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shenzhen daily:Silhouettes of an era

shenzhen daily Debra Li 2015-05-18

Debra Li


A PHOTOGRAPHER may have to sacrifice the comfort of living in a familiar place in order to travel a lot; he may not have much money left after paying for film, memory cards, prints, or gas. But photographer Xiao Quan thinks himself blessed because he has witnessed history.

Xiao, born in 1959 and dubbed the best portrait photographer in China, earned widespread recognition in 1996 after he published “Our Generation,” an album of 98 photos of the most influential figures in contemporary Chinese culture and art.

Almost 20 years have passed since then, and a new edition of the album has been published. Adding more photos of common folks and capturing cultural events during the early years of China’s reform and opening up, the new book is comprised of 345 photos, 114 of which are focused on culture and art figures. Among them are many of today’s household names, including late poet Gu Cheng, novelist Wang Shuo, painter Zhou Chunya, rocker Cui Jian and director Jiang Wen. During a lecture at Artron Art Center on Saturday afternoon, Xiao shared his photos and the stories behind them.

All the photos, black and white, were developed by Xiao himself.

The photographer likes black and white photos for the “purity they display.” “White and black are the start and end points of color; in the middle are numerous shades of gray. Without the disturbance of color, black and white can be rich and expressive,” he said.

Influenced by Western photographers Yousuf Karsh, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, Xiao said he had focused on portraits starting with the first one he ever took, one featuring his grandmother back in 1975. He shot that photo using a camera borrowed from a friend.

Xiao started his “Our Generation” project in 1985. “Back then, I was impressed by a photo of elderly Ezra Pound, printed in a literature magazine. Below the portrait was written, ‘Understanding has arrived, too late. Everything is so hard and vain. I don’t work anymore and want to do nothing.’ The poet was so lonely and helpless in that photo.”

Xiao said that photo hit him like lightning and he thought, “I need to take pictures of Chinese literature and art figures so that people who come later can understand them and their struggles.”

With a few artist friends such as Lu Peng, Xiao reached out to his subjects through friends. He traveled around China to take photos of novelists, poets, painters, musicians and performing artists.

“The best portraits should capture the moment when the subject is natural, feels at ease and is 100 percent him or herself. Only such a photo can touch the audience,” Xiao said.

As he grew older, Xiao said he gained more understanding and respect for German photographer August Sander, who focused his camera on common folks in his homeland.

“People can sometimes resonate more with common folks, and history is written by them, those who didn’t have their names heard,” Xiao said.

Therefore, he added two sections to the new edition of his album. One photo features an old woman washing clothes by the side of a quiet river, a scene rarely seen in today’s China. “The woman repeatedly beat the clothes with a club, an old way of washing them. Such a slow-paced lifestyle is history now.”

The new edition of “Our Generation” is on display at the Artron Art Center in Nanshan District.