The Landscape in Glancing Back Author:Tang Keyang Date: 2012-02-22 Size:
Landscape photography probably does not only belong to, but also is a totally different kind of photography, or the totality of it. In his famous Landscape into Art, Kenneth Clark makes the theme clear at the beginning, “landscape is not an art style, but a medium”, in which sense pho

Landscape photography probably does not only belong to, but also is a totally different kind of photography, or the totality of it. In his famous Landscape into Art, Kenneth Clark makes the theme clear at the beginning, “landscape is not an art style, but a medium”, in which sense photography serves almost as the best carrier of landscape subjects. The silver-print can present the illusion of nature, which is so intriguing and amazing, because the “appearance” of the world does not need the reflected light outside the cave according to Plato. The arrangement of tiny grey and black granules perfectly “presents” rather than “represents” the skylight and the shadow of the trees to us. In other words, landscape photography does not make photography, but shapes landscape itself.

The light that shines into landscape photography is not from the secret chamber, nor does it come from God, for God is in the world.

We will further our theme in this issue. Similar as the train of thoughts discussed above, some of the modern landscape photography that appears to be “old” is not just one subject of landscape photography. The photographers employ the wet-plate photography used by the foreign missionaries and biologists one century ago to shoot the photos of hills, sky and rivers observed with their camera lens, which is not just occasionally overlap of time and space. To brush up the situations dealt with by “early photography” intentionally or unintentionally, or to employ its techniques seems to make an oriental journey again in the East Indiaman Gotheborg not navigated by modern power. Looking back upon the history of photography, it actually proposes the question to the art traditions of mankind: the attribute of “earliness” repeatedly mentioned in this article in fact does not belong to the early photography, but is made by the looking back by us in the modern times, so is the same with the fragile physical quality of those “old photos” or those that “imitate old photos”. Thus, this fragility derives not from “the imitation of the antiques”, but from the certainty that they symbolize the object which was dead, and which “existed”—isn’t this exactly the quality that photography should possess if we think thoroughly?

Compared with interior photography, landscape photography draws itself nearer to the special quality of photography, for it destroys the bridge between the truth and the appearance and combines them together—it being absent often, the ruin always stays there. Landscape with this typical quality usually exposes its wildness and wilderness instead of sincerity and humanity, so does the landscape photography that “imitates the antiques” in modern China. There usually emerges a drifting and muddling state of mind as if it were the end of time and the whole world faded away, which is so ineffable—perhaps, it is because the distance between this kind of landscape and Ma Yuan and Xia Gui is much farther than that between Joseph Stiglitz and the paintings of Poussin and Lorraine. Assiduously pursuing the clarity of the image and the amount of information, modern techniques for photography seems to return to its old way of the reproduction of “vividness”. In fact, this kind of photography seeks a “tradition” with side branches; the “earliness” embodied refers to the future. The “early photography” of China can be traced back to the beginning of twentieth century. In 1906, appointed to a teacher in Shaanxi Institute of Higher Learning, a Japanese, Adachi Kiroku, who was born in Shizuoka and who used to teach science came to China. Enlightened by a predecessor scholar Kuwabara, he began to visit the historic sites of the Han and Tang Dynasties in a planned manner, though he never was a professional historian: “…one evening, when the blossoms of the peach trees and plum trees fell off and drifted in the air, a solitary guest from the East Sea lingered among the relics of Weiyang Palace…Looking down on the historic sites that rose and fell in the past two thousand years, he signed with emotion.” He finally complied all the discoveries into one book in 1933, which was definitely an archaeological report-to-be with informative illustrations—A Research of the Historic Sites in Chang’an. We can hardly distinguish either the year or the season from these photos taken one hundred years ago. The shadows hidden in the dark, grey and steamy air resemble the fields and the trees with layer upon layer in a drizzly spring, while it also very much likes the desolate landscape in autumn and winter. In the close shot, the zigzagging road looks like a pathway casually made by the steps in the wilderness; the undulating figure of the mountains far away merges together with the vast land, forming several parallel lines that never reach each other. It is difficult to detect any architecture except two vague Chinese pagodas which decorate the continuous skyline. Barely can most of the people figure out the spot for photography without being told that these two pagodas are the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda.

Though in the bleak color of black and white, the ancient Xi’an behind the camera lens actually unfolded a colorful picture:

“In May and June, looked into from afar and high, the early-ripe golden wheat ripple in the fields, the fiery-red poppy flowers dot here and there, looking rather beautiful. Under the white poplar whose greenness seems to drip, donkeys and horses languidly pull the water wagon for the irrigation of sorghum…”

Actually, long had two Frenchmen Niepce and Daguerre been knocking at of the door China with their western “films”; no nooner did the French government abandon the control of patent of photography than Qi Shan saw this invention with profound meanings in the battlefield of the Opium War. However, it was a sensitive time at the beginning of the 20th century when Adachi Kiroku arrived, and when the expedition teams of the western powers covetously and greedily trampled the whole area of the western provinces of China. As the synonym for “advanced”, these foreign observers did not visit the historic sites or seek serenity; instead, they surveyed with great exactness the distance between the sites in reality and those in imagination by means of the unprecedented instrument—the camera.

Once placed together, the records of Adachi Kiroku differ greatly from the works of modern photographers: the former are grey and yellow, the latter bright and shining; the former come from the view of an alien, the latter self-examination of the natives. Observing carefully, we shall discover its secret—obviously, something is missing in Adachi Kiroku’s photos; there are not many traces of “man”. In the photos of A Research of the Historic Sites in Chang’an, the signs of human habitation hardly appear outside the continuous and cold walls of the city. It is difficult for people to believe that this is a metropolis in the western China with a population of almost 2,000,000. More than we could imagine, the population of this city far surpassed most of the cities in the world about one thousand years ago in the Sui and Tang Dynasties. At the end of the Qing Dynasty, despite the obvious increase of the population in Xi’an, its area was reduced to 1/8 of Chang’an in the Tang Dynasty; more importantly, such a city was hooped by a circle of walls which severely lacked of good impression. Thus, through the camera lens of the western photographers in the Late Qing Dynasty, China seemed to be divided into two distinct parts: the “sensible” but “invisible” life far away in the human world; and the “sensible” but “invisible” landscape outside the bleak world.

The meaning of the new techniques of photography lied not in “discovering” this kind of landscape, but in exerting a subtle influence upon the Chinese who were confronted with a different perspective of observing the world through the introduction of the invention of the photographers like Daguerre who maintained the pictures forever on a certain object. This “new classic” turned out to be both familiar and strange to them since its birth—because of the long time of exposure (about 20 or 30 minutes at the beginning), the photographers chose landscape with permanent and stable quality as one of the important objects. The photos presented a rather thick tone of grey and black with great contrast; besides, the landscape taken seemed particularly “still”, thus, “not a sign of man” appeared in some of the photos. One the one hand, it faithfully represent the landscape taken to a certain extent; on the other it distanced itself from the objects by mixing those features at different moments. As for the westerners who got used to the classical realistic style, the information about the color filtered out (the landscape in the early spring from Adachi Kiroku’s works) was a pity. However, the Chinese who approved that “solid color overrides bright ones in a painting” regarded it as an unexpected approach to the “truth”, so the factor of time embodied in photography seemed nothing but normal to them.

Early photography at first “relies on” the popular subjects of the visual culture in the late Imperial China, whose overlap could not totally be counted as accidental. Since the twentieth century, natural landscape such as Mount Huang has “accidentally” become a photographical subject with Chinese characteristics, perhaps because the relationship between early photography and its objects is right in accordance with the phenomenon of the Chinese landscape painting rising suddenly as a new force. Regarded as “the painting school of Mount Huang” by some people, artists in the Southern Anhui has such a relationship with the themes of their creation: first of all, as a true site, Mount Huang distinguishes itself with the mountain system around with its special geographical structure, forming an ideal condition as an independent object to be observed; secondly, “a world outside the world”, it serves as both the living place and painting object of the artists. Its cultural situation, once emerging at the important historical moment of dynasty substitution, is hardly relevant to the desolate style of painting, which agrees with the feature of “subduction” in the early photography; last but not least, “life imitates art”. The artistic works about Mount Huang do not only depict a certain “snapshot” of nature, it actually reflect “the combination of all the features” of this mountain, such as the sea of clouds, picturesque rocks and legendary pines…In general instead of in part, they form the artistic appearance of Mount Huang, thus exert a full effect upon those who seek these images in the boundless world.

All these above make it possible for the photos about Mount Huang to become a perfect example that illustrate how early photography influences the artistic views. Different from the photographs about the west from O’ Sullivan, which lack of the support of the artistic tradition; as well as from the famous photographs about Tibet from Lü Nan (here we play the role as the observers), one kind of the Chinese landscape actually stay between the two. Neither does it endeavor to recall the past as Long Chinsan did, who draws close to the existing artistic traditions, nor is it the absolute “exotic” landscape, whose presentation overlaps the reality. However, it highlights the conflicts between the strong sense of time in photography and no sense of time in traditional paintings once it encounters reality, while Long Chinsan usually manages to mute the conflicts by his “pictorial photography”.

Thus, it is quite necessary to discuss the time difference mentioned above—why do we talk about “early photography” in modern times? It is because only at this colorful and splendid moment could the problems relevant to early photography be greatly exposed: on the one hand, it faces a fact that happened long ago; on the other, it is about a kind of “future perfect tense”, and a history that constantly gushes out and distance itself from us. So, when we go over the Chinese landscape in the eyes of the westerners at the beginning of this article, that would not be looking back, but looking forward, for every change starts right from this moment.

[Editor] 马西