Five Visual Motifs In the Photographs of Ren Hang

Five Visual Motifs In the Photographs of Ren Hang

Posted by on Feb 27, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

On February 24th after suffering from a deep depression, Chinese photographer Ren Hang took his own life just weeks before his 30th birthday. Despite his young age, Hang leaves behind a large body of photographic work. Known for his “racy”, erotic images, Hang’s photographs visualized a provocative and constructed world that simultaneously referenced a uniquely Chinese aesthetic and contemporary youth culture.

When I look at Hang’s work, I am less interested in his exposure of genitalia and the titillating effect of his images. As a photographer, I’m drawn to his storytelling techniques, specifically the aesthetic patterns that emerge when seeing the work as a whole. In memoriam I’d like to highlight five visual motifs that Hang repeatedly employed to thus create his signature style. 

 

The Color Red
Considered the most popular color in China as evident by the red field featured in the country’s flag, Hang used this symbolic color in a variety of ways. In traditional Chinese culture, red is associated with celebration and creativity, good fortune and joy. In its most political meaning, red is associated with communism or socialism which in this case may relate to the form of government Hang was always in conflict with.

In Hang’s images you’ll often see red painted on the lips and/or nails of his female models and also as a backdrop color. Whether a face is immersed in crimson-colored bathwater, or as in this image where both model and snake are laying on red bedsheets, Hang uses the same blood-red shade to highlight an idea or frame his subjects.

 

Polycephaly
Popularized in literature by Greek mythological creatures, polycephaly is a condition of having more than one head that can also realistically occur in animals and humans. In several images, Hang has played with the concept of a double-headed being, focusing less on the condition itself and more on the idea of two that share a body. In other images, he’s posed his models to resemble a multi-limbed being, an act that comes across as pure play, fitting bodies together in an exploration of the fantastical human form.


Hair

Sporting medium to long, black hair, Hang’s female models uphold stereotypical and historical visions of Asian femininity. Draped over faces and limbs, jet black hair shines in the glare of Hang’s almost-violent flash lighting. In the art of dream interpretation, hair is recognized as a symbol of sensuality, seduction and vanity – all descriptors commonly used to interpret Hang’s work.  


Flora

Hang often staged his images in nature and in his studio shots, cut flowers and various types of exotic flora also appear, sometimes competing with the model(s) for the viewer’s attention. In the above image, the cherry blossom tree obscures the model as its intricate branches and blossoms dominate the frame. A historical symbol of desire and sexuality, Hang has used various species of flora ranging from the innocuous tulip to the Anthurium with its sexy, patent-leather like red leaves and erect pistil.


Birds

Lastly, one can’t help but notice the winged creatures in Hang’s images. Although domesticated animals (like reptiles and cats) mingle amongst naked bodies, the birds are limp, tamed, as if to be prepared for consumption. Not knowing for sure I insist they are dead or at least taxidermy, as I can’t fathom any bird would cooperate in such foreign, artificial conditions. Hang’s repeat use of birds seems obsessive. He even poses his own mother in the series My Mum with an excess of doves, ducks, peacocks and swans.

In his most complex compositions, Hang arranged several of these motifs together to make a single, confounding image. And though there are bodies, except in the case of his mother, there are no characters. Alive or not, Hang arranges his subjects like objects. It is because of this that I’ve come to appreciate Hang’s work as still life photography. RIP Ren Hang.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.

Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity

Forthcoming Photo Books by African American & Black African Photographers

Forthcoming Photo Books by African American & Black African Photographers

Posted by on Feb 22, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Every year as I browse newly published photography books, I can’t help but notice an immense shortage in the number of titles being published by or featuring the works of photographers of color. “Why?” I wonder and yet no reason I can imagine seems acceptable. Consider this Amazon list of 2017 photography books by individual photographers, only 7 of the 307 books (just 2.3%) are by Black photographers of African origin or descent despite the hundreds if not thousands of well-known, working photo-based artists out there.

There’s still no lack of photo books about the “tribes of the world”, made by photographers with an insatiable need to scratch their itch to photograph what they’ve identified as “vanishing” cultures. The artistic value of books like these is often questionable as they are filled with images that cross the line from art photography to blatant cultural appropriation.

What makes a B&W photograph of an indigenous artist at work in a photo book that will sell many copies at $50 a piece any less offensive or disrespectful than the mass-produced goods that formed the basis for the Navajo’s trademark dilution claims against Urban Outfitters and its subsidiaries?

So what can be done to diversify the photobook medium? Here are a few thoughts to inspire a conversation if not action:

  1. I urge the major and independent photo book publishers of the world to notice the work of photographers of color and dare to publish their work in an effort to close this racial and cultural disparity.
  2. I call out to photographers of color who have published photo books to regularly share their own knowledge of the (self) publishing process with others like them.
  3. We must form a community of photobook makers (that can pool financial resources and other design/production support) to help the non-published reach their publishing goals.
  4. Beyond the typical survey or monograph, the publishing industry at large must commit to diversifying the photobook medium by releasing books every year featuring unique bodies of work by individual photographers of color.
  5. At the very least, curators can help fill the gap by budgeting for and publishing catalogs of the solo exhibitions featuring photographers of color that they organize.
  6. Organizers of art book fairs should recognize this underserved group and take measures to diversify the titles displayed at their events.

Lastly, to get back to the point as specified by the title of this post. The following is a list of those 7 photo books to be released in 2017 that I mentioned earlier and including Adger Cowan’s book which was just published this January:

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz (2017)

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz (2017)

Sights in the City: New York Street Photographs by Jamel Shabazz
Publisher: Damiani (March 28, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Consisting of 120 color and black-and-white photographs taken between 1985 and the 2000s, most of which have never been published, Sights in the City is the testament of Shabazz’s visual journey.

 

Leslie Hewitt (2017)

Leslie Hewitt (2017)

Leslie Hewitt
Publisher: OSMOS BOOKS (June 27, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
That cinematic rumination on historicity and the relationship of the archive to memory, minimalism, lived experience and time, sets an exemplary precedent for this first monograph surveying Hewitt’s oeuvre.

Gordon Parks: Collected Works: Study Edition (2017)

Gordon Parks: Collected Works: Study Edition (2017)

Gordon Parks: Collected Works
Publisher: Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation (April 25, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
This five-volume collection surveys five decades of Gordon Parks’ (1912–2006) photography. It is the most extensive publication to document his legendary career.

Koto Bolofo: Printing (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Printing (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Printing
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Innovative fashion photographer Koto Bolofo (born 1959) is well known for his portraits and fashion shoots, and published in such prestigious periodicals as Vogue, Esquire and i-D. In this volume, his images lead readers through the corridors and stairways of the Steidl printing center, documenting the magical formation of some of the most beautiful visual books ever made.

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making (2017)

Koto Bolofo: Paper Making
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
In Paper Making, Koto Bolofo graphically captures Hahnemühle’s artisanal processes and antique machinery alongside today’s most advanced technologies, uncovering the attention to detail, vision and pride that have sustained the company’s unmatched reputation for centuries.

 

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg (2017)

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg (2017)

Santu Mofokeng: Stories 5-7: Soweto-Dukathole-Johannesburg
Publisher: Steidl (May 23, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
This three-volume publication, which continues a groundbreaking reappraisal of the photographer’s archive, presents aspects of life in Soweto, where Mofokeng grew up; Dukathole, a township in the East Rand of Gauteng Province; and Johannesburg, the city in which he worked.

 

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge (2017)

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge (2017)

Fragile Legacies: The Photographs of Solomon Osagie Alonge
Publisher: GILES (March 3, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Chief Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911–1994) was one of Nigeria’s premier photographers and the first official photographer to the Royal Court of the Kingdom of Benin.

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans (2017)

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans (2017)

Personal Vision: Adger Cowans
Publisher: Glitterati (January 27, 2017)
Product Information Excerpt:
Master American photographer Adger Cowan’s predominantly black-and-white photography is collected in Personal Vision: Photographs, his monograph of original images taken over the past forty years.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther PartyThe Black Female Self in Landscape and In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes.

New Image Library Specializes In Race and Cultural Diversity

New Image Library Specializes In Race and Cultural Diversity

Posted by on Feb 15, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Autograph Media is a recently launched photography licensing agency from the people who run Autograph ABP, the British-based photographic arts organization. Specializing in all aspects of race and cultural diversity throughout history, Autograph Media’s image library is comprised of a multitude of collections from various media partners like Getty Images and Magnum Photos.

Indian suffragettes on the Women's Coronation Procession, London, 17th June 1911. Mrs Fisher Unwin, who had links with India, was in charge of this contingent, which was part of the Empire Pageant. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Indian suffragettes on the Women’s Coronation Procession, London, 17th June 1911. Mrs Fisher Unwin, who had links with India, was in charge of this contingent, which was part of the Empire Pageant. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Covering a wide range of subjects, while browsing through the Autograph Media archive online one quickly realizes what a treasure trove it is. Well tagged and contextually/conceptually linked, during my first look I quickly went from 1950s images of newly arrived West Indian immigrants in London to documentary work on the British in India… and yet Autograph Media doesn’t stop at visualizing the history of Britain’s colonized subjects.

27th May 1956: Immigrants from the West Indies arriving by ship at Southampton Docks, Hampshire. Original Publication: Picture Post - 8405 - Thirty Thousand Colour Problems - pub. 1956 (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

27th May 1956: Immigrants from the West Indies arriving by ship at Southampton Docks, Hampshire. Original Publication: Picture Post – 8405 – Thirty Thousand Colour Problems – pub. 1956 (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)

During my Autograph Media search I discovered images from the Afro Newspaper/Gado archive. Founded in 1892 by John Henry Murphy Sr., a former slave who gained freedom following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, The Afro-American newspaper was formed when Murphy merged several church papers together. With a large circulation in several cities, the Baltimore-based newspaper was instrumental in effecting social change on a national scale from pushing for black representation in the legislature, to establishing state-sponsored education for African Americans, fighting the implementation of Jim Crow segregation and even collaborating with the NAACP on civil rights cases.

Three women in lavish dress stand with nooses around their necks in protest of lynchings, 1946. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Three women in lavish dress stand with nooses around their necks in protest of lynchings, 1946. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

With its nontraditional and inclusive hiring practices, The Afro-American employed notable black intellectuals (Langston Hughes, Romare Bearden) and journalists and while many of the images in the newspaper’s archive don’t give photographer credit, we do know that they employed women photographers like Erika Stone. The image of Little Miss Black Liberty below from Autograph Media’s online archive is by Stone, a photojournalist, magazine photographer and member of the Photo League. After she had children, Stone exclusively photographed children and family. (For more work by Erika Stone, take a look at this portfolio of her Ellis Island images  from a previous Baxter St blog post by Patricia Silva.)

A child wearing a Statue of Liberty headdress on National Freedom Day in New York City, USA, circa 1988. National Freedom Day commemorates the signing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery on 1st February 1865. (Photo by Erika Stone/Getty Images)

A child wearing a Statue of Liberty headdress on National Freedom Day in New York City, USA, circa 1988. National Freedom Day commemorates the signing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery on 1st February 1865. (Photo by Erika Stone/Getty Images)

Autograph Media is a compilation of several photography archives, many of which you can access individually from their own websites. Yet the value of Autograph Media lays in its mission of making visible a multitude of historical images that offer a more fair representation of human history at the intersections of race, culture and gender. Visual resources like this remind us of our past, our humanity and ultimately what’s worth fighting for in this era of uncertainty and political instability.

Group portrait of three Chinese children standing in a room in Chicago, Illinois, each holding an American flag and a Chinese flag, 1929. From the Chicago Daily News collection. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Group portrait of three Chinese children standing in a room in Chicago, Illinois, each holding an American flag and a Chinese flag, 1929. From the Chicago Daily News collection. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures. Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog: Photography and the Black Panther PartyThe Black Female Self in LandscapeIn Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes and Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers.