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Photography is a shape-shifter, playing multiple roles in social life. Our immediate environment is filled with vast numbers of family/personal photographs, advertising/promotional photographs, scientific/medical photographs, journalistic, instructional, and erotic photographs — all of these collectively referred to as “vernacular photography.” There also exists a smaller but significant subset of photographs that function as “art.”
Great energy, especially in the West, has been put into writing histories of “art photography.” But much work still needs to be done on “photography’s other histories,” to borrow Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson’s term for histories of vernacular photography. Geoffrey Batchen was one of the first to call for this, more than fifteen years ago.
The articles in the fall 2017 issue of the TAP Review, titled Art and Vernacular Photographies in Asia, are evenly divided between analyses of photography as “art” and discussions of vernacular photographs — the latter, interestingly, devoted entirely to portraits. When photography came to Asia, beginning in the 1840s, portrait studios quickly sprang up and became the first manifestations of local photographic cultures.
Joanna Wolfarth examines in depth the twentieth-century portraits of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk. She shows how these photographs, issuing from the highest echelons of government, form a visual continuum with Khmer royal sculpture from the Angkor period. They reinscribe the twelfth-century Buddhist iconography of royal authority in photographic terms.
Lee Young June takes the idea of the government-controlled portrait down to its most mundane form, critiquing the ID photos that are made of every South Korean citizen. The very ordinariness of these portraits obscures their cultural power as part of a state surveillance system.
Marine Cabos’s discussion of anonymous studio portraits made during China’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) also points to the role of government in shaping portrait iconography, even for “private” photographs of family and friends. The photographs she presents come primarily from Thomas Sauvin’s archive of “orphan images” found in Beijing.
All three of these articles elucidate the spoken and unspoken rules that determine the “look” and the meanings of specific vernacular photographic portraits.
Two book reviews also look at the important social roles of photographic portraits. Nancy Micklewright reviews Stephen Sheehi’s extraordinary The Arab Imago: A Social History of Portrait Photography 1860–1910; and Stephen Sheehi, in turn, reviews Portraiture and Early Studio Photography in China and Japan, a rich volume edited by Luke Gartlan and Roberta Wue.
Mariam Rahmani reviews Staci Gem Scheiwiller’s recent book, Liminalities of Gender and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Iranian Photography: Desirous Bodies. Scheiwiller raises questions of gender hybridity, among others, in relation to a fascinating array of photographs from the Qajar period.
Just as vernacular photography has distinct cultural presences, the idea of photography as art manifests differently in each historical situation.
In China, while pictorial ideas were avidly explored by photographic artists in the 1920s and ’30s, the framework for visual culture became more narrowly controlled by the government in 1949. Shuxia Chen offers us a thorough account of the attempt to reclaim photography as art in the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution. Her in-depth study of the short-lived April Photo Society reminds us that even “art for art’s sake” cannot escape politics.
In Japan, art photography was also richly explored in the 1920s and ’30s, but it was the postwar development of the photobook that best enabled the dissemination of artistic ideas. Russet Lederman draws our attention to the photobooks of three important women photographers working in the 1970s and ’80s, in Japan and Okinawa, respectively: Ishiuchi Miyako, Ishikawa Mao and Nishimura Tamiko. New attention being paid to their early works gives Lederman the impetus to assess their contributions as women artists in a male-dominated field.
Ajay Sinha looks at a cross-cultural moment, taking one specific photograph as his starting point. He sees the 1938 photograph of the Indian dancer Ram Gopal, made by the American photographer Carl Van Vechten, as a kind of artistic conversation. Van Vechten, as photographer, expresses his curiosity and interest, and Gopal, as performing artist and subject, asserts his own complex philosophy of artistic work. Photography is the mediator.
The theme of Art and Vernacular Photographies emerged from an open call for proposals. It invites future visits, as the definitions of both art and vernacular are in flux.
With this issue, we warmly welcome two new members to our editorial board. Thy Phu brings longstanding expertise on photography from Vietnam, as well as substantive engagement with the cross-cultural collection of family photographs. Rahaab Allana, curator of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, in New Delhi, is a founding editor of Pix — a pioneering journal of contemporary photography in South Asia.
We are pleased and honored to have them join us at the Trans Asia Photography Review.
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With all good wishes,
Editor, Trans Asia Photography Review