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Report from the Shanghai Center of Photography

By Alexandra Pechman

The newly opened Shanghai Center of Photography promises an ambitious array of photography exhibitions in its inaugural year, from landmark works of the twentieth century to a survey of Chinese contemporary photography. Situated on the West Bund, a new arts district being promoted by the city as a museum and gallery-going destination, the center hopes to introduce modern and contemporary photography of all genres to a city largely devoid of institutions to educate about the medium. Online editor Alexandra Pechman visited Shanghai this May, where the center’s director Rebecca Catching spoke to her about their ambitions, plans, and what it means to open a museum or arts center in China. This article also appears in Issue 9 of the Aperture Photography App, a new biweekly publication from Aperture: click here to download the free app.

Much has been made of China’s museum boom– with hundreds of new venues opening each year–but few have been devoted specifically to contemporary photography, and in Shanghai, there are none at all. In May, the Shanghai Center of Photography opened along what is now called the West Bund Cultural Corridor along the southern bend of the Huangpu River. Here, a loose association of brand-new museums, art centers, and festival grounds have cropped up, devoted to contemporary art and culture. The inaugural exhibition at the Shanghai Center, Photography from the 20th Century: The Private Collection of Jin Hongwei, presents selections from the sixteen hundred-piece collection of Hongwei, a Chinese collector with a formidable trove of twentieth century photography. The small show includes classic works by Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Joseph Koudelka, Elliott Erwitt, and Ansel Adams as well as more contemporary selections from Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney, and Sally Mann (Jin primarily collected American photography). “It includes works from photographers who shaped the evolution of the medium from the early days of glass plate photography to contemporary explorations of digital photomontage,” a statement about the show announced.

“China doesn’t really have a dedicated photography center,” director Rebecca Catching said, who began her role just two months ago. “Everyone knows Stieglitz and Steichen as big names, but I don’t know that they know what they did.” There are even a few well-known photographers whose work has provoked conversation. “For instance, Sally Mann is not that well known in China and we have quite a few of her works in this show,” she said. “We had an interesting dialogue with a journalist about it who was saying about how her work is controversial in the States or at least it was at the time, and Mr. Jin said to the journalist said oh yeah it’s controversial because people found it inappropriate to have nude children but in China, a naked child is really not so much of an issue.”

The center does not have a collection but will show a wide range of work from diverse sources, in order to give a comprehensive view of photography to a city that has largely lacked an introduction to the world of photography. The building, designed by US-based architectural duo Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, features elliptical-shaped walls, a triangular courtyard, and skylights that allow slices of light into the white space. Originally intended as a showpiece for the 2013 West Bund Biennial, an architectural biennial sponsored by the city, the space was offered to veteran photojournalist Liu Heung Shing as a studio space, which he had no need for. He then decided to found a photography center instead.

Catching is planning the next show, a survey of Chinese photography, which will to include documentary, landscape, portraiture, conceptual photography, focusing on eight photographers who have a had an impact on the history of photography in China. The exhibition will open during Photo Shanghai in September, while, for 2016, Catching is planning exhibitions of William Eggleston and Boris Mikhailov.

Of the fact that many art exhibitions in China are subject to censorship, Catching said, “Unfortunately we do have to think about these things, especially when it’s our first show.” For example, a tamer selection by Robert Mapplethorpe appears in the exhibition. “If we’re going to do something controversial, we’d like to save it for something where there’s a really tough solo show that we want to do.” While the center’s entryway bears the well-known Susan Sontag quote, “Today everything exists to end in a photograph,” the contemporary embodiments to that statement– Facebook, Instagram, and Google image search, for example– are all blocked in China. Mainly, Catching said, the goal is educate a public that has been relatively isolated from the history of photography, while starting from scratch. “It’s been kind of fast and furious, dealing with roof leaks and renovations while also putting up the first show and also creating a huge amount of material,” said Catching. “It’s been quite an endeavor.”

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