Thirty Years of Landscape Photography
In a person's life, there are many opportunities, many chances, and also many choices. If I had made different choices early, perhaps my life would have taken another path. I am lucky that I chose photography, following nature with my camera by my side. I have diligently worked in this field for more than thirty years, and in the end, there have been substantial rewards.
My Photographic Path
I spent my youth in my hometown of Chongqing, and my deepest memory of that time was my parents' love of Sichuan opera. My father was a doctor and my mother was a pharmacist, both working in a local hospital. They loved Sichuan opera, and in their spare time they often invited other Sichuan opera enthusiasts to our home to listen to music, play instruments, sing, and have fun. Influenced by my surroundings, I also loved music. I played the erhu, bamboo flute, and piano, and achieved a certain proficiency in many musical instruments. It is precisely this love that brought me to my first crossroads in life.
Enlistment and My Bond with Photography
In June 1970, I was not yet 17 when I was sent down to the Jiangjin countryside as an educated youth. At the end of that year, the Chengdu Military District Automotive Unit No. 20 and Shenyang Air Force came to the countryside to recruit. Because I showed a special aptitude for the arts, both units wanted me. In the end, I joined Automotive Unit No. 20, and became a member of the unit's recreational performing troupe.
I was the second oldest of four brothers and no sisters. At the time, my older brother Wang Dayuan was already a professional aerial photographer in one of the air force's air survey units. His unit used large-format film for aerial photography. In the darkroom, he cut the leftover edges of the aerial photography film into 120 film. Then, he would go to a photo studio, obtain used backing paper, and pack the film properly. Dayuan often came to my unit to see me, and sometimes he used this homemade 120 film to take pictures of me and my army buddies. Under his influence, I became interested in photography.
In 1972, my older brother sent me a Seagull 120-4B twin-lens reflex camera made in Shanghai, and gave me some homemade 120 film, so I tried to take some photographs of the daily lives and performances of my friends in the troupe. At the time, I still remember that almost everything in China was photographed in black and white. The 120 black and white film available for sale was usually Gongyuan brand or Shanghai brand, selling for more than 1.8 RMB a roll, which was very expensive. Luckily, I did not have to buy the film myself; I relied on the homemade film that my brother continued to send me. I developed and printed the pictures by hand. At night, I hid at the foot of my bed in the dormitory and used a quilt to block out the light. I mixed my own D-76 or D-23 developer to develop the film. In order to ensure that I did not use too little or too much developer, I counted to calculate the developing time, and I covered a flashlight with carbon paper to observe the density of the film. I made a print box out of wood and I printed the photos on 6 × 6 paper I had cut from photo paper bought from the photography studio. I was doing what I could with the equipment available to me, and each of the steps was perfected through continuous experimentation; in the end, I was able to print some pretty good pictures. When I saw my buddies so excited as they held their photographs, I was truly pleased.
In 1973, some of us from the cultural troupe were transferred from the base to Automotive Unit No. 18. From 1973 to the end of 1975, I studied in the composing department and the folk music department at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. There, I learned the erhu from the renowned erhu master Jiang Cairu. Because my skill with the instrument improved rapidly, Jiang recommended me for the E'mei Film Orchestra that had just been founded. However, my unit commanders told me that I was being assigned to another post; I chose to remain with my unit, and so I was able to follow photography.
Chasing Light and Shadow; a Fascination with Tibetan Scenery
In February 1976, I was promoted to a clerk in the battalion headquarters for Automotive Unit No. 18; there I was the lowest grade of political and ideological cadre. Not long after that, I was transferred to the unit's political office as a propaganda and culture secretary. I was issued with a German Rollei TLR 120 camera, which was an excellent camera at the time. In early 1981, I was transferred to the Sichuan-Tibet army base's propaganda department as a propaganda and culture secretary. In July 1985, I was transferred once more to the propaganda office at the base's logistics department as a professional photography secretary.
From enlisting in 1970 to retiring from service in 1993, I had been to Tibet more than 40 times for my job, and each time, I was there for at least 20 days, and sometimes as long as three months. Sometimes I followed the Automotive Unit into Tibet, and sometimes I was assigned to do interviews on the plains. Over more than twenty years, I photographed the difficult journeys of the automotive units along the thousand mile branch of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and the lives of the soldiers protecting the borders along the plains. Many of my news photographs were published in The People's Daily, China Pictorial, Nationality Pictorial, The PLA Daily, The PLA Pictorial, Sichuan Daily, Battle Flag Daily, and other publications. Because of my performance at work, I was honored with a second-class merit and three third-class merits. For many years in a row, I was named the Outstanding News Worker for the Chengdu Military Region.
While I took news photographs, the majestic scenery of western China held a deep fascination for me. With its pure white snowy mountains, surging rivers, remote gorges, broad plains, mirror-like lakes, and cloud-studded skies, the gorgeous and varied west surprised me time and again, and inspired my photographic creations. In my years on the plains of Tibet and Sichuan, I was fascinated by chasing light and shadow in landscape photography.
In 1988, The Marvelous Road to the West, a catalog portraying the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, was published by Changcheng Publishing House. I served as a special editor for the book, which received significant attention. The PLA Pictorial decided to further explore the theme of "the marvelous road to the West," so the Pictorial sent me and noted photojournalist Yuan Xuejun on a trip along the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is the western branch of National Road 318, with a total length of over 2,000 kilometers. The roads were poor and often dangerous, with sharp curves and steep hills, but they often carried important military and civilian transportation. National Road 318 is also China's most beautiful highway. The western branch runs from the Sichuan basin to the southeast mountain ranges along the Qinghai and Tibetan plains. The road crosses over countless snowy mountains, deep gorges, and flowing rivers until it reaches Lhasa. The scenery along the way was so varied and beautiful, one could not help but gasp. We followed this road for nearly six months, photographing the work and living conditions of the officers and men in the automotive units, army bases, hospitals, and warehouses. I also shot numerous nature photographs. The PLA Pictorial published The Marvelous Road to the West in six installments.
Our visit to the Sichuan branch of the highway inspired us, and we decided to plan another, larger photography project. On April 4, 1990, the 50,000 Kilometer Western Border Photography Project began. The project was organized by the General Political Department, coordinated by the Chengdu Military Region and the Lanzhou Military Region, and carried out by The PLA Pictorial Publishing House. Yuan Xuejun and I, as well as my good friend Wang Jianjun stationed with the Cultural Office of the Chengdu Military Region, set out in a Three Deer off-road vehicle on a journey to visit the Western border positions. We traveled for nearly six months, covering almost 70,000 kilometers, and undergoing many hardships. We visited barracks and border sentries in Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Xinjiang, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, and Shaanxi, photographing the moving moments of the soldiers protecting the frontiers and the western landscapes in which they lived. That year, we were known as the "Three Juns Traveling in the West," and we kicked off a fashion for western Chinese landscape photography.
In the 1980s, there were very few specialized publications about photography in China. Influenced by the concepts of traditional Eastern art, traditional landscape photography was still popular in China, focusing on mood and the harmonious integration of feeling and setting, light and shadow. However, when I was confronted with the magnificent, expansive, profound, and mysterious western landscape, I consciously and unconsciously threw off traditional aesthetic ideas; instead, I relied upon my own understanding of beauty to photograph the colors and elements in the landscape that moved me deeply. 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.
In 1988, the Fifteenth National Photography Exhibition gave the Artistic Style Prize for the first time. This was my first submission to the National Photography Exhibition, and I chose eight images from my western landscape series The Light of the Himalayas, which was awarded the Artistic Style Prize. At the Sixteenth National Photography Exhibition in 1990, I submitted six images from my Earth Series, which won the Gold Medal. Road won the Bronze Medal and Field won the Outstanding Photograph Award. The exhibition received more than 70,000 photographs, and only 255 works (series) were selected to participate in the show. In 1992, I won the Second Chinese Photography Golden Elephant Award for my submission of 20 photographs of western landscapes. In October of that year, I was one of the ten photographers invited to participate in Twenty Photographers from China and Japan, along with elders of the Chinese photography world such as Wu Yinxian, Chen Fuli, and Jian Qingfu. The participating photographs represented the highest standards in Chinese and Japanese contemporary photography, and the majority of the photographers were already well-known in their respective countries. In 1993, my landscape photographs were incorporated into The Work of Ten Chinese Landscape Photographers.
Focusing on Quality, Photographing Cultural and Natural Heritage
At the end of 1993, I left the army and was transferred to a local position as Deputy Editor of Southeastern China magazine. During this period, the Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee and the Ministry of Culture proposed a national book publishing project, a series on works of Chinese fine art. The Chongqing Publishing Group was responsible for the volumes on China's grotto sculptures; after numerous discussions, I was eventually confirmed as the photographer for the grotto sculptures in southwestern China. From 1993 to 1996, I traveled with the editorial team, visiting grottoes in Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Tibet. I utilized my many years of technical experience in landscape photography to capture these sculptures. I used a 120 camera to photograph on 6 × 7 reversal film; I very seldom used a flash, and most often made use of natural light. I was very particular about composition; I pursued the changes in light and shadow, focusing on the quality of the images themselves. In the end, they were collected and published in the large catalogs China's Grotto Sculptures No. 7: Dazu, China's Grotto Sculptures No. 8: Chongqing and Sichuan, China's Grotto Sculptures No. 9: Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Tibet, and The Grotto Art of Anyue. These four catalogs are precious visual records of the religious culture and sculptural art of grottos in China, because they filled a gap in the photographic documentation of southwestern grotto art. Because of my experiences photographing grotto sculptures during this time, I gained new insight into landscape photography, which inspired my later creative direction.
In 1997, I was transferred to The Sichuan Pictorial and served as Director and Editor-in-Chief. My position changed, and so my world view changed. Because my administrative duties had increased, I could not take large periods of time to shoot in western China, so I turned my lens on Sichuan.
Sichuan has incomparable natural scenery and deep-rooted history and culture. I photographed Jiuzhaigou, Huanglong, Mount E'mei and the Buddha of Leshan, Dujiang Dam and Qingcheng Mountain, and the panda habitat, including them in the record of world culture and natural heritage. When I photographed natural and cultural heritage in Sichuan, I placed the natural scenery within a grander historical and human perspective, giving the landscape photographs a cultural context. With every location I photographed, I collected some materials, in an effort to completely understand local culture, history, geography, geology, organisms, and weather patterns. I often used weekends or public holidays to take these photographs, setting out on a Thursday or Friday afternoon so that I arrived that night. I shot for two or three says and then returned to Chengdu very early Monday morning. When taking my photographs, I most often used large format cameras, such as Linhof 4 × 5 Technical 2000, the Linhof 612 camera, and Kodak or Fuji reversal film. Sometimes, I used the Hasselblad 120 digital camera, and continued to pursue high image quality. At every scenic site, I attempted to photograph depth, clarity, and perfection; I emphasized the image's systematic, integral, and artistic nature, pushing it to the peak of perfection.
Since 2006, I have shot and published photography catalogs including The Four Seasons of Jiuzhaigou, Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong, The Luxuriant Landscapes of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong, The Beauty of Jiuzhai, and Mount E'mei: The Buddha of Leshan. Currently, I am photographing the World Heritage Sites at Qingcheng Mountain and Dujiang Dam, and I am hoping to have the photographs published in 2014.
Understanding Landscape Photography
Looking back on thirty years of landscape photography, I feel that, to be successful in landscape photography, you cannot want for talent, diligence, or opportunity. Of these three, I most value diligence. Because, in a certain sense, diligence can make up for gaps in talent and diligence can create further opportunities. They say that talent is only persistence over the long term. For a photographer, photography itself is a process of repeated recognition and continuous introspection. Only if you engage with life can you understand life. Only if you understand life can you better express life. "There is unspeakable beauty in the universe." In my long photographic practice, I have slowly come to realize a simple truth. It is precisely for this "unspeakable beauty" that, more than thirty years later, I often have the wind, the snow, and the land as my companions. Very often, when the sky is not yet light, I set up my tripod, and at first light I walk towards the desolate mountains. I never go out in search of the mysterious boundary between an object and me that unites man and nature. In my countless trips to the plains of Qinghai and Tibet and the lands of western China, I was moved by the marital air of the Himalayan Mountains, the mysterious remoteness of Ali, and the majestic charm of the Namucuo Sacred Lake. I was encouraged by the boundless progress of the waterfall at the Yellow River mouth, the enchanting demeanor of Konka Mountain, the gentle appeal of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong, and the philosophical air of Mount E'Mei and the Leshan Buddha. During this time, I experienced the joy of success and the tears of disappointment, receiving the selfless gifts of nature.
Art and creation are inseparable, and photographs that lack character also lack vitality. Unique artistic character can only come from the artist's distinctive powers to perceive, absorb, and express life and nature. Many years later, I am still exploring landscape photography, in an effort to form a style of my own.
Landscape photography originates from objective scenes, but these scenes are blended with the photographer's subjective emotions, embodying the photographer's viewpoint on life and his understanding of natural beauty. 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.
The creation of landscape photography is the highest integration of mood and setting. I use photography as an artistic medium that allows me to immerse myself in a boundless nature. My work reflects my own feelings and a kind of national spirit, as I seek meaning over form in advancing the tradition of Chinese landscape art. At the same time, it is very important to me that I use the expressive methods of contemporary art. I hope to present the concise relationships between the separation and unification of light, color, shadow, and contrast, which gives the work a modern air. I like the localized use of illumination; I enjoy large blocks of color, high contrast effects, unifying tones, and unconventional compositions, as all of these elements represent the mystery and solemnity of western China and shows its dignity and power. Early morning, nightfall, and unique weather conditions often produce unpredictable scenes and a unique photographic atmosphere, thus giving my work a distinctive artistry. Many of my works, such as the six photographs from Earth Series, have been taken at these times of day and weather conditions.
In landscape photography, I attempt to present a sense of vitality in a limited planar space. Although my works Mountain Verse, Returning Geese, Pasture, and Ray of Light do not have moving lines or beautiful colors, I still hoped to give the viewer a sense of life from a simple scene. I hoped that the viewer will meld music with the beauty of nature, experience the harmony of movement and stillness, man and nature.
In terms of color, I want my landscape photographs to stand out from the rest. Because colors should reflect an understanding of character, the colors in photographic art cannot simply reflect nature. Photographers should use artistic truth to express their inner thoughts and individual feelings. Therefore, the colors in my works are constantly changing, blending with my personal emotions and representing my feelings and understanding of natural beauty in that captured instant. In many of my works, glittering white snow becomes brown or gold, a grey mountain becomes green-blue, and the elements illuminated by a bright red setting sun become a shade of blue that only occurs under the light of the moon. Mountain, a part of Earth Series, was taken while I was traveling to the lines of the Tibetan frontier defense. A storm had just passed, and the sky was full of dark clouds. The air was extremely clear, and a ray of light pierced through the clouds and illuminated a low mountain. Distant mountain peaks rose and fell, with each mountain seeming to tower over the last. The mountains felt like jade, and I immediately used a 500 mm lens to take the photograph. In the production process, I actively adjusted the colors to make the mountains jade green, and obtained an unexpected artistic effect.
Landscape photography transforms beauty in its natural state to beauty in its conceptual state. It turns natural beauty into aesthetic beauty, using the truth of art to reflect the truth of reality. Photography and painting are two-dimensional media, the presentation of a planar space. The difference is that the latter creates a three-dimensional space in two-dimensional space. The latter's methods are additive, making something out of nothing. Photography takes a three-dimensional space and makes it two-dimensional, condensing a complex scene into a picture in a subtractive way. Landscape photography must pursue individuality. When using a subtractive method on the same landscape, different photographers will make different choices. I believe that pursuing pictorial succinctness, thematic prominence, and coloristic and tonal purity in landscape photography is the embodiment of photographic subtraction and individuality.
Landscape photography also contains emotion. A landscape picture can completely embody your unique aesthetic and communicate with the viewer's soul. Landscape photography is a form of communication between the photographer's soul and nature; it is the photographer's unique aesthetic interpretation of the scene, reflecting his emotions. Because of differences between photographers in terms of aesthetic interests, aesthetic abilities, and cultural backgrounds, their interpretations of beauty will vary. I think that the more individual your interpretation, the harder it is to repeat or copy your style and the more artistic power your work will have.
Landscape photography is not limited to famous mountains, mighty rivers, or powerful natural phenomena. If we change our methods, and photograph minute, ordinary, and beautiful things, especially when everyone else is chasing the famous and the magnificent, we can make people notice these things, and bring the viewer a new experience. A landscape that seems ordinary can become something else entirely through a photographer's lens. Individuality in landscape photography is also embodied in the choice of subject. For a landscape photographer, it is laudable to discover and refine beauty in ordinary landscapes, then use technical skill to showcase that landscape; this is an important requirement for individuality.
We live in a wondrous and colorful world. Before the 1970s, we shot in black and white due to material restrictions. After the 1980s, color photography became popular very quickly because of its own natural advantages. Despite this, black and white photography still has its unique charms within landscape photography. In the last few years, I have once again focused on black and white, exploring the qualities and artistic potential of digital black and white photography, in an attempt to express my artistic perceptions and understanding of nature through images. Because I focused on darkroom techniques early on, I have a certain familiarity with black and white photography. So, when I am taking the photographs, I shoot with the requirements of black and white photography in mind. The later production process relies on my unique understanding of the image to attain a desired effect that makes the black and white photograph more artistic.
If landscape photography aims to transform the natural beauty of mountains, rivers, and forests into conceptual beauty, a certain artistic form is required, and artistic form is guaranteed by technical skill. A solid foundation in photography and outstanding technical skill are basic requirements for the success of a photograph. I often encounter situations where a rare photographic opportunity presents itself due to sheer perseverance. If a photographer's skills are not honed, oversights are likely; the exposure time may be incorrect, the depth of field may be off, the camera position may be unstable, the lens may be poorly chosen, or the images may be improperly stored. Images can be unsuccessful for all of these reasons. As a result, I truly value technical skill, and emphasize improving my rigorous professionalism. When I shoot on film, I enjoy using a prime lens, and manually adjusting the light meter and focus. When I shoot with the digital camera, I try to use as low a light sensitivity as possible and I usually employ a tripod and remote shutter release. In special situations, the shutter speed when I am holding the camera will not be lower than 1/125 seconds, and I try to be as accurate with the exposure as possible based on the work's demands.
I value both shooting the photograph and the later production process. American landscape master Ansel Adams made an important point; he believed that taking the photograph was only half of the photographic process. The other half was completed later. He likened taking the photograph to creating a musical score, and the later production work to the musicians performing the piece. Once the composition is written, musicians are required to perform it, thereby completing the piece of music. I know this from experience; a successful landscape photograph should maintain the same high quality from shooting to production. The production process is actually a deeply creative one, so I believe those of us who once used darkrooms need to become skilled on the computer as well, especially when it comes to color adjustments. We must master the basic skills of photography production to bring our works to the height of perfection.
Wang Dajun is a Chinese contemporary landscape photographer from Jinjiang, Chongqing. He is the Vice-Chairman of the China Photographers Association and the Chairman of the Sichuan Photographers Association. He is the Director of the Sichuan Pictorial Publishing House and the Editor-and-Chief of Sichuan Pictorial and Xinchao.
Wang began learning photography in 1972, and spent decades fascinated by the plains of Qinghai and Tibet and the lands of Sichuan. He has taken many photographs of western Chinese landscapes, Tibetan customs, and Sichuanese fine arts. He has created his own unique photographic style, as one of the late twentieth century's more important western Chinese landscape photographers.
1988: Shot and published The Marvelous Road to the West
1988: The Light of the Himalayas won the Artistic Style Prize at the Fifteenth National Photography Exhibition
1990: Earth Series won the Gold Medal at the Sixteenth National Photography Exhibition
1992: Won the Second Chinese Photography Golden Elephant Award
1992: As one of ten Chinese photographers, Wang participated in Twenty Photographers from China and Japan. The participating photographs represented the highest standards in Chinese and Japanese contemporary photography, and the majority of the photographers were already well-known in their respective countries.
1993: A series of Wang's landscape photographs was incorporated into The Work of Ten Chinese Landscape Photographers
1997: Shot and published The Grotto Art of Anyue
1998: Named Nikon's Asia-Pacific Spokesman
1999: Shot and published The Frescoes of Baisha, Lijiang
2000: Shot and published China's Grotto Sculptures No. 7: Dazu
2000: Shot and published China's Grotto Sculptures No. 8: Chongqing and Sichuan
2000: Shot and published China's Grotto Sculptures No. 9: Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi, and Tibet
2000: Shot and published Flavors of Kangba
2001: Shot and published Rented Courtyard
2004: Shot and published Deng Xiaoping's Hometown
2006: Shot and published Monasteries in Sichuan's Tibetan Areas
2006: Shot and published The Four Seasons of Jiuzhaigou
2007: Shot and published Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong
2007: Shot and published The Luxuriant Landscapes of Jiuzhaigou and Huanglong
2008: Shot and published Grottos in Anyue
2008: Shot and published The Beauty of Jiuzhai
2011: Shot and published Mount E'mei: The Buddha of Leshan
2012: Won the Ninth Chinese Photography Golden Elephant Award
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