relaxation.
Perhaps we are unable to add anything to nature, or perhaps we have outsmarted ourselves by adding something. So, what we can leave to nature may simply be a mood. In the instant that you confront nature and press the shutter, if you are calm, nature will not excite; if your heart is racing, then nature will show its full might. Rather than saying that this feeling was created by nature, we could say that it was a flash of enlightenment. If we understand this, then interpreting Wang's thirty years of photographs will be a truly amazing journey. He is not a theorist, but he can completely encapsulate nature from the perspective of aesthetic theory.
For example, in On Natural Beauty and Shanshui Poetry and Natural Beauty, Zhu Guangqian time and again promotes "the unity of the subjective and objective." He believed, "When we believe that a natural thing is beautiful, that thing must have objective features that fit with our subjective ideas. These two aspects can be immediately reconciled into one entity, in the specific forms of nature." When we combine the photographer's innate insight with a deep consideration of nature, perhaps we might confirm these aesthetic ideas.
In On Natural Beauty, Cai Yi forcefully advocated "pure objectivism." He said, "The beauty of natural things is innate to nature, and this innate quality is not influenced by man. …The beauty of nature is nature itself." So, if humanity cannot forcibly intervene in objective nature, how has Wang come and gone so smoothly?
I thought of Li Zehou, a noted scholar of aesthetics; he believed that one should express and explain the beautiful features of nature, which was best explained by "human nature," a term from Marx's Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Only through the heights of human "practical" philosophy can we accurately interpret the reasons for natural beauty. As to whether Wang's practice has reached this height, I am afraid that I represent but one person's opinion. Because Plato emphasized the difficulty of mastering the essence of beauty in The Greater Hippias dialogue, I can only use an old proverb to guide this essay. "Beauty is difficult." This is not a new idea, because including beauty within natural beauty is a radical idea. Lin Tonghua also said, "Natural beauty is a fluid category." So, theories such the unity of the objective and subjective, pure objectivism, practical philosophy, and even the pure subjectivity that is rather popular in modern Western aesthetics, cannot once and for all summarize the complex phenomena associated with our aesthetic appreciation of nature. We cannot provide a basic definition for natural beauty, but through Wang's lens, we might be able to approach it.
Plants and insects live and die in their turns, but the natural scenery has not changed for thousands of years; nature is stable. Humanity emerged with the knowledge and the power to change our environment, but we are unable to limit our knowledge. Human action inevitably begets many problems and risks. If we take Zhuangzi to heart and retire from the world, we are actually negating the value of real life and existence. The relationship between man, nature, and other organisms is rather special, and when humanity is confronted with crisis and risk, we seek out flourishing vitality and pursue the infinite; is this not the beauty of heaven and the joy of life? Life, art, and photography all share these yearnings. The world is ever-changing yet beautiful and human initiative is not meaningless. Wang Dajun's thirty years of photographic practice tell us that landscape always hovers between existence and nothingness. In the process of immersing oneself in nature and understanding it, the most difficult journeys are often the most worth undertaking. Now, we will look at one more miracle of nature, taken in January 2013 in Jiuzhaigou County, Ngawa Autonomous Region, Sichuan Province. Everything was frozen over, and the three colors of black, white, and blue dominate. The black circles on the surface of the ice looked like oracles symbols or sacred caves that would admit the energy of the universe. This scene opens a rich space for visual imagination, but it is still naturally formed. The photographer selected his shot and resolutely entered nature. There are already so many romantic legends of these photographers that many more must have been lost in the haze. The road is long for those who want to comprehend the marvels of nature.
(Photography Professor at Shanghai Normal University and Deputy Chairman of the Shanghai Photographers Association)
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