Cultural History and Awkward Family Photos in 'Here's Looking at You!'

By Erica Martin, June 6, 2017

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Posed, faded vacation photos and souvenir shots taken on the side of the road hardly sound like the ingredients for a riveting art show. It’s all the more surprising, then, that Here’s Looking at You! is one of the most fascinating and moving exhibits that the Shanghai Center of Photography has put on since its opening in 2015.

Curator Karen Smith connected three photographers with different visions: Thomas Sauvin, who has worked for years restoring negatives he found in a Beijing trash dump; Daniel Traub, who partnered with two Guangzhou-based souvenir photographers to document a multicultural street corner; and Liu Tao, an untrained photographer from Hefei who shot his immediate neighborhood in painstaking detail for six years. Together, they offer a rich panorama of Chinese portrait photography that’s refreshing in its personality and intimacy.

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'Beijing Silvermine'

The first exhibit upon entry to the museum is Sauvin’s ‘Beijing Silvermine.’ Sauvin began restoring negatives he found in a recycling area in 2009, compiling vacation photos and snapshots taken in people’s homes between 1985 and 2005, during China’s economic opening. Sauvin explained in a statement that the photos move him because they’re “natural, unpretentious, and full of humor.”

A little girl grinning next a giant plastic shark, a man sprawled languidly by a waterfall, people mocking the posture of ancient statues, and a rich supply of big 80s hair and tinted glasses make for delightful viewing. All the pride, individuality and silliness apparent in the photos defy the stereotype of China as being grim and rigidly collective during this time. The work offers rare insight into an important historic period while also making you smile with recognition, because awkward family photos are arguably universal.

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This work follows naturally into ‘Little North Road’ by American photographer Daniel Traub and Guangzhou-based photographers Zhen Xianfang and Wu Yongfu. Traub met Zhen and Wu on the titular street, a raised pedestrian walkway in the center of the city, where they both held jobs taking souvenir photos for the African nationals living and working in Guangzhou. A documentary by Traub accompanies the photos at the exhibit and adds further context to the idea.

The souvenir photos are surprisingly compelling; beautifully composed with skyscrapers and the highway’s strip of dangling pink flowers in the background, they depict Guangzhou’s population of African nationals posing for shots meant to show their families at home how well they are doing; some are dressed in traditional clothing, some in snappy business suits, and still others dress casually and pose in groups, caught mid-laughter and surrounded by friends.  

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'Little North Road'

Though they are only souvenirs individually, they depict a cultural moment in Guangzhou’s development when compiled together. “The images were a more complex, layered and intimate way of seeing and understanding the dynamics on the pedestrian bridge,” says Traub of Zhen and Wu’s photos. “They embodied two groups of people living on China’s margins, who were in effect documenting their own presence and activity.” He explains that his own photos, atmospheric shots of Guangzhou’s bustling streets, only serve to add context to Zhen and Wu’s work. Guangzhou’s African population has decreased dramatically due to changing economic policies and tighter immigration restrictions in the past few years, which has only increased the significance of ‘Little North Road.’

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Liu Tao’s project, ‘Good Afternoon, Goodnight,’ differs from the previous two in that the photos aren’t portraits – most of the subjects have no idea they are being shot. He has compiled a vibrant slice of life on a single street in Hefei over the course of six years, explaining his motive in a moving passage accompanying the exhibition: “I have seen you ecstatic, and beaten up; soaked by the rain, dragging discarded cartons home… One day I realized that everyone on the street is just another ‘you,’ quietly looking at you as you look at them. Our lives exist in parallel.”

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'Good Afternoon, Goodnight'

Many of the shots are perfectly timed captures of people in motion, a testament to the fact that Liu is out there every day shooting. At first glance, the work seems like the types of photos the outside world loves seeing of China: cluttered storefronts, marketplaces, the contrast of a homeless man lying next a makeup ad. But the attention to detail and thoughtful juxtapositions Liu cultivates, as well as his warmth and humor, offer something much more unique and genuine, whether it’s a father and son pushing their dog down a slide or two kids playing robots with empty boxes.

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One wall in the exhibition is covered by over 100 of Liu’s snapshots; viewed as a single piece of art, they are dazzling in their variety and complexity. The same can be said of Here’s Looking at You! as a whole; the reality it depicts is inspiring.

Until June 25, Shanghai Center of Photography.

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