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To use the word culture in relation to photographs is to enter a political minefield. Who has the authority to speak about a particular culture? How do power relations between groups inform notions of culture? Does discussion of a photographer’s work in cultural terms diminish the acknowledgment of his or her individual contribution? Is the concept of culture itself something that is imposed from the “outside”? These questions and others make a discussion of culture and photography daunting. Yet in this spring 2013 issue of the TAP Review, a courageous group of authors has risen to the challenge, engaging thoughtfully with specific images and histories from China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and India, and, in the context of book reviews, with photographs from Korea and Cambodia.

In keeping with its title, “Local Culture/Global Photography,” this issue focuses on cultural groups identified by nationality or ethnicity, inflected in turn by religion, gender, social class, and locality. The authors assume that the cultural dimensions of photography are complex and hybrid, and that culture is never pure or timeless, but always shifting.

Because the concept of culture is closely linked with a sense of individual and collective identity, it is indeed a sensitive topic. In the inaugural (fall 2010) issue of the TAP Review, thirteen key thinkers were asked to respond to a series of questions, among them “Under what circumstances is national or cultural context important to understanding a photograph?” Although most of the respondents wrote that understanding a photograph’s cultural context was useful and often essential, two scholars seriously disputed the idea of placing photographs in a regional or cultural context.

Both Christopher Pinney and Aveek Sen pointed out a problematic “asymmetry” in photographic discourse: photography from Western nations is usually considered “just photography,” whereas photography from non-Western nations is labeled according to its geographic origin. For example, photographic work from England or France is called “photography,” but if it is from Japan, it is termed “Japanese photography.” Aveek Sen wrote, “Who looks at whom? Who studies whom? Who writes about whom?” and concluded: “I am profoundly uncomfortable with the notion of Asia (or any other region) as context—especially when that notion is created and sustained in the non-Asian parts of the world, and then globalized.” Christopher Pinney also expressed discomfort with the use of geography as context, asking, “Must we be forever condemned to study territories rather than networks?”

These two authors pointed out, importantly, that unacknowledged inequities underpin discussions of photography and culture, and that continuing to discuss photography in terms of culture risks perpetuating those inequities. Cultural labels can marginalize photographs. But is banishing mention of culture, nation, or region the best solution?

Photography was first brought to Asia, in the mid-nineteenth century, under circumstances of unequal power between nations. And it is striking that until recently, histories of photography written in English have focused almost exclusively on work by European and US photographers, rendering work by most non-Western photographers invisible. In this context, the silence about nation and culture, as well as the emphasis on photography as a particular kind of “art,” went hand in hand with the exclusion of most world photography from histories of the medium.

In 1997, Christopher Pinney himself published one of the first books written in English about photography from an Asian country: his pioneering work, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs. At that time, writing about photography in terms of culture was the best way to give this work international attention.

In the sixteen years since Pinney’s book was published, much has changed. Photography from Asia is now gaining wide international visibility. Photographers from Asia are actively engaging with and influencing the international visual economy. The “local” and the “global” are increasingly interpenetrated, and in this marketplace, cultural and national labels can be employed as exotic selling points.

It is clear that the concept of “culture” has been and continues to be used in complicated and, at times, problematic ways. Yet, in addition to being the product of an optical device and (usually) a human mind, a photograph is a cultural artifact. It is also important to acknowledge that many photographers working in Asia choose to explicitly address in their work national history (in both critical and celebratory modes) or cultural issues. If we want to understand photographs as fully as possible and learn from them, we cannot avoid talking about culture. But how do we talk about it and safely navigate the minefield?

The authors writing in the TAP spring issue have skirted the pitfalls of talking about culture and photography in a number of significant ways. They have not romanticized or essentialized culture; rather, they carefully ground their work in historical specifics. They have teased out the strands of hybrid influences and taken into account complex power relations.

We are pleased to publish a rich array of articles, projects, and book reviews in this issue. Yoshiaki Kai elegantly chronicles how Japanese photography was initially understood (or misunderstood) in the United States, through the first exhibition of Japanese photography at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, in 1974. Kai takes the opportunity to scrutinize both Japanese and American attitudes, rendering a nuanced account of the desires, fears, and preconceptions that informed this historic cross-cultural encounter. Three authors explore visual and ideological encounters between photography and painting. Richard Kent, in his thoroughly researched essay on Chinese art photography in the 1920s and ’30s, examines the complex ways in which both foreign and homegrown pictorial strategies were used to support the idea of China as a modern nation. In a related piece, Stephanie Tung, in her interview with the Beijing-based artist Michael Cherney, engages Cherney regarding his own creative use of centuries-old Chinese pictorial traditions to make contemporary photographic works. Each of these authors focuses on the complexities of cross-cultural influences.

Ajay Sinha also explores the connections between photography and painting, but his musings on a single image—an intriguing nineteenth-century painting from Rajasthan that mimics the visual conventions of a painted photograph—lead him to think about the physical properties of a photograph and the cultural, perhaps even spiritual, meanings with which they are endowed. Clare Veal, on the other hand, gives the spiritual a political twist in her cogent analysis of the ways that photographs of royal and military leaders in Thailand function to enhance power, in line with Buddhist concepts of accruing merit. And finally, Nina Hien’s lively discussion of photography in Vietnam explores the notion of realism in an aesthetic system that is more inclined to deny “the ugly” and banish it from sight. 

These authors show us that seriously speaking of photographs in terms of culture does not mean applying simple labels or categories; it is a process as complex and evolving as culture itself.

The review section of the spring issue also picks up on many of these questions, with discussions of books by Maki Fukuoka, Samuel Morse, Claire Roberts, Deepali Dewan, Chang-Jae Lee, and the French School of Asia Studies, written by Ayelet Zohar, William Johnston, Laura Wexler, Jennifer Chowdhry, Jina Kim, and Raymond Lum, respectively.

Please dig deeply into the articles, projects, and book reviews you will find in this issue, and let us know what you think. Raymond Lum, the TAP reviews and resources editor, continues to offer his informative “Recent Publications of Note” and to expand an already prodigious listing of resources covering all aspects of photography from Asia. And, of course, don’t forget to visit, often, the lively and informative TAP Facebook page, which is ably administered by editorial board member Jamie Maxtone-Graham.