Friday, March 25, 2011

An evening with Sze Tsung Leong

Sze Tsung Leong is a traveler. He was born in Mexico in 1970, and spent his childhood in Mexico, Britain and the US, before moving to China. He is now based in New York but he travels the world to reveal its History recorded in urban landscapes. He is fascinated by cities. Probably because he was an architect before capturing his large detailed landscapes with a 8x10 camera.
He is also what we could call an intellectual photographer. His series are very esthetic but essentially extremely well thought out. More than the emotional aspects of his photographs – not saying that this is missing - what I recall is their message or more precisely their multiple meanings. He started his lecture by acknowledging the fact that if his work needed to be explained it meant that it was a failure. He has written many essays about his work and given his own very interesting interpretation without forgetting that of course everyone could and should find their own.
His inspiring work is about History, societies, civilizations and globalization. It’s about the transformation of the world, about its contrasts and similarities, about its power and fragility. It’s also about its pictorial aspects, about lines, shapes, textures and colors.
 Cities are the mirrors of change, they are larger than the people who inhabit them, they are the results of stronger forces that cannot always be controlled, from geological power to political or religious beliefs.
‘Smash the old world, build the new world’.
The first series called ‘History Images’ and exclusively shot in China is the perfect representation of this popular Chinese slogan from the 60s or 70s.
The powerful Chinese regime has the ability to change the look of their cities by erasing the old to start from scratch. From the imperial period to the socialist regime to the rise of a capitalist economy, Chinese landscapes tell it all. But coexistence between these different periods doesn’t last. Sze Tsung Leong’s photographs perfectly depict this ephemeral and quite sad situation. 

Nan Shi, Huangpu District, Shanghai, 2004

Shibati, Yuzhong District, Chongqing, 2003

Xinjiekou, Xuanwu District, Nanjing, 2004

Beizhuanzi II, Siming District, Xiamen, 2004
 ‘Horizons’ : the separation between the sky and the earth, between the known and the unknown, the limit to our vision, the center point of Sze Tsung Leong’s images.
This series (that probably has to be seen on a wall to become even more beautiful) drives parallels between landscapes of the world and makes us search for similarities and differences. Visually but also through our own experiences of these places we look for clues to recognize these untitled environments. We search for connections, associations and contrasts. The images leave us with our own very personal questions, answers and feelings. 

Installation of Horizons at Yossi Milo Gallery, 2008
 His latest series is simply and most naturally called ‘Cities’. In contrast with the previous set of images shot at ground level and from a distance here we climb higher to get a full closer view and the maximum detail possible. Once again Sze Tsung Leong questions our relationship to the world, the link between cities and History, globalization through different period of times (from Spanish colonization to the spread of capitalism). But most of all he lets everyone make their own interpretation and drive their conclusions; this is not about accusing humanity or making any statement about the future. His large-scale urban images simply provide a direct, accurate and universal testimony of where our civilization stands today.

Xiasha Village, Futian District, Shenzhen, 2008

La Paz, 2010

Houston II, 2010

Nairobi I, 2009
More on Sze Tsung Leong :

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

An evening with Robert Lyons

German photographer Robert Lyons focused on Africa and first Egypt when presenting himself and his work during his lecture at the Art Institute in SF. However he is not a photojournalist rushing to burning places to get the latest scoop. He doesn’t even see himself as a documentary photographer and questions the essence of documentary photography itself. For him photography is always fiction. Every photograph is constructed. Every photograph is subjective as it’s the photographer who selects the subject, the frame and the moment to ‘make’ his own image.
Nevertheless truth exists in fiction since it is part of reality, and we have no choice other than to believe in fiction when seeing images from the other side of the world.
His work is in balance between constructed reality and decisive moments of fiction. As he photographs with a medium format camera he plays with his subjects to capture what he wants, he can take the liberty to ask his subjects to take (or retake) the pose or wait for the story to tell itself in front of his camera.
To reflect the news about Egypt or probably more to offer a different vision of what we see today in newspapers he started his lecture by showing the series he did there in the 80s. Since he was a child he has always been fascinated by the magic and mystic of this country, mother of civilization. As he traveled there he started to become more and more interested in the people, living between modernity and tradition. Every time he visited Egypt, Robert Lyons spent a few weeks there provoking fate that will make the beauty of his photographs.
Egyptian Times is the book he made in 1992.
Robert Lyons then took us on a trip around Africa. Between 1990 and 1997 he made several trips to different countries. Through his images compiled in a book called ‘Another Africa’ he wanted to demonstrate but also confront how the West looks at Africa. Through his images Robert Lyons is trying to explain the complexity of this continent that cannot be reduced to one entity, a continent of extreme richness – in different standards - between tradition and modernity. 
 The main piece of work Lyons showed and explained during his lecture is his work on the Rwanda genocide. It’s the work that created the most effervescence in the audience,. And there is a good reason for that:
3 years after one of the biggest genocides of all time (which happened in Rwanda in 1994), Lyons visited the country to meet the people on each side of the prison bars. If you remember this conflict, as usual the West didn’t or took ages to react. We saw this conflict as a terrible violent even ‘tribal’ opposition between 2 races – a massacre of the Tutsi by the Hutu. From where we stand and from what the media have probably wanted to show us these two populations look very different – even physically. But the images of Robert Lyons show us the faces of two populations next to each other without mentioning who they are.

  One could be a murderer and the other a victim.

Robert Lyons is redefining the idea of ‘The Other’. The Other who has committed such a horrible crime but is still a human being. The other who in other circumstances could be us. And that’s what makes us feel uncomfortable, maybe even guilty. It’s easier to define the murderers as monsters, to dehumanize them, to assimilate them with their evil acts. It’s easier to judge without understanding.
Of course there is a risk in depicting the victims and their torturers on the same level. The risk of not condemning the acts, the risk of minimizing the genocide, the risk of finding excuses for the unbelievable by portraying Humans.
But that’s not what Lyons is saying with these images. It’s quite the opposite. He is not making a statement but he is questioning human nature. He is also questioning our ability to judge by ourselves, to make our own conclusions and to look at the facts and history before judging events only with the eye-catching images we see in the news everyday. 

“I intend to present the human face of these people and, in doing so, to bring their stories closer to those of us not directly involved with the genocide... People are simultaneously archetypes and individuals in this project. In this way and within a specific anti-sensationalist context, I believe that ideas surrounding healing, reconciliation and a strong culture of human rights might ultimately emerge.”

In the book ‘Intimate Enemy: Images and Voices of the Rwandan Genocide’ the images are combined with interviews, where each person tells their personal story. But you have to wait till the end of the book to know who everyone is. 
More on Robert Lyons :
Another great book about the Rwanda genocide: 
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
Stories From Rwanda »
by Philip Gourevitch :


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Varanasi, holy city for photographers (Part 3)

‘  I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.
  I am the original fragrance of the earth, and I am the heat in fire. I am the life of all that lives, and I am the penances of all ascetics.’
Bagabat Gita, 7 8-9

Life and death meet in the waters of the Ganges in Varanasi. There are around 100 ghats (series of steps leading down to the water) and from dawn to night they are bustling with activity. The holy river is the center of everything: morning prayers to the rising sun, purification baths, floating donations and immersed ashes. Beautiful, mystical, frightening, polluted, the Ganges is the perfect representation of our fascination for India and Varanasi. The following 2 series of photographs illustrations of its contractions. 

James Hervey   
The images of James Hervey (an English photographer and traveler who lives in Paris) perfectly reflect the quiet and impenetrable beauty of the river. For him his images are an invitation to the country rather than a way to describe it. However I feel that they describe the atmosphere, the fervor, the relationship between the pilgrims and water with precision. They are moody, soft and peaceful but also intense, enigmatic and spiritual. James Hervey takes part in the local traditions with empathy and respect and offers a wonderful immersion in Varanasi while creating true poetry.

More on James Hervey:
His website:
A video in Le Monde (French only):

Giulio Di Sturco
Giulio Di Sturco is a 30 year old Italian photographer working for the VII photo agency. As a photojournalist his approach to India and of course Varanasi is very different than an artistic vision of the place. As mentioned in the introduction to his series “the great mother’, ‘the recent report of a U.S. agency forecasts, by 2030, the death of Indian sacred river because of global warming, water pollution and construction of dams along the river. Ganges death not only will ravage the economy of that area but, moreover, it will affect deeply the local people’s spiritual life, with its ancient rituals and traditions.’ His striking images take us back to a sad reality. While we can still feel the spirituality of the place, we start to notice details of pollution and to understand the tragedy taking place behind the religious fervor. Here we discover the other face of Varanasi devastated by the negligence and tradition of its country and its people. Accumulation of garbage and landscapes of desolation leave us with a taste of bitterness and a real fear for this place that we believed timeless and eternal.

  More on Giulio Di

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Varanasi, holy city for photographers (Part 2)

Unique, impossible to imitate, Varanasi is timeless. Out of the world, the city seems to have stopped at another age. Many photographers have managed to capture its universality.
Michael Ackerman
One of the best photographic interpretations of Varanasi has to be End time city the book by Michael Ackerman (American photographer member of the Vu agency). In this fantastic book Michael Ackerman gives a deeply personal vision of Varanasi. His extreme black and white images depict a ghost city at the limit of reality. Very contrasted, blurred, intriguing, uncomfortable and oppressing, his photographs are the perfect representation of emotions one can feel when walking through the narrow streets and the dirty overwhelming ghats. His unique style also questions the principles of photography and its capacity to show or to transcend reality. Far from conventional images Ackermann plays with lights, movement shapes and formats to offer an emotionally strong testimony. He knows how to challenge our blasé vision of the world and play with our feelings and imagination.
 More on Michael Ackerman:
François Fontaine
“The moon and the sun are your eyes,
I see you as such, the face shining with fire,
Your brightness illuminates the world”
(Bhagavas Gîtâ, verse 11.19)
The holy hour is a series of photographs taken in 2010 by the French photographer Francois Fontaine (represented by Vu agency). Again no one could say if these images were taken yesterday or 50 years ago. Their universality and timelessness shake our representation of Hinduism as we follow the pilgrims through their quest for God or for eternity. While with Michael Ackerman we felt lost in a dark threatening place, here we immerse in a soft poetic dream. Taken between dawn and twilight, Francois Fontaines photographs focus on gestures and attitudes, depicting fervent believers as shadows inhabiting the place. Nothing is clear, every one is depersonalized, everything is suggested, leaving it to our own imagination to recreate the story. With touches of color and lights each photograph seems like an impressionist or abstract painting where the souls of the person or the divine breath illuminate the mystical night.
 More on Francois Fontaine: