An Auguste Francois 1903 photo shows some prisoners in stocks and shackles. The photo is part of the Croisements Festival's Paris-Beijing photo exhibit. [Photo: CRIENGLISH.com/William Wang]
By William Wang
As far back as the 4th Century BC, Chinese philosopher Mo Di was breaking new ground with the pinhole camera, but it wasn't until the 19th Century that daguerreotypes and film cameras were developed; with much of the technology produced in France. It was only fitting that after the Treaty of Whampoa was signed in 1944 that the French would bring their new daguerreotypes to China, alongside their stash of bibles.
The Paris-Beijing exhibit at the Today Art Museum features some of the earliest photos taken in the country, progressing onwards to images captured by French photographers which eventually resemble the China we recognize today.
The photos at the beginning of the exhibition definitely carry the weight expected of a new technology recording a time and place for the first time.
Soldiers, diplomats and missionaries contributed to this record alongside journalists and artists. As outsiders, they had the ability to distill much of what makes China so thoroughly Chinese, compelled toward its disparities with the west.
The photos exist on their own, but they often hint at a larger narrative. An obvious example would be Auguste Francois's image, Garland of Heads. The image somehow comes across as more mundane than morbid; six human heads are on display, each held in their own wooden crate, dangling before a brick wall.
Henri Cartier-Bresson is the father of photojournalism, and a collection of his China documents that he shot for Life magazine are on display, the compositions of which are immaculate.
As the exhibit leans into the present day, it embraces the issues and aesthetics that are omnipresent throughout the nation; at times garish, at times starkly elegant. In its entirety, the exhibit showcases an impressive overview of how French photographers have explored and understood both China and its peoples.
The exhibit is part of the French culture Croisements festival, and will continue until June 25.
Today Art Museum.
Fee: 20 yuan
Address: Building 4, Pingod Community, No.32 Baiziwan Road, Chaoyang District.
Directions: From Shuangjing subway station, walk about 300m north to Baiziwan Rd. Turn right and walk 500m to the Yue Minjun sculpture.
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