Seen in China 1956 by Tom Hutchins, edited by John B. Turner (Turner Photo Books in collaboration with Photo Forum as Photoforum issue 86, 2016), 124 pp., $25; The Shops by Steve Braunias and Peter Black (Luncheon Sausage Press Books/Photo Forum, 2016), 62 pp., $40
What did I know about China in 1956? I was nine at the time, a smart-arsed Swiss-German kid, the runt in a family of four. We had a German Jugend book I’d devoured, as I devoured everything readable in our house, a kind of companion volume to Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet I suppose, of a German’s experience of living in China for 30 years. The book was probably from a time when Germany was a somewhat tarnished currency (as was Harrer’s Tibet book, incidentally), but this did not stop me reading it avidly. There were countless millions of Chinese, apparently; they drank tea, did gruesome things to women’s feet and had rather fixed dietary habits and somewhat rudimentary plumbing, which gave them and their whole country a distinctive smell, to put it mildly. Their governance was based on a very hierarchic Confucian order and their punishment of criminals was gruesome.
Pictures? None in that book, stock images in my memory from glancing at Swiss illustrated papers usually showing coolies in funny pointed hats pulling handcarts with people and all kinds of imaginable loads through crowded streets, huge moving crowds, kites, dragons. There was little coverage of the Korean War business, and that usually from the US side, brave doughboys in screaming warplanes keeping the world safe for democracy. Yes, things were happening out there, but to a kid exactly what was far from clear. We were told that Communists were bad, the Soviet invasion and repression of brave Hungary happened that year and there were apparently Commies running China too.
Tom Hutchins was there then, supplying pictures for LIFE magazine1 at a time when American photographers were not allowed to set foot in China. Hutchins – with whom I would be working a decade and a half later – was putting a vital human face on that complex and important country, which contained a quarter of humanity as he put it (slightly inaccurately) in an essay that John B. Turner (another future colleague and friend) quotes in the introduction to this little book.
John Turner’s contribution to this publication must be acknowledged, celebrated even. He was a messianic presence in a kind of renaissance of New Zealand photography as an expressive art form. He taught at art school (according to Turner, Tom ran the first photography art department established in the Commonwealth, at the Elam School of Art) and did not hesitate to become a possibly intrusive and insistent presence in Hutchins’ Remuera home, where he discovered that many prints were ‘inadvertently left to rot under his house’, representing an aborted book project. Subsequently, negatives in a better condition were unearthed also in the Hutchins’ house, and a 30-year project of getting them out into the open was initiated.
Technology played its part as scanners in the early 21st century became more sophisticated with a greater potential for getting the best out of negatives. And given John’s subsequent move to China, he had access to publishers and an interest in a country that was understandably if somewhat ambiguously interested in its revolutionary past, a difficulty John was better able to make clear in an Art New Zealand article.2
This small book, initially an exhibition catalogue for a Ping Yuiao exhibition, republished by Photo Forum, makes a number of historical points, mentioning but not overly underlining the magnitude of Tom’s pioneering enterprise at the time. Not only did he throw over a pretty high-prestige job (chief photographer at the Auckland Star) to make the risky trip to China, but he also used the best technology of his time in this remarkable set of pictures, which were in advance of the usual practices of mainstream photojournalism. 35mm photography was a good quarter-century old then. While many press photographers were still blasting away with 4 x 5 Graphics and in-your-face flashbulbs, or had a Rolleiflex as a backup to their miniature toys, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alexander Rodchenko, André Kertesk, Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and a few other great photographers were toying with Leïca or Contax cameras in very distinctive styles.
Turner acknowledges that Tom, although he owed a debt to Henri Cartier-Bresson, didn’t quite manage to be the ‘invisible eye’ moving around that HC-B promoted. A cheery, cocky New Zealander, Hutchins stood out, and his strategies for getting the ‘eye of God’ vision was not as polished as the Frenchman’s. Nevertheless, Hutchins travelled light, and his vision was sharp – too sharp for the authorities, who were initially very welcoming but apparently cancelled his visa towards the end of his journey.
United States photographers were not permitted by their government to venture into what was officially enemy territory, while LIFE magazine was the most important purveyor of reportage photographs at the time. So Tom was an adventurous image-maker in a country which had just come through the throes of revolution and violence – violence, Turner reminds us, that remained present in the forced migration of a whole Han population away from the eastern border to the mineral-rich provinces literally thousands of miles away.
Mao Tse Tung (as he was then called) and the Communists had triumphed. There is a historic cycle to revolutions, according to Phillip Toynbee: a sinusoidal curve that leads from the euphoric possibilities of Utopia, to dissolution and repression. It seems Tom arrived on the optimistic upslope, or possibly apex, of such a seismic upheaval. I remember him as a very convinced and crusading pacifist and socialist, and it is obvious that he witnessed many exciting, positive moves. Apparently, though, he asked too many questions, so one imagines the vice-grip of ideology was already closing the cycle.
Many of his photographs show points of arrival and departure of thousands of people, partly due to the political situation and the forced migration. Some of those caught by the camera look worried; many are guarded, expressionless. But what strikes me is the essential belief in progress, the optimism one sees in some of the eyes looking at the photographer.
This must be partly an expression of the positivist ideology, in the context of the philosophy formulated by the likes of Hegel, Comté, Marx, Lenin, and finally Mao, which essentially carries the message from another Lennon a decade later: ‘Gotta admit, it’s getting better, A little better all the time …’
Many people look shattered, though – at times traumatised or confused, much like the uprooted populations of war-torn Europe had a decade earlier, and much as the Syrians and other refugees look in our daily news fodder, usually already violated en route or half drowned in their frail vessels. These people had come out of nearly a century of violence and deprivation, and the brutal oppression of a Japanese occupation.
But a question nags at me, despite the traumatised beauty we see here: how good in absolute terms is Tom Hutchins’ reportage? There are some remarkable photos in this generously presented volume. The steel mill shots are a masterpiece, making the best of a very difficult lighting situation and the danger involved with shooting there. Add to this the limitations of the film stock: the sensitivity of commercially available films topped in the region of 400 ISO/ASA, with maybe little more with brutal pushing at development. Lit by the furnace out of a Joseph Wright of Derby painting, a ballet troupe-like team of workers moves to a complex choreography on a vast black stage, occasionally blurred in their movement at the heart-stoppingly slow exposure Tom managed to obtain.
Men at Work: look at the railway-laying gang leaning with their crowbars into the steel rails, at the end of nowhere in a total desert. The harvesters, rough grinning guys in a field with their Mao hats making gestures with their sickles worthy of the best Leninist style. They are grinning; there is an element of propaganda here, but there is a miracle to feeding the Starving Children of Asia in a nation struggling out of penury, with pretty primitive tools. Hammer and Sickle, yeah!
Other pictures stick in my mind because of their contents: shots of the open-air school, with what might be the hills of Central Otago as a distant backdrop; and the frisson you get when you see the black-market merchandising of sweaters being handed through a train window on some forgotten platform is priceless.
But the overall effect comes from the beautiful photographic quality of the work. The fact that initially LIFE magazine’s lab rats, and subsequently John Turner’s very advanced printing skills, were applied to these pictures at the darkroom scan, Photoshop and printing stage in this presentation in no way subtracts from the work’s quality. When John asserts in his Art New Zealand article3 that Tom’s prints are collectors’ items, the veracity of the statement is indisputable, but are they then inevitably to be aimed at the art market?4 Where is the collection of scans archived?
In speaking of production values of the book it should be mentioned that John Turner and Photo Forum see this as a preliminary effort towards a more elaborate publication, and presumably a more ambitious production. In this I hope a couple of thoughtful pieces of writing could be included, and the plates could be a little more generous too and of better quality: ink matching here’s on the verge of slapdash, and powder traces are all over the blacks in some pictures. And in reviewing it I have broken the poor little bugger’s back, making the gaping crevasses in the gutters of double-sided pictures even more obvious.
Ah yes, there was a second slim volume in the review package by a great publishing house with the lovable name of Luncheon Sausage, which would I suppose act as a sort of supporting feature to the main film: in this case the Peter Black and Steve Braunias The Shops collection of images and writing. New Zealand photobooks thrive on tiny publishers, a phenomenon that has been around for some time; Harvey Benge, Hamu Sameshima, Doc Ross and Julian Ward self-publish, gloriously.
Braunias provides a thoughtful essay on the backs of shops, his dad, and espresso coffee; it’s a carefully written and deeply personal memoir. The prose occasionally bounces off Black’s work in the period atmosphere of most of the shops photographed, but the text also has that mysterious Barthian quality in this context: the text does not ‘gloss’ the images; the images do not ‘illustrate’ the text.
I accidentally walked into one of Peter Black’s photographs the other day in Jackson Street, Petone: a detail of the abandoned rusting frontage of what I imagine passes as a sex shop in these islands. The Cream has soured, the Peaches never really ripened. This book concentrates on signs, semiology, either with dubious or obsolete signifiers lurking behind them or already binned somewhere. Some of the most striking are obviously the work of local ‘artists’ with a bucket of Dulux paint and a slightly ragged paintbrush, or even as in the heavily reworked ‘Closed’ signs done by marking pens on disgusting cardboard.
Some of the more subtle ones make the emptiness of restaurants and shops with their weird tense peace the main subject. We are in a terrain of selection rather than following the kind of taxonomic obsession that drove Ed Ruscha or the Las Vegas team Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.5 We’re closer to Eugène Atget or Josef Sudek’s territory, if we need to look for references – flâneurs in the places we don’t normally notice: The Unseen City.
Peter likes his reds, sees the presence of small elements of that colour as punctuation marks, or targets in his photos. When he throws a bright red suburban diary at us it blows our mind, or a shop window dummy in a bright red dress. Wow!
The book is enjoyable at an anectodal level, and it will probably gain value if you keep it a few decades until time starts to crust over the original references as it has done to the peeling paintwork and rusting ironwork in these pictures.
- ‘Red China on the March’, LIFE Magazine, vol. 42, no. 3, 21 January 1957. I owe this precision to a fine and informative article by Frances Clark in a recent Bowerbank Ninow Sales Catalogue, ISSN 2537-6594.
- Art New Zealand 160, Summer 2016–17, 110–16.
- In the Bowerbank Ninow catalogue a handful of his prints were on sale at an estimated price of $400–700, a little below mine, a lot below the Parkisons, Peyriers and Westra’s, say.
- Ed Ruscha, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963, OCLC: 20409845; R. Venturi, D. Scott Brown and S. Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, MIT 1977.
MAX OETTLI is a photographer and a photography critic, lecturer, curator and archivist who recently spent six months based in Wellington. He is currently living in Geneva, Switzerland.