The big new traveling exhibition now at UC’s Berkeley Art Museum, “China: Fifty Years inside the People’s Republic,” is in the first place a sweeping range of documentation, and is co-sponsored by the School of Journalism, where the dean is Orville Schell, a China specialist. But it is displayed in an art museum and the photographs are mostly grouped by the individual photographers, so we are invited to consider them as works of art, as visual expressions that go beyond normal reportage.
Not all do, but there is some remarkable work here, especially by relatively young Chinese-American photographers in search of their ancestral roots. Reagan Louie, born in Sacramento in 1951 and named for a minor movie actor his immigrant father admired, studied art at Yale and first went to China in 1980, then returned repeatedly. He is represented here by five large-format color photographs taken in 1987, each carefully composed.
Louie works slowly but he has a knack for catching exactly the right instantaneous expression. His “Cadre and portrait of Lenin, Yaboli” depicts the local Communist Party official sitting in front of his desk, impassively looking into the camera. Back in the corner of this dimly lit room an assistant watches, smoking a cigarette. On the back wall, perpendicular to our line of vision, is a large painting, a copy of an icon of Soviet history, which depicts Lenin the night before the revolutionary seizure of St. Petersburg in 1917, writing his statement for the Congress of Soviets the next day. Louie’s photograph is a profoundly insightful characterization of the bureaucratic inertia and foreign ideology that has afflicted China in our time.
Working rapidly with a miniature camera, Mark Leong, born in Sunnyvale in 1966, a Harvard graduate, achieves remarkable intimacy in interpreting his ancestral village. Working in the same way, Richard Yee has a quick eye for recording the people of Yunnan Province (a mountainous region bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam).
Among foreign photojournalists David Butow (formerly working in Los Angeles) has a good sense of composition and a shrewd eye for selecting a telling scene to characterize both old and new China. The Czech Antonin Kratochvil was very successful in suggesting the atmosphere of life in town and countryside in Guangdong Province in 1978.
But the renowned photojournalist Sebastião Salgado is a bit disappointing in his record of contemporary Shanghai; his general views are mostly routine though he has a couple of good street photographs. His two best and most interpretive photographs are strangely relegated to an appendix in the basement of the Museum (off to your left if you enter from Durant Avenue).
The Chinese photographers are generally competent but less interesting, and trouble comes when they try to be clever. Zhang Hai-er creates parodies of trendy western photography.
There is also some art photography in this exhibition. The late Eliot Porter, better known for his Sierra Club books, is represented by seven beautifully atmospheric and timeless landscapes taken in color in 1980-81; they are welcome, if irrelevant to documentation. Lois Connor, on the other hand, attempted to make photographs in the manner of Chinese scroll paintings and one is reminded of Dr. Johnson’s remark about a dog walking on its hind legs: it is not done well but we are surprised to find it done at all. Her other landscapes are good work, but not special. Robert Glenn Ketchum is better at interpreting the cityscape of China, old and new.
The issue of documentation is awkwardly handled here. The exhibition opens with an excellent photograph of the leaders of the Communist Party in 1937, taken by Owen Lattimore, the renowned American Sinologist who was later one of Senator McCarthy’s principal targets and therefore moved his career to England. But it is blown up to poster size and strangely cropped, not treated as the work of art it is, and Mao and Zhou Enlai are wrongly identified on the label. Then there are four 1938 photographs by the great Robert Capa shown without the captions they would have had in a magazine at the time (is this a refugee train? A Nazi flag to indicate neutrality?). Some of the recent photographs also require more information, not just an artist’s generalizing statements, to serve their purpose as documentation.
This is a packaged exhibition organized by the Aperture Foundation, a celebrated photography publisher, and the corresponding book ($35 in paperback, $50 hardcover) includes an excellent essay by Rae Yang, born in 1950 to a successful Beijing family; it records her attitude as a Red Guard from 1966 to 1976, her subsequent awakenings, her coming to America in 1982, and her many return visits since 1992. She remarks on a few of these photographs, but basically Aperture takes an arty attitude toward photographs: they should speak for themselves. The labels are deliberately too small to read at comfortable viewing distance.
The basic documentary function of this exhibition is thus poorly served and made worse by the Museum’s decision to put half of it in the stairwell and basement corridor and to send fourteen photographs to exile in Northgate Hall (including a couple of very good ones). They are impossible to study there because they face windows and you see mostly the reflection of the courtyard and your own shadow.
For perspective we should go back to the great Cartier-Bresson’s book “From One China to Another,” the product of his 10 months in China during the Communists’ final conquest of 1948-9. It is a masterpiece of photojournalism, with good explanatory captions, and considered as works of art the range of his photographs is fully the equal of what is in this exhibition.