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Interpreting Hu Yang's Shanghai Living in Camera Language

Author: Lin Lu 2005

Hu Yang's 'Shanghai Living' came to a phasic full stop after 14 months' hard efforts. Pictures of 500 families compose a visual space that wins commentaries and attention from all levels of the society. From either the sociological of the cultural prospective, people can have their own interpretations to this unique series of work. And in this commentary, I'm interpreting Hu Yang's work by painstaking efforts only in camera language, trying to figure out what kind of visual stories he wants to tell us.
In the preface of the exhibition, I once said there are at least two interpretations for his work. Shanghai families and Shanghai families in Hu Yang's eyes. First, these pictures do constitute an authentic portrait of the Shanghai families in the 21st century from the most luxury to the shabby dwelling; the satisfied to the anguished expressions all strike a pose in this image world. Going through the pictures, I feel all kind of feelings welling up in my heart. Just as Hu Yang puts it, historically speaking these pictures compose an image documentary of Shanghai families. They open a door through which we can enter the living rooms, cut through the studies, go into the bedrooms and face the spaces where Shanghai people lead their diverse lives and build their unique characters. Each family is an isolated world where an either heartrending or soul-stirring story takes place. Reading there pictures silently, you can have your own interpretations for Shanghai families. Shanghai has always been a city absorbing all from nature, and these pictures may help you more about its cosmopolitanism.

Second, these are pictures in a photographer's eyes, which, without fail, will carry his personal elucidation. American sociologist Susan Sontag once said that in this society, a photographer's practice is an external inroad; and a photographer could only be an observer. On stepping into each family, Hu Yang has already started his evaluation with his eyes. Therefore, we can read through the pictures a photographer's concern for the life in Shanghai. Hu Yang believes his work is a description and interpretation of Shanghai families from a sociological perspective. With a Contax 645N camera and color negative film, he pressed his shutter and got images between reality and imagination. Although he understands quite well that these instantaneous pictures can't bear too much moral or ethical connotations, they are still a great achievement, especially when the dazzling details in the pictures are presented with the people inside.

But what's the significance of Hu Yang's works to Shanghai families? And what's the difference between his camera language and other photographers?

Take Jiang Jian (famous photographer of He'nan) for example. His work changes from black and white to multicolor and tells the lives of people living in He'nan's villages. He adopted similar color ad light to the ones Hu Yang used in his 'Shanghai Living', and instead of presenting a cosmopolitan city, reflected an authentic local environment. However, their crucial difference is that Kiang Jian chose planar pictures in which people (or a person) directly and indifferently stared at the camera, hiding their inner emotions behind the colors. The audience has been alienated from the people in the pictures, which are coated with super realism; while Hu Yang adopted three-dimensional pictures which have wider visual angles and are more intimate with the audience. This might be what Hu Yang seeks after and his peaceful interpretation of Shanghai families, which leaves the audience a faint but hovering impression.
On the 4th Pingyao International Photograph Exhibition, Hu Yang's work happened to be displayed in the same hall with Netherlands photographer Robert Van-der Hilst's 'Cuba Families', which, with precise colors and an audacious but firm style, combined perfectly Cuban people's daily life with their spiritual power and immediately caught the eyes of the audience. However, Hu Yang pursues different things. Instead of reversal film or digital camera, he used color negative film, which is very sensitive to color temperature, to reflect authentic life in Shanghai. There for, the colors in his pictures are not precisely 'accurate', some even 'deviate' from the original ones. However, these deviations represent not only the charm of natural scenes but the photographer's feelings as well. The subtle transition between colors and feelings are his exact language to the multiplicity and complexity of life. If you think the camera interpretations are not crucial enough, we might as well make conjectures about the photographer's inner world. First we should accept that a theme like 'Shanghai Living' is a grand narrative project that needs more that just several pictures. Only a huge amount of pictures can cause heartquake and tell the audience what the world looks like. In such a process, the photographer must have been under great pressure and made painstaking efforts to produce 500 works of the same style. Although a complete series, these 500 pictures reflect visual changes which could be recognized not only in the pictures but in the photographer's inner world. Any imprudence could have led the work into a paradox pointed out by Susan Sontag more that 30 years ago.

In order not to tell all the families in the same language, Hu Yang tried his best for 'breakout' and new perspectives. He talked with the families while taking their pictures, trying to catch special moments. Sometimes he pressed the shutter abruptly; sometimes he patiently led the people calming down and into their deep hearts. Through the pictures, he wants to tell the most brilliant stories of these Shanghai families, either it's a decoration details, a scattered shade and shadow, an eye expression, or a posture.
And then we see people in the pictures present themselves naturally and without any affectation. We see affecting dignity, simple happiness, longings for high quality life and apparent loneliness, all telling vivid stories happened in Shanghai families. Little by little, you will enter these families and find that the lives there are not dramas directed by the photographer with the people in the pictures. You will have enough reason to talk thoroughly with them, or, to be exact, with your inner self.

Of course it's hard to avoid repetitions among the pictures, which put the camera to a frazzle in tis narration. Luckily the photographer keeps his efforts in practicing and just as what is said at the beginning, this is a full stop for just a phase. More new chapters' are drastically incubating in the photographer's mind. The other day in the autumn sunshine, Hu Yang confidently told me that with the camera he will go deeper into Shanghai famlies and finish a new round visual conversation with them. I believe we have enough reasons to expect.

Lin Lu, Professor of Shanghai Normal University

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