Feng Li, Good Night, 2007–21

Thirteen years ago, while touring Buckingham Palace in London, Feng Li became enchanted by a colorful African parrot in one of the drawing rooms. A rush of awe and serenity overtook him—if only he, too, could have such a beautiful bird as a companion. The following year, an identical parrot landed on Li’s balcony in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province, and made his home there.

Events such as this led Li, a trained doctor of Chinese medicine who took up photography as a hobby in his twenties, to believe that there is some higher order in the universe. After quitting medicine, Li got a job as a civil servant in local government. Soon, he was taking photographs for the city’s publicity department, recording community events and urban development, always with the aim of making things look beautiful and perfect. This day job allowed him to transition to becoming a professional photographer, as if by accident. Yet, even in his placid, promotional imagery, he could often detect an otherness, like the flip side of a coin, a kind of unspoken performance, a complication, a sinister character lurking beneath the surface.

In recent years, Li has lived in and photographed Paris and Berlin. The change in settings didn’t prevent him from being able to find the subject of his fascination—people and how they reveal their true nature to his camera at unexpected moments. His photographs often unveil a scene in an absurd drama, and, in those buoyant flashes, there is just a whiff of tragedy. In each man-made comedy of errors, something is not quite right, but you can’t bring yourself to look away. “You are born into a world before you can enter it,” he says, “before you can even begin to grasp its power and complexity.”

Recently, his parrot passed away, and after he departed, it was as if Li stopped seeing the vibrant colors that have characterized much of his imagery, which has earned him an international reputation. The series Good Night, taken from 2007 to 2021, is, by contrast, dominated by the color black. Viewing these images, you must accept that these incredible events pictured by Li in simple, alluring, and humorous compositions actually happened.

In one instance, Li told me, a car ran a red light as he was walking down the street. It crashed into a road sign, and white rabbits came flying out. Hearing the loud bang, Li walked up expecting to see a tragedy, but the driver had merely fainted. The rabbits, though, were theatrically spilling out of the car. In another, one afternoon, looking up from his desk at home, he witnessed a darkly dressed man, directly across from him, scaling the neighboring office building like a ghost. We also see a wild-haired little girl—the artist’s niece—with her hand extended, playing with his pet bird, but in that instant she becomes a legend of dark authority. In still another, a woman encounters a dinosaur sculpture in a park.

All photographs by Feng Li from the series Good Night, 2007–21
Courtesy the artist and Concrete Rep. Ltd

Li delivers you to the front steps of this surreal world, where joy and grief, cruelty and fragility are distributed among kindred spirits. Each day, Li looks at his life completely anew, ready to accept the sublime. Something is profoundly amiss with the people in these photographs, and yet, we want to move even closer to them. “I like to believe these people were coming to look for me that day,” he says of his subjects. “As long as I have my camera, I will be ready. I don’t want to let them down.”

This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 244, “Cosmologies,” under the title “Feng Li: Good Night.”