China in 1983
In 1983, I was invited by the Friendship Association Denmark-China to join a Danish cultural delegation under the leadership of Ms Julie Brink who is actually still with that organisation and – as a dear friend – has helped me to develop contacts for my 2018-2019 Silk Road project.
The delegation counted people like Lone Bastholm, then director of the Danish Royal Theatre; philosophy professor David Favrholdt; member of parliament Ebba Strange and other leaders in Danish cultural, political and social life. It’s still not clear to me why I was invited, but I remain immensely grateful to this day.
And not only because of experiencing China – which is something hardly anyone does without feeling that it was a life-changing experience. I’ve always known that I would return to China but neither when nor how.
Among the members of that delegation was Viggo Rivad (1922-2016), beyond doubt the most important Danish photographer of his time and during a lifetime. He became my very dear friend and, later, my mentor. As a small token of my gratitude to him, I created his official homepage and also shot some hours of simple iPhone video conversations with him about his life and art during the two last years of his life (still to be processed and edited).
Viggo taught me more about the principles of photography than I can ever tell. But our works are, naturally, very different. Here he is in China, tongue in cheek, looking at you…
35 years of change
1983 is quite a long time ago and, much to my own surprise, I did not return to China before 2018. Somehow, my Eastern or Oriental life has been lived in Japan where I have been a visiting peace studies professor several times between 1990 and 2010, all together for about two years.
But it is never too late to catch up…
When I got the invitation to exhibit in Venice, I felt that this was a turning point for me and that China’s new, visionary Silk Road – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – was what would combine my research interests with photography. And that became the SPAR project.
The China I visited was one that had just started to open up in December 1978 under then-President Deng Xiaoping. In 1983, we saw how peasant families lived in very modest brick houses, chicken and pigs running around, just a few hundred meters from Tiananmen Square. I am told that today you’ll see peasants only on the outside of the 6th ring road around Beijing.
This was a period during which, for the first time, the Chinese could watch huge advertisements in the streets and squares for foreign consumer goods, such as JVC’s products.
Little did I sense back then in 1983 that China was changing so fundamentally and rapidly and that it would – in the very short world-time span of just 35 years – have caught up with the United States and other Western societies and surpassed it in various ways.
Whatever you may otherwise think about China, this is deeply impressive and a huge contribution to a better world for us all. In addition, China has lifted about 500 million people out of poverty in just a couple of decades. That is unique in human history and the West has, during the same few decades made the world even more unequal and not eradicated poverty.
How did you take pictures at that time? And how do you make use of them today?
Before leaving on October 1, 2018, I went back to my photo archive and found out that I had taken 450 Kodachrome film slides during the 16 days days back then in China. Kodachrome film was introduced in 1935 and the last film was produced in 2009.
That was the time when, if you wanted to both share your photos with others and also be able to print them on paper, slides would be your choice and not just an ordinary black-and-white or colour film for printed copies.
A certain number of slides were placed in a kind of magazine which was then inserted into a projector which would project the photos on to a screen or white wall. Not like a cinema, of course, but for family, friends and small audiences.
Today most people don’t even know about this way of sharing; we have the Internet with places like Instagram and we can share what we have on our phone with those next to us, send images by mail and post our photo on blogs, homepages and Flickr. Share around the world. How fascinating!
In the 1980s we were entering slowly the age of the digital revolution.
But little did we know that when we walked around with our analog cameras and put our films in metal containers so they would not be destroyed by X-ray machines at airports and we even kept them in cooling bags if we were in very warm places.
It belongs to this story that, in 1983, I was nothing but a young man taking tourist snapshots.
I had bought a DSLR for the first time in my life and in Tokyo, on the way to Beijing, I had bought my first-ever zoom lense.
You must appreciate that such films were expensive; at least I could not afford to shoot as many as I wanted to have done.
Secondly, there was no way to see what your shot was like. One only knew, upon return to one’s hometown and when the films were developed at the local shop, what you’d got in the can. There was no display, no way you could take a series of the same scene or make them better on the spot.
So some of the images here are truly amateurish and more blurred than they ought to have been. And when you travel with a delegation, you cannot just dwell here and there; there is a tight program and you shoot when there is a (short) opportunity.
So, I shot for memory – for family and friends. I never knew that at some much later point they would be seen by a larger audience.
35 years later, I just hope these snapshots may convey some little impressions in the light of history and make a contrast to the 2018 photos I shot in China for the SPAR project.
From Kodachrome to digital format
Finally, Kodachrome is said to be the most difficult film to scan and/or convert to digital format. It’s got to do with the special colour tone that would come out of a Kodachrome film – not like anything else but also very difficult in terms of areas of your photo that were black, greenish and bluish.
Another problem was how to scan. Getting an old-time scanner to work with a Mac running on iOS 10.13 isn’t that easy. It seems impossible. And getting good results is even more difficult.
Fortunately, I had two good friends who thought they could do the job for me – and I got my China slides in the usual jpg format after which I put them through Photoshop.
Showing history with the technology of the time
I have no wish to make them look like today’s digital images.
They are fundamentally something very very different, they are “children of their time.” I actually want to preserve the Kodachrome-ness of these slides with their sometimes greenish and sometimes bluish tones.
I would also never try to make old Polaroid images look like something you shoot with today’s DSLR cameras or a good mobile phone. It is fake.
Instead, I will let the content of these shots, as well as their appearance, be genuine: Pieces of history about China itself, about photographic technology and about what I saw. As simple as that!
Letting things be what they once were is, in many cases, the only way to stay truthful.
This portfolio’s 79 photographs have been carefully selected out of several hundred I took at the time. I hope they give you a chance to compare China’s development when – later – you see the portfolio(s) that contain my 2018-2019 photographs.
Indeed, the images you see in this portfolio document a China and a time that no longer exists.
During these 35 years, the Chinese created a new China. I am happy, even proud, to have my cameras bear witness to that part of humankind’s history.
At the very end you’ll experience just one visual comparison.
I believe that each photo contains interesting information about women and men, milieus, levels of development/underdevelopment, clothes, means of transport, eating habits, street life, happiness in spite of poverty, hard physical labour, the countryside and much more.
So, please don’t just scroll fast. Try to see what’s in it!
Finally, I do not intend to post these historic photos in the shop but if you should be interested in one of them, please contact me.
And finally, Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) as he appeared in Chengdu in 1983:
– and how he appears in 2018 at what my memory tells me is basically the same place. Today it is not quite the same white marble sculpture, it’s bigger. His right hand is raised to greet the people, he is without his cap and he is placed on a much higher podium:
And this is the square that he watches over…
What a change!
And now, move over to the portfolios of China 2018-2019 and the SPAR project of which they are an integral part. (Portfolios to come later…)
The first few images in this portfolio were published on October 11, 2018 – the day I visited the China Art Academy in Hangzhou as a guest.