Contemporary Chinese photography tends to be associated with the turbulent social and economic changes taking place throughout history. It is certainly true that it is common in many photographers’ works as a response to the urbanisation and transformations of their home environment, imbued with sentiments of loss and nostalgia. However, there are also other emerging photographers worth taking notice of. They revert back to Chinese ink painting aesthetics, engage with abstract photography, or challenge photography as a medium. Featuring works ranging from documentary to abstract photography, from digital photography to analogue and to photo installations, we have handpicked for you 10 Chinese photographers to watch!
Birdhead is an artist collective started by Song Tao & Ji Weiyu in 2004. Contrary to their surrealist and imaginary name, Birdhead’s photographs concern urban reality and daily experiences and have a signature spontaneous, snap-shot aesthetic. They capture their hometown, Shanghai, in fragments of time and space while it continues to grow in a “wandering and repeated stare”, in the words of Birdhead. The daily snippets manifest their subjective views on the world, and as they claimed, are concerned with the sole themes they recognize in art—love, hatred, feeling, sorrow, life, ageing, sickness and death.
Theatrical. Conceptual. Bold. These are the words that come to mind when one encounters Chen Wei’s works. Recently featured in the exhibition Brilliant City at David Zwirner Hong Kong, his iconic photographs reconstruct key fragments of reality—memories and locations from childhood, and his daily experience in Beijing. Contrary to the spontaneous and dynamic quality of documentary photography, often used to evoke associations with memory and subjective experience, Chen’s work is about careful handcrafting of objects, assembling of sets and meticulous composition.
Jiang Pengyi exhibits mastery over a wide spectrum of photography styles—from his earlier documentary works concerned with China’s rapidly changing landscapes to recent experimentations with photography as a medium and abstraction. He not only comments on the abandoned urban fabrics in Beijing, revealing the overlooked by-effects of urban regeneration, but also explores analogue photography and the properties of light, resulting in abstract works where coloured fluorescent paper leave traces on photosensitive film and creates vibrant forms.
Liu Yuyang is a freelance photographer for Getty Images, The New York Times and The Washington Post. He focuses on ethnic, health, and environmental issues in China, while also taking on assignments such as on sustainable fishery in West Africa. He won the Magnum Foundation Human Rights & Photography Fellowship, Abigail Cohen Fellowship in Documentary Photography and Ian Parry Scholarship, and was selected as PDN’s 30 in 2017. His photographs tell compelling stories of their subjects, at times confronting the uncomfortable truth of how society treats the mentally ill, at other times responding to the government initiative under growing tensions with the Muslim-Uighur population.
Shi Yangkun was born in Zhoukou, Henan, and moved to London where he received an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from the London College of Communication. In 2017, he has won the prestigious PDN Emerging Photographer competition. His ‘Solastalgia’ series that discovers the “form of melancholy evoked by changes that have happened in the used-to-be familiar home environment”, is an attempt to document the loss of home and memories due to urban regeneration projects. This feeling of homesickness experienced at home resonates with every single Chinese individual who has witnessed the massive economic, urban and social changes taking place across their country.
Hailing from Qingdao, China, Taca Sui is a fine art photographer who documents the passage of time through his poetic depictions of often neglected cultural artefacts. Having exhibited at multiple exhibitions in both China and USA, including Chambers Fine Art (2011 & 2015) and Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition (2011), Taca continues to engage with Chinese history and literature by drawing inspirations from texts layered with historical and literary significance.
Xu Xiaoxiao, a native of Wenzhou in eastern China, moved with her family to the Netherlands when she was a teenager. The constant changes that took place in her hometown during her years away overwhelmed her and forced her to reconcile with memories of a completely different contemporary experience. Whether depicting daily objects, home environments or men and women in their homes or an urban metropolis, Xu’s work exhibits a high level of attention to human experiences and their surrounding environments.
Having studied traditional painting and calligraphy at a young age, Yang Yongliang injects the traditional medium of ink with a new life by creating “digital” landscapes. Though the images resemble Chinese landscape from afar, a closer look would reveal the layers and layers of urban and natural images, consisting of motifs such as buildings, cranes, traffic and urban wastelands. The clash between the majestic overall view and the appalling details, between traditional aesthetics and modern technology, are what make Yang’s work so remarkable.
Zhang Jungang & Li Jie
Active online in the past decade, photography duo Zhang Jungang & Li Jie sees creating as part of their daily routines. The duo brings camera wherever they go and captures fleeting moments in their daily lives. Their art is highly subjective and personal, coupled with blurry and ethereal qualities blur the distinction between the intentional and accidental. According to them, their works are a celebration of “youth and love”, which is manifested in the spontaneous aesthetics, vibrant hues and occasional light leaks resulting from a 135 film camera.
(Related: 10 Up-and-Coming Korean Photographers)