Since the dawn of photography, a vast array of Westerners have captured the Far East in ways that perpetuate sentimental, outdated or plainly erroneous stereotypes — either from colonialist condescension or the naiveté of peeking out from an impermeable cultural bubble. But a few dedicated observers surrender fully their preconceptions as strangers in a strange land, with open eyes and tireless camera, to create images of penetrating subtlety and revelation. Lois Conner has traveled to China nearly every year for the last thirty years, crisscrossing its expanse and absorbing its many faces in a monumental body of work that is unique in at least one aspect: she shoots in panoramic horizontals and verticals that coax viewers into “reading” them as if they were Chinese scrolls. China is by no means her only focus (she has done series as widely varied as Turkey, New York, and the Louisiana bayou), but it remains her most profound exploration.
Conner knew since the age of six that she wanted to be an artist and even studied painting with a neighbor very early on. Her father, an engineer who was himself an avid peripatetic photographer, gave her a camera and stoked her love of self-made images. “My father taught me how to develop film, and I was probably the only nine-year-old making contact prints. When I think of Lartigue, even he wasn’t that early.” Conner’s Cree Indian grandmother had lived in a tar-paper shack in Appalachia and Conner remembers her collection of stereoscopic photographs. These 3D “miniature worlds” captivated her. “When you took the card out of the viewer, it was panoramic. It was completely magical, and if you moved such that the light on it was just right, it would just pop. All of a sudden you could be in Egypt. She had views from around the world. For me, that was the world.”
Conner moved to New York in 1971 to study fashion design, and was later a grad student at Yale. She initially used an 8×10 camera, the more classical shape of European painting, but became further interested in panoramic ratios from looking at Turner paintings and especially at ancient Chinese scrolls while studying under Chinese Art scholar Richard Barnhart.
We would go to the Crawford Collection, unroll a Tang Dynasty seventh-century scroll, which looked like it was made yesterday, so contemporary, so fresh. … There’s that point of looking at it where it unfolds into a cinematic form that really made me think about making panoramas myself because I was photographing the landscape.
She began to use, and became a master of, the elongated rectangle of a 7×17 “banquet camera,” which she felt offered a different conception of space and time. (The artist David Hockney has spoken at length about the superiority of the painted scroll in visually defining space and time as we actually experience it.)
To pay the bills, Conner got a job at the United Nations, and stayed for 13 years. “It completely changed my perception of the world, because all of a sudden I was in the world, not just in New York but surrounded by people from all over. I tried to tell their stories through photography.” The month she began work at the UN, the Taiwanese were replaced by the Red Chinese, a momentous change that affected Conner profoundly and planted the seed of her 30-year romance with China.
Conner is primarily interested in using photography to reveal landscape as a canvas of culture, and as site-specific history. Her pictures of cities and rural vistas hold layers of detail that contain a multitude of marks and signs of the past and the people who have lived there. They are not sharp, high-contrast images, but often have a gossamer quality that rewards lingering inspection (and may not be best served in our video). Conner calls it “looking into the past while standing in the present.” Conner’s work is replete with the contrasts between serenity in nature (from rugged mountains to flower-laden ponds) and urban dynamism (construction sites, busy streets). Both contain flux, at different velocities, but retain their respective claims on historical narrative, and on the humanity of place.
Conner is not a photojournalist methodically finding art in the typologies of Chinese life, like Michael Wolf. She’s an artist who intuitively shoots what she often refers to as “gifts” that illuminate her and, through her, us. At times the atmospherics of her pictures are heightened by figures blurred by protracted exposures. Her black-and-white platinum prints are of an ethereal aesthetic that transforms even the most pedestrian scene into subjective reveries.
My photographs are taken from real life but I feel that they’re fiction because they have to do with my point of view and my understanding of the thing I’m looking at. I’m trying to draw this larger portrait of China, but it’s not completely historically based. You have to deal with the fact of the thing in front of you and the light that you’re given; the fiction is in the selection, in what not to include.
Lois Conner’s most recent book is Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial, in collaboration with Geremie R. Barmé (Princeton Architectural Press, NY). Her next book, American Trees (Princeton Architectural Press) will be released in Winter 2015. Her solo exhibition “Chinese Portraits” opens September 2015 at M97 Gallery in Shanghai.
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