Cover and interior selection from Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts (Beijing: People's Fine Arts Publishing House, 1967), from The Chinese Photobook (Aperture, 2016)

Cover and interior selection from Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in Our Hearts (Beijing: People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1967) with images of Vice Chairman Lin Biao, later seen as a national traitor, cut out; from The Chinese Photobook, published by Aperture (all images courtesy Aperture)

In 1972, China’s Central Weather Bureau compiled and published a book filled with color photographs of clouds, each paired with an illustration of the photograph and some text explaining the clouds’ features. Although it was meant as an educational source for meteorologists, the publication, with its striking pictures and clean design, would not appear out of place at an international art-book fair. A copy caught the eyes of Magnum photographer Martin Parr and the Dutch photographers known as WassinkLundgren, who included it the in their own book, The Chinese Photobook: From the 1900s to the Present. The compendium — originally released by Aperture last year and recently reprinted in a mid-sized edition — features hundreds of photobooks by Chinese creators, including individuals from Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as those by foreigners about China.

Cover of Peking the Beautiful by Herbert C. White (Shanghai: The Commercial Press, Limited, 1927), from The Chinese Photobook, published by Aperture

There’s no established term in the Chinese language that translates to “photobook,” and according to Ruben Lundgren of WassinkLundgren, Chinese historians have not done significant research into the history and development of the medium in their country. Parr and WassinkLundgren wanted to explore the prevalence and variety of such books but also simply to relay knowledge of Chinese photobooks to outside readers. The Chinese Photobook — which, even at mid size, is still very thick and hefty — is not intended to be a complete history of these publications, but rather represents Parr and WassinkLundgren’s own selection, determined by content as well as design, historical relevance, and how a book was edited. Like the volume on clouds, many of the titles were not originally conceived of as artistic expressions, but they present absorbing photographs and suggest how images have functioned over the years as a government tool.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

One reply on “A History of Chinese Photobooks”

  1. This is a really nicely written review. I have a copy of the book, but this makes me want to open it up again and look at it a lot more closely.

    Michael
    @mdashkin

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