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The name of Chinese actress and pop singer Fan Bingbing has been cropping up more and more frequently in the headlines of Western news publications — including making Forbes’s annual list of highest paid actresses last year. But just not long ago the 33-year-old’s fame was largely confined to her native country, and the acceleration of her status to national icon is captured in FAN, a photo book by the Oakland-based photographer Rian Dundon, released by Modes Vu.
Dundon followed Fan as she traveled across China in 2008–09, recording in black-and-white images the mania that celebrity culture spawns in public as well as behind-the-scenes efforts to craft a popular identity. Dundon, hired by Fan’s manager to teach English to the then-27-year-old so she could land roles in Hollywood (she received her first one in May 2014), was by her side at nearly every waking moment, receiving unfettered access to one of the country’s most famous faces.
The 208-page book transports the viewer to the streets of cities from Macau to Hong Kong, where crowds of wide-eyed fans grip their phones in anticipation of snapping a shot of the actress; to backstage areas, where Fan preps before performances; to fancy hotels, where she dines with power figures in the entertainment industry. The images are classic captures of a celebrity, the result of fly-on-the-wall photography that shows Fan as a glamorous figure in the public sphere as well as in moments of quiet.
A sequence of images of clamoring crowds introduces the book, with individuals’ faces always expressing the same look of eager anticipation; one picture shows a man shoving his arm through a tent to take a picture. The end of the series cements Fan’s role as a vehicle for the consumerist market, with shots of her posing in a studio and her made-up face on posters that plaster a department store, billboards, the sides of a truck, and even the packaging of fruit cups.
What’s especially striking about Dundon’s series is that it documents the success of a huge, highly manipulated campaign to create an idol for China’s citizens; it records the molding of a figure to such a level of fame that Fan’s life seems like nothing but a spectacle to be enjoyed by all. Although Dundon had open access to Fan, her manager made him take pictures that look candid, so she appears as a genuine but glamorous figure — one whose role is ultimately to sell merchandise to fuel the economy. As Jonathan Landreth writes in an accompanying essay:
As China’s economy slows from 30 years to roughly 10 percent annual growth, the Party is trying to hang on to power by guiding the country stably away from shrinking manufacturing and exports to growing domestic consumption. Fan, because of her unusually big eyes, her high nose, her height, her slender figure and her poise, is a sharp and shiny tool to sell a consumerist dream.
In one photo, the star twirls in a forest, seemingly oblivious to Dundon; in another, she stares directly into the camera’s lens as tears stream down her face. Dundon’s images mostly capture Fan with a vacant expression, but there’s a sense that she knows exactly what her role as an idol is, and accepts it. Although its pictures were originally meant to offer the public a crafted representation of a celebrity, Fan stands as a melancholic record of what it looks like when identity is managed and manipulated.
Rian Dundon’s FAN is available from Modes Vu.