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China Between

June 27th, 2010

More book news...on the same night that in-public launched its 10 book at Photofusion, Polly Braden was launching her book China Between at The Photographers Gallery. Polly kindly sent me a copy of the book that is published by Dewi Lewis and contains 63 color photographs taken by Polly over a decade in China. The book also contains texts by Pollys husband David Campany who is reader in Photography at the University of Westminster and by Jennifer Higgie who is co-editor of the London-based contemporary arts magazine, Frieze. The book has some connection with The Arts Council of England but it is not clear what that is.

The hardback book is traditionally but nicely designed and the image reproduction is very good. The covers feature the faces of two of the women in Pollys photographs painted by Tim Braden, it is not immediately apparent how this is relevant to the contents or aims of the book though.

The painted cover of China Between by Polly Braden

The painted cover of Polly Bradens book China Between by Tim Braden

I have found it very difficult to come to a conclusion about this book, it contains some very beautiful and atmospheric images, many taken in dim artificial light which imbue a strong sense of place. The images are extremely varied in quality from page to page however and many rely on your flipping to the back of the book for the caption to give them their relevance. I would have liked to have seen more images that stood alone both aesthetically and in terms of their meaning, few of the images in China Between are self contained, they require the company of the others and the book format to work. This feeling is starkly illustrated when you do turn the page and come across one of the gems that are certainly hidden in the book, 'Night walk, Xiamen, September 2007' shows an elderly woman walking with a stick, her arm appears to be bandaged and in a sling as she passes down a very contemporary looking, recently constructed, shopping street. She is framed beautifully by the lighting and a dark area of wet road that almost holds her in place, she seems to be contemplating the crossing of this simple barrier to her journey. One imagines this neighborhood has changed dramatically during her lifetime and she seems out of time with the western dresses in the shop windows beside her. Life seems hard for her as she carries both her groceries and walking stick in her remaining good hand.

Night walk, Xiamen, September 2007.

Night walk, Xiamen, September 2007.

In this image Polly has kept a number of plates spinning at the same time, it tells her Chinese story but not at the cost of being a great image, its beautiful, meaningful and self contained and as such is a great Street Photograph. There are a number of images like this in the book but, for me, not enough.

Xiamen, August 2007

Xiamen, August 2007

This image of a young woman on a mobile telephone is another good example, its composed, the play of scale works nicely, she is diminutive in the frame beneath a large tree and wall. Behind her is a view through the wall to the street beyond, she squats, her hands to her temples in concentration. You sense she has sought out this quiet spot amongst the oppressive noise of the city to make her call, the shot conveys its message beautifully, there is no need to flick to the index and read the caption.

Restaurant staff gather for a pep talk, Xiamen, July 2007

Restaurant staff gather for a pep talk, Xiamen, July 2007

I was particularly taken by a paragraph of David Campany's text that resonates with me because It describes very succinctly the unique strength of Street Photography to show us our own lives, he writes:

"Modern streets have a particular way of registering transition. They belong neither to 'home' nor to 'work'. They are communal and yet official, very public but private too. The street is where little truths point to larger ones if you can attune yourself. The way human bodies tell of the conditions of work. The way faces carry or attempt to mask history. The way the very fabric of the street attests to the pace of things. The way signs, clothes and even moods are the result of minor and major forces"

If you are versed with the genre of Street Photography you will be disappointed by this book, it does not contain the visual wit, cleverness or consistency of similar books such as Alex Webb's book about Istanbul City of a Hundred Names. If you are interested in China and its extraordinary development and change and what that looks like at street level rather than in photographs of its grand industrial projects then you will enjoy China Between. I bought Alex Webb's Istanbul book as much for his photographic dexterity and vocabulary as I did to see what Istanbul was like. For me at least China Between is a book about China rather than a book about photographs of China but in that context it is very successful.

China Between is available to buy on Pollys site.

2 Responses to “China Between”

  1. Sue Anne

    Hi Nick, I’ve yet to read the book but I am familiar with her fantastic documentary work and photo essays. I imagine the book will do very well. I suppose it makes sense that any photo book about China tends to be very defined by issues rather than a specific style, especially that of change, because it remains an endlessly fascinating topic for both foreigners and Chinese people. How can it not, when the pace is so fast it takes your breath away.

    You make a very good point about how the book is about China rather than photography of China. The latter, in my opinion, is a bit rarer here. From the limited selection I’ve seen, photo books revolves around a topic worthy for publication: living history, architecture, fashion, art-driven photography etc. For more prominent photographers, their books sell well but in a limited domestic crowd. I suspect they do much better at exhibitions.

    I’ve seen very few books committed to the genre of street photography in China. I’m not sure if it’s a very popular style here for photographers to begin with and a recognizable one for the masses. The younger generation of photographers tends to have a very whimsical or harsh, hints of Tim Walker wanna-be vs an edgier, punk (sex, drugs and rock’n roll) focus. Overall, there is a greater sense of the individual among young photographers, trying to break away from the massive crowds you find everywhere in China.

    There is a large group of photographers in Shanghai that shoot in the streets and their works are a treasure trove of great street shots. But it remains hard to find a consistent stream of work that shows witty interpretation of humans vs street through subject and composition. Ying Tang is by far the best photographer who can do that, and I’ve only recently discovered her work. (http://www.yingphotography.com/) – you’d know since she is part of (or featured in) In-Public.

    Cheers!
    Sue Anne

  2. Poagao

    I agree; while there are a couple of nice shots, her editing leaves much to be desired. I find the photography of Ying Tang, mentioned in the last comment, much more appealing from the standpoint of composition and emotion.

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