- Zooming In: Histories of Photography in China by Wu Hung
Do photographs show what things look like, or do they chronicle the choices that photographers make in looking at things? Arguably, they do both. But it is the latter issue that concerns Wu Hung in his lushly-illustrated Zooming In: Histories of Photography in China. Via an illuminating "case study" approach, Wu Hung examines the choices made by photographers in China since the 1860s, explaining how their image-making created new and contentious forms of cultural, political, and social meaning.
Wu Hung is the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor and the Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago. To say he is an eminent professor of art history cannot do justice to his—dare one say—monumentality in the field of Chinese studies. He brings a tremendous knowledge of traditional art and culture to his scholarship on the contemporary art world, mediated through his personal history as a Cultural Revolution survivor. He is brilliant at deploying a spectrum of important discourses (art historical, political, literary, philosophical) and recreates topics through his interventions.
Zooming In starts with a well-known British photographer who often opens up discussions of early photography in China, Milton Miller (1830-1899), famous for portraits of imperial officials and their families. Once considered "the most significant body of nineteenth-century Chinese official portraits" (p. 20), these images are shown by Wu Hung to be significantly staged. Milton's status in the canon of early photography about China may [End Page 65] (deservedly) never recover from Wu Hung's careful, evidence-driven, and entirely convincing exposure of the counterfeit nature of some of Miller's most famous portraits. Wu Hung further examines Miller's canny promotion of a purported Chinese portrait style, which drew from the conventions of both Western studio portraiture and Chinese ancestor paintings. In an example of unfortunate visual influence, this style was partly adopted by contemporary Chinese photographers themselves.
Next, Wu Hung delivers an even more devastating critique of another British photographer, Felice Beato (1832-1909), whose images chronicled imperialist atrocities. Through forensic analysis, the chapter "Photography's Subjugation of China" uncovers multiple versions of Beato's images of China in the 1860s. Highly appreciative of architectural beauty, Beato photographed many architecturally and spiritually significant sites. Yet, embedded as he was with British troops, he also took well-known images that show these sites after British destruction, as well as grisly battlefield shots of corpses. Whatever Beato's own views of the imperialist project, he cannily packaged and sold different sets of photographic albums—some of the elegiac "before" shots of intact structures, marketed to an audience that craved a sense of China's magnificent cultural heritage, as well as the catastrophic and bloody "after" shots. Hence Beato's photographs simultaneously celebrated and masked the brutality of the war he was hired to document.
In the final chapter, on the other end of the chronological, aesthetic, and ethical spectrum, we contemplate the sublime works of the contemporary artist Miao Xiaochun (b. 1964). Miao creates computer-aided photographs that reimagine Michelangelo's Last Judgement as a series of three-dimensional tableaux, with his own digitalized avatar standing in for each figure in the heavenly host. Rendered in dull greyscale, Miao's avatars variously experience the awe, terror, and spiritual anxiety also expressed by Michelangelo's figures. In one case, the Miao avatar, viewed from behind, is shown in the posture of taking a photograph of the other figures, a brilliant act of auto-documentation that exposes the core purpose of the project: to document subjective experience and emotion. Miao is the anti-Miller and anti-Beato, who relied on nihilistic distance from their subjects and erased Chinese artistry and agency. Miao internalizes the emotional states that are symbolized in his literal self-immersion into one of the most famous examples of pictorial art (the Sistine Chapel) in the world.
Indeed, the representation of emotion and personal...