Wu Jiabao © 2017
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (1): Reflections on Faint Light, Dark Shadows (2017)
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (2): You can only obtain useful nutrients from an exhibition by walking through it three times at least
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (3): Seeing the exhibition for the third time
Preface: Does our cultural level match our per capita income?
In 2002 I was invited by Mr Si Sushi, organiser of the China Pingyao International Photography Festival in 2002, to curate contemporary photo exhibitions from eight countries – Denmark, the Netherlands, India, Germany, the US, Japan, Korea and Taiwan – for three consecutive years. After three years, the new organizers of the festival, Mr. Wang Yue and Mr. Zhang Guotian, asked me to help organize its programs and exhibitions. While continuing to hold the contemporary photo exhibitions from the eight countries, I also initiated the following events: (1) Portfolio Review, (2) Photo Education Exhibition Area, (3) Photo Educator Forum, (4) Curator School and (5) Curator’s Choice. In Mainland China, and even in other countries, all these programs were the first of their kind.
Not only did I help curate at the China Pingyao International Photography Festival, I also helped other organisations organize contemporary photo exhibitions relating to Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea and other Southeast Asian countries. I have worked with the National Taiwan Academy of Arts Week of Photography (1981), the FOTOSOFT Institute of Photography Taipei, Taiwan (1985 – 2016), the Chinese Society of Photographic Educations (1989 – 1990), OP Gallery (1995), the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (1996), the Guardian Garden Gallery (1996 – 2006), the Art Center for Kuo Mu Sheng Foundation (1999), the Image Gallery, Aarhus, Denmark (2000), the Dong Gang International Photo Festival (2005), the Hong Kong International Photo Festival (2012) and Lumenvisum (2012).
With 35 years’ experience in curating, and especially in organising contemporary photo exhibitions and other events for the China Pingyao International Photography Festival between 2002 and 2006, I have come to realise:
“International photo festival is a game that only places with per capita income of more than US$20,000 can afford.”
However, between 2002 and 2006, the per capita income in Pingyao, central Shanxi Province, was less than US$200. What a chaos it was when a place with an average income of less than US$200 per capita income was trying to play a game for those with an annual income of more than US$20,000. It is true to say that the content of these international photo festivals in China was very disappointing, even laughable, in the eyes of professional photographers from around the world.
As is stated in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the higher level human needs will only emerge after the lower level needs, such as food and warmth, are met. The cultural level of a place is closely linked to its per capita income. When the first Taiwan McDonald’s was opened in Taiwan in Taipei in 1984, the media wrote, “Whether McDonald’s opens its restaurant in a country or a city bases on the per capita income of the place.” (According to information on the internet, the per capita income of Taiwan in 1984 was US$2,937.)
What is the per capita income of Taiwan in 2017 now? Is our cultural level catching up with our per capita income? According to the list of countries by Gross National Income per capita in 2015 (found on Wikipedia in May 2017), Taiwan’s per capita income was US$20,925, and the article lists Taiwan in the “high-income group.”
We should ponder: is our daily-life cultural level in line with our “high income”?
Measuring the cultural level in our daily lives is not difficult at all.
We can try by starting with our sensation. When we consume a nice cup of premium oolong tea, a cup of lightly roasted coffee, a glass of red wine or a glass of peated whisky, what are the various gradations of flavours we can taste with our tongue and throat? After all, the days of devouring a meal and drinking like a fish have gone in Taiwan. We are not living in the old days when we would empty a glass of wine or whisky at a gulp. With this in mind, we are going to look into what this article wants to explore. When seeing a big exhibition in a museum or gallery, watching an artistic film, a play, a modern dance performance or a concert, unaided by an experts’ help, can we comprehend the fertile and profound content of these cultural and artistic activities with our basic instincts?
For most Taiwanese, the answer exposes the cruel and brutal reality:
“Our daily-life cultural level certainly does not match with our per capita income.”
Reflections on Faint Light, Dark Shadows (2017)
This article was written in response to the photo exhibition, Faint Light, Dark Shadows in Taipei Fine Arts Museum (in Gallery 1A & 1B from March 11, 2017 to June 18, 2017 ). If my memory does not fail me, the main gallery on the first floor was only used for a photo exhibition twice. The first time was held in the 90s after the museum tidied up its first-generation Taiwanese photographers’ collection. (That was the very first collection of photographic works displayed by a public museum in Taiwan.  ) Faint Light, Dark Shadows is most probably the second photo exhibition held in a space as big as Gallery 1A & 1B on the first floor of the museum. It is also the biggest photo exhibition showcasing Taiwanese photographers.
From this perspective, Faint Light, Dark Shadows is a monument in the history of Taiwanese photography and as such it has a special meaning to young photography enthusiasts in Taiwan. Up to now, no university in Taiwan has a photography department. Therefore, other than students and alumni of FOTOSOFT (a photography curriculum following the model of the four-year undergraduate degree course and the two-year postgraduate degree course), the new generation of photography enthusiasts in Taiwan generally do not know how to attend a photo exhibition of such a big scale or understand the significance of the way the images are presented, let alone obtaining nutrients from individual showpieces.
Exhibitions and Monographs of Photography Masters
Solo exhibitions (especially retrospective exhibitions) and monographs of great photography masters are undoubtedly the best resources for young photography lovers to develop their own “evaluation criteria” during their photography learning process in Taiwan, an abandoned land for photographic culture.
I always tell young people:
“There are some common characteristics in every photo lovers: They are very devoted and will dedicate all of their resources (time, energy and money) only to learn photography right.”
The saying “choice is more important than hard work” becomes more significant as the more devoted one is. Unfortunately, most people waste their hard work by making wrong choices or succumbing to their biases which fail to offer complete understanding on the full picture of photography.
In 1996, I was invited to help Ms SEJIKI Kazuko from Tokyo Photographic Art Museum curate Asian View: Asia in Transition, a photo exhibition for photographers from Southeast Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As part of my curating work, I wrote a preface essay The Development of a Photographic Culture and the Molding of Evaluation Criteria, in which I discussed how a region’s photographic value was formed. The article explores which media were important in shaping a civilisation, specifically relating to the evaluation criteria of photography under the history of photography development. During an international symposium on photography held by the Society of Photography Education for Ethnic Chinese in 2002, I published Text and Contextual Information of Image, in which I look into how image digitalisation technology changed the evaluation criteria of photography and reflect on questions like: how has the photographic value for every photo rookie been shaped by the environment they are living in? What is our future in photography? If you are interested, you are welcome to download the files via the links above and comment.
In The Development of a Photographic Culture and the Molding of Evaluation Criteria, I wrote:
From the development of established photographic cultures such as Europe, the US and Japan, we can see that the paths and categories are all identical. There are always the same three categories that establish the foundation of knowledge of “photography” as an art or visual media, and create the window of a “new photography world” to a new generation of photo rookies, while also defining the main evaluation criteria for photography to photo newcomers. The three categories are: (1) Photography Education, (2) Photography Media, and (3) Indicative Individual.
These three categories can be further divided into 12 smaller elements.
■ Photography Education:
1. Photography teachers;
2. Leaders in photography groups;
3. Photography textbook authors;
■ Photography Media:
4. Photo magazines, photo book series, photo textbooks;
5. Photo galleries;
6. Museum of Art
7. Photo libraries;
8. Photo festivals (photo competitions, seminars, symposiums);
■ Indicative Individuals:
9. Photo media editors,
10. Photography critics
11. Photography curators
12. Renowned photography masters
The evaluation criteria for photography of these 12 kinds of individuals and media are therefore literally prototypes for the evaluation criteria of photography for the next photography generation. The accuracy and completeness of these 12 kinds will directly influence the creative direction and content for photographers of next generation. The more closed a society is, the deeper the print-through and molding effects on evaluation criteria between two generations are. (This also means a greater lack of creative possibility for the next generation.)
Internet was not prolific before 1996, and monographs by great masters were not only expensive but also difficult to buy because of limited access. Now in 2017, three obstacles, i.e. poor internet, expensive photo masters’ monographs and difficulty in buying monographs, are all gone. Now “websites of individual photographers and photo communities” and “photo monographs of renowned masters” must be added to the category “Photography Media,” which brings the total number of individuals or media to 14.
If we examine the condition of the contemporary photographic society in Taiwan according to these 14 individuals or media, undoubtedly, it is “weak with inborn disease and malnutrition.” Even if we examine the condition by the last paragraph of the quoted excerpt above, the result would also be an absolutely negative.
Evolution of Photography
In October 2012, the Hong Kong International Photo Festival invited me to curate the Parallel Visions: Japan And Korea Contemporary Photography Exhibition for them and I called upon eight Korean contemporary photographers to participate. During the Curators’ Seminar on Hong Kong, Japanese & Korean Contemporary Photography, I declared that the concept that since the 2010s the whole world has stepped into the era of Photography 4.0.
In the era of Photography 1.0, photography was treated as a technology. Related photographic knowledge was “the knowledge and technology on the materials and know-how in producing a piece of photograph.” Photography education, at that time, was an education enabling you to make a living by opening a photo portraiture studio after graduation.
In the era of Photography 2.0, photography was regarded as “an observation tool deputising for an observer” and it was considered that the “state of matter” in front of the camera lens was of the highest priority. Photography could record the truth (the reality itself is portrayed in a picture); photography needed to be concerned with the society (a photographer was conscientious only if there was people in his or her pictures); photography should be Straight Photography : a picture must stick to the original conditions of the actual shooting scene and photographers could neither alter the shooting scene while taking pictures nor retouch the negatives or the pictures during the development and enlargement process); and a good picture was taken with a photographer’s “foot” (photography creation was seeking spectacles when walking on the streets or outdoors). Realistic photography, street photo, snapshot and documentary photography are all products of this era.
The era of Photography 3.0 saw photography as an “independent art form.” The contents of pictures started to shift away from the streets, and instead the “subjectivity of photographers” began to show in the contents of these pictures. Concepts such as “zone system,” “original print” and “archival process” emerged; “staged photography” became mainstream.
In the era of Photography 4.0, digital technology has thoroughly matured; Web 2.0 and the smartphone have come out. Internet, i.e. web communication, has replaced paper-based communication that not only picture but information of all kinds is spread everywhere. The time and space that used to separate sender (photographer) and receiver (audience) in the past is now inifinitely shortened so that “boundaries” of various kinds, including nation and art form, are all vanishing. More than that, the development of digital technology has made the control of focusing, metering, depth of field, white balance and other photography techniques become fool proof. (The various controls that even veteran photographers used to take a couple of minutes to complete in the past can now be accomplished by an automatic electronic circuit regardless of who is pressing the shutter button.) Most photography techniques which serve as threshold of professional photography and hence protect photographers in the old days are gone. Web 2.0 enables the uploading and storage of an astronomical numbers of images anytime on the net so that many artists can create their artworks without taking photos but simply though downloading and uploading images . Hence, the era of Photography 4.0 can be defined as the era of the death of Photography; it is an era in which people begin “using images as languages,” that “images replace words” in major soft media, that the editing ability of images becomes creativity and photobook takes over photo monographs; it is an era in which photography changes everything.
Current Situation of Taiwan Photography Culture
In 1998, I published The Transformation of Criteria for the Photographic image at the History of World Photography during an international symposium of photography held by the Society of Photography Education for Ethnic Chinese. In the summer of 2016, I wrote a preface We both like photography ; but the point is “What do you want to do with photography? for the FOTOSOFT as the photo exhibition “Breaking the Stereotype of Photography” with works from teachers and students was held.
In the 1998 essay, I stated:
The Transformation of Criteria for the Photographic Image
at the History of World Photography
I believe the transformation of criteria for photographic image in the history of photography by the end of 1990s can be divided into seven stages.
1. Recording personal sentiments and memories
2. Overcoming the difficulties in capturing an image, image processing, materials and techniques of mass communication
3. Mimicking of painting
4. Recording the plot in a scene and revealing plot hidden within
5. Discovery and creation of a whole new visual experience
6. Virtualization, reproduction and exploration of time-space and finitude
7. Creating through visual thinking and visual dialectics, or becoming part of the creation
In the 2016 short article, I stated:
“The state of photography when you first started will become the limit of your photographic imagination.”
The age of “photo literacy education” has arrived a long time ago. In the age of photo literacy education, of course you can insist on taking pictures of beautiful ladies, sceneries, spectacular views or recording the real world in your minds with your cameras. You can also cudgel your brain to create a “species collection” like naturalists with your camera. Nowadays, photography is just a tool of capturing image. Thresholds of using such tool is basically non-existent that everyone can handle it with ease. It means you can use images to do anything now.
Indeed, the idea that “the state of photography when you first started will become the limit of your photographic imagination” fully echoes Konrad Lorenz’s famous theory of imprinting. The more rapid the evolution of civilisation, the more urgent Taiwanese photographic society needs to offer an environment for the molding of photographic culture and the evaluation criteria. It needs to create a full picture of photography (not limited to “personal favourite”). Only by doing so, can the next generation of photography enthusiasts in Taiwan avoid being influenced by a photographic culture and its molding that are too low or even twisted.
Therefore, the extreme shortage of the 14 kinds of individuals and media in the molding of photographic culture and evaluation criteria in Taiwan at present illustrates the significance of holding “Faint Light, Dark Shadows” at Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the importance of my strong personal desire in writing this article.
It is also why, since the 1990s, I have encouraged students whom I have taught from the National Taiwan University of Arts, the Chinese Culture University and the FOTOSOFT that they should not miss the opportunity to visit large art exhibitions imported from Europe, the US and other developed countries whenever they are held in Taiwan. They should even go to Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hakone, Sendai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and other places to see works from world renowned masters in person. If I know there are exhibitions of world renowned masters’ works in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, I will go there with my students on a study tour. If, for different reasons, students cannot go, my wife and I will go by ourselves, trying to learn from these masters through these exhibitions.
The extremely poor photography environment in Taiwan may be the reason that young Taiwanese photography enthusiasts have a habit of collecting photo monographs of world masters (especially those from Japan). They are even so naïve to have such a mistaken thought that “I have a thorough understanding of the masters when I have his monograph on my bookshelf.” In fact, anyone who has visited a large exhibition by a world renowned photography master in person will know the difference between photos on exhibition walls and image of those printed on monographs. The gulf between them is so unmeasurably huge. In other words, photographers’ exhibitions and their respective official catalogues are two totally different matters. The huge disparity is not simply caused by problems of optical and chemical depreciation during the complicated printing process. Simply by reading the catalogue of photography masters’ exhibitions, you will never know how the curators or photographers decide in what order the works are exhibited in a big exhibition space. You will also have no idea over the curatorial and philosophical thinking behind the exhibition as shown through the manipulation of the size, position, mounting, lighting and other visual effect of exhibition works.
When they describe their experience and learning from visiting big world class photography masters’ exhibitions in Tokyo, Osaka and other places (especially those retrospective exhibitions) as the feeling of enjoying live concert of famous singers in the front row, I always tell my young friends that the message you obtain from photography masters’ monograph is barely comparable to to reading lyrics printed on a singer’s CD!
In the preface The Reality Photography Can Record that I wrote for Mr Zhang Jinzu’s photo monograph “Son of the Earth,” I mentioned, “Other than the reality inside the heart of photographers, photography has never, and can never truthfully record external reality of any kinds.”
Similarly, the message of a picture interpreted by the audience usually reflects the internal world of the audience. Not everyone will obtain the same message when seeing the same exhibition.
Therefore, using the right method to see an exhibition (how to use the best method to learn about the brainchildren of artists or curators) is actually a required characteristic of contemporary citizens.
Ultimate guiding principles of seeing exhibitions
We have to remember a few ultimate guiding principles in order to learn the skills of seeing an exhibition.
Firstly, we have to remember, “We do not understand the work of art, since we only try to understand them.”
In order to obtain the best enjoyment from the process of appreciating artworks, the ultimate guiding principle is “not to “understand” what it is in a rush. Artworks are not science and they do not belong to the rational world. In order to enjoy the process of appreciating artworks the most, you have to first switch off “rationality” and switch on “sensibility”.
Pablo Picasso said, “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand.”
When he received the Nobel Prize in Literature Bob Dylan said, “If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important.”
Musician Freddie Mercury said, “Modern paintings are like women, you’ll never enjoy them if you try to understand them.”
Senior art critic for New York Times Magazine Jerry Saltz said, “Art is not about understanding. Art is about experience. Nobody listens to a song and says, ‘I don’t understand that.’”
In front of an artwork, no matter whether it is a printing, a sculpture or a photo, we must ask ourselves, “What do I feel from this piece of artwork?” Yes! Artwork is something for us to feel, not to understand. The process of appreciating art per se should be a creative process, creating an artwork called “My Unique Point of View.” You have never heard of any artists creating his or her own work “after listening to what others say.”
As an audience who loves art, the most important life lesson is to establish “your own unique point of view on beautiful things” as soon as possible. Only by having your own unique point of view can you have a foundation to establish a close relationship with art and to broaden and deepen the standing point of your life. Never blindly follow any professor or celebrity’s interpretation of an artwork. Their own interpretations are only their own personal views; these are neither rules on how you should appreciate artwork nor the laws of art. Everyone knows that the most dreadful situation for rich people is “to have nothing but money”. They do not understand any art piece in a gallery, and do not see any meaning even from the beautiful scenery of nature. It is why I have asked the reader at the beginning, “Does our cultural level match our per capita income?”
Secondly, when appreciating an artwork, “never” proactively read any text or even title explaining the work before you assure you get your own message from the work.
In front of an artwork, we have to first ask ourselves, “what do I feel from the piece of art in front of my eyes?” After you have assured the feeling, you try to look for the parts or the causes that give you such feeling.
Therefore, when entering a museum of arts or gallery to watch artworks, the worst thing we can do is to rent an audio guide or to follow the gallery’s guide, listening to the guide’s explanation of the works. From the views of the four great artists and critic above regarding how we should appreciate artworks, you may receive a glimpse of how ridiculous and anti-art it is to rent a guiding device when entering a museum of arts or gallery. A good artwork should be read by an audience on his or her own. A good artwork will have dialogue with an audience without the assistance of any written or verbal word. The better an artwork is, the more powerful is its dialogue with the audience.
In fact, when an artwork is exhibited, the last person who should appear in the exhibition is its creator. Eloquent explanations from the creator on the side of his or her own work is a ridiculous behaviour that is anti-art. Artists who allow their work to have private conversation with the audience often name their works as “Untitled” or they use neutral titles such as a time, a place or a serial number.
In the field of photographic art in particular, what a photographer observes in the shooting site is a “visual image” (three-dimensional, with sounds, all the photographer’s senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, receive messages simultaneously. The space and time of the site extend endlessly, storing data inside the short-term and long-term memory in the brain of the creator will deal with these data). What the audience sees from a photo or painting is a “retinal image” (two-dimensional, with no sound, static with frame around it. Responding to this information is the stored data inside short-term and long-term memory in the brain of the audience) The two are totally different matters. (How will data stored in the brains of a creator and an audience be identical?) So, listening to eloquent explanations from a photographer beside his or her work means that the audience is abandoning the right to see and interpret an artwork.
Thirdly, in order to learn deeply in the experience of visiting an exhibition, walk through it three times using different methods.
The best artworks that can live in the history of mankind are not only deep in meaning, their messages are also complex. The profound and deep thoughts inside an artwork can never be experienced by walking past it in a rush or seeing it with a glance.
Photographer, educator, critic and culture promoter Minor White (1908 – 1976) said, “One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”
Photographer Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) similarly said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
Renowned photography master Philip-Lorca di Corcia maintained that, “Photography is a foreign language everyone thinks he speaks.”
Famous photography masters Robert Frank even said, “When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”
When teaching photo literacy course, I always teach students about the three layers of message in a photograph:
1/ Messages required as the basic instincts for the survival of a living being
2/ Visual elements and their structures
3/ Semantic meaning of the image
Among the three, the first layer includes:
c/ feature of the contour line for recognizing different objects
If a few pictures are grouped together, the forth level message called “Context” will also emerge among these pictures.
We are so used to hearing or it said: “A picture means a thousand words”; “photography is a universal language”; “the picture verifies the reality”; “photo can record the reality”; “portraying the reality is the biggest power of photography.” These traditional understandings of pictures and images have fallen apart since the 1970s. These understandings were originated from our lack of understanding of photography and its by-products the “image” (traditionally referred as a picture).
The saying “photography is universal language” means nothing more than “whoever has eyes can understand a picture.” Philip-Lorca diCorcia told us however, we should not mistakenly assume that we can understand a photo without learning since we falsely believed “it [photography] is a foreign language everyone thinks he or she knows.” In the photo literacy course, students come to realize what they think they understand about the photographs is only the first of the three layers of messages, and only the most superficial one out of three messages the first layer contains. This means what students believe they understand may only be less than 1/9 of the messages carried by a single photo.
From the well-known quotations of the four great photography masters and the content from the photo literacy course, I believe you will all understand that not everyone can derive nutrients from seeing an exhibition without intensive learning.
Students at FOTOSOFT are taught to watch an art movie at least three times if they want to obtain nutrients from the process of watching it. When we watch it only once, what gets inside our mind is only the superficial story that the director uses as a metaphor for the metaphysical content.
Let us think in terms of binary logic. Messages carried by a work of art with profound impact on the audience are usually made up of “denotation” and “connotation.” Another binary logic believes that any artwork carries two messages, one which allows an audience to know, another to feel. The third binary logic was suggested by French scholar, Roland Barthes (1915 – 1980), in his famous work Camera Lucida (1980). He suggested messages in an image were composed of “studium” and “punctum” (recently called as “intimacy” by some people).
Allow me to analyse with the binary logic of denotation and connotation here. Denotation is usually the superficial part of an artwork which consists of the craftsmanship of the appearance. It is also the image shown in front of the lens, which belongs to the parts called “state of matter” or “plot.” It is the part of the image that you first realise you understand. It is the “physical” part an author wants to use to “represent” the deeper “metaphysical” part of an image. Connotation, however, can make the audience ponder or can even leave a deep impact on the audience’s lives. It relies on the use of “hidden clues” laid by the author in his or her work. These clues will form some kind of connection (a kind of semantic association) with the long-term and short-term stored data of the audience and become the “metaphysical” content in the consciousness of the audience.
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (1): Reflections on Faint Light, Dark Shadows (2017)
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (2): You can only obtain useful nutrients from an exhibition by walking through it three times at least
Ways of Seeing Photo Exhibitions (3): Seeing the exhibition for the third time
Curator: Sharleen Yu; Special Section Planner: Liu Chen-hsiang
Participating Artists: Ho Ching-tai, Li Yuan-chia, Lee Chia-Yu, Lee Kuo-min, Shen Chao-liang, Lin Bor-liang, Chiu Kuo- chun, Chin Cheng-tsai, Hou I-ting, Lulu Shur-tzy Hou, Hou Peng-hui, Hung Cheng-ren, Chang Chien-chi, Simon Chang, Chen I-hsuen, Chen Yan-cheng, Liu Chen-hsiang, Pan Hsiao-hsia
Special Section: Shadows of History: Liu Chen-hsiang, Huang Tzu-ming, Hsu Po-hsin, Green Team
Accessed on 29 May 2017. In the section “Past Exhibition,” the earliest exhibition shown is held in 2000. According to TFAM’s About Us, TFAM was established in 24 December 1983.
 The term “straight photography” appeared first in the German-Japanese poet and art critic Sadakichi Hartmann‘s article “A Plea for Straight Photography,” an article Hartmann wrote for Alfred Stieglitz’s first exhibition that advocates photo-secession in 1904. Later, she became a strong advocate of straight photography in Gallery 291, opened by Stieglitz in New York, and in the quarterly publication “Camera Work.” The term has commonly been translated word-for-word or as “pure photography.” In the 1980s, Chen Han-jun from China translated the term as “realistic photography,” which I think best illustrates what Hartmann meant.