Departing from Socialist Realism: April Photo Society, 1979–1981
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When Mao Zedong passed away, in October 1976, the public’s abhorrence of the Cultural Revolution turned into a desire to search for a new life. Two years later, in December 1978, the announcement of reform and opening-up policies, which called for a national shift from ideological struggle to economic construction, in a way officially released some relatively relaxed social space for this bubbling desire. The suppressed creative energy in art and culture — which had long served as political tools — yearning to make a public appearance, emerged from private space. It was in this context that forming an art group became a popular choice for a lot of artists, particularly after the opening of the New Spring Oil Painting Exhibition 新春画展, in February 1979.
In the introductory text for this exhibition, Jiang Feng, later the chair of the Chinese Artists’ Association and dean of the Chinese Academy of Fine Art, wrote, “Freedom of association is a legitimate right of the people, which is given by the constitution. Furthermore, it would be beneficial for the development of art if people could form art groups.” With their eagerness for expression and encouragement from some officials, art societies quickly appeared across China.
Gao Minglu, in his book on the No Name Painting Society无名画会, explained the emergence of these art groups, writing:
[A]t the time, the social environment gave art a degree of freedom, allowing artists to once again take on their responsibility of “artistic revolution.” In the name of their “painting societies,” artists could organize unofficial exhibitions with justification. They could gather for debate and issue manifestos.
These new informal art groups and the exhibitions they organized provided an alternative to the official art organizations and acted largely as forums for exchanging and discussing new ideas or schools of thought, to distance themselves from state-sanctioned visual culture, which was still dominated by the methods and style of socialist realism.
Examining the under-researched history of the April Photo Society 四月影会, active in Beijing from 1979 to 1981, this essay explores its departure from socialist realism through photographic experimentation. In addition to examining the works of its members, this essay investigates how these photographers self-organized collectives to navigate newly available social and cultural spaces. I will also show how some of these experimental initiatives were co-opted relatively quickly into a new kind of “sublimated socialist realism,” used to substantiate the new national narrative reflected in the reform-era policies. An understanding of this process raises significant questions regarding the broader traffic between ostensibly official and unofficial, or so-called institutional and informal, spaces of cultural production in China in the 1980s.
A Brief Prehistory of the April Photo Society
The April Photo Society was formed around two key earlier groups of amateur photographers, namely the Friday Salon 星期五沙龙 (1975–80) and the April Fifth photographers 四五摄影 (1976–79). Both groups were active from the mid-1970s. Although both groups have their own rich histories and deserve greater scholarly attention, this essay will have to introduce them only briefly as the prehistory of the April Photo Society.
Di Yuancang and the Friday Salon
From 1968 into the 1970s, during the “Up to the Mountain and Down to the Countryside Movement上山下乡运动,” at a safe enough distance from the urban centers of power, “educated sent-down youth知青” had been able to gather to discuss new ideas and exchange their limited yet stimulating collections of books. Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1970s, these “sent-down youth” who had returned to the city from the countryside were waiting to be assigned jobs by the government. With spare time on their hands, some got together in private spaces, such as in a friend’s home, to continue sharing interests, at a time when public spaces were still remembered as sites of violence and persecution. In this way, amateur photography cohorts emerged in the cities, where it was more likely that enthusiasts could access cameras and set up home darkrooms.
After his return to Beijing from the May Seventh Cadres School 五七干部学校, Di Yuancang (1926–2003), an already well-known photographic educator and critic, in 1975 began to give voluntary, informal photography and English lessons in his home, initially to just three students.
Around the same time, Chi Xiaoning (1955–2007) was hosting in his home casual talks and workshops given by filmmakers, cinematographers, and writers from the Beijing Film Studio. In 1977, Di was invited to lead photographic classes more formally, every Friday night in Chi Xiaoning’s home, and occasionally organized photographic outings with these young students to the outskirts of Beijing on the weekends (figure 1). Their get-togethers, later dubbed the “Friday Salon,” continued until 1980; Di had started giving public lectures on photography in cultural spaces and universities around China.
The April Fifth Photographers
While these photography enthusiasts were meeting at Chi Xiaoning’s home for casual talks, in spring 1976 amateur photographers, among them Chi Xiaoning, spontaneously went out into the crowds at Tiananmen Square to document the public mourning of the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, which occurred around the time of the Qingming festival, on April 5. Unlike organized photographic outings to parks or the countryside, these impulsive acts showed photography as public documentation. Despite a media ban on what was dubbed the “Counter-Revolutionary April Fifth Tiananmen Incident” and the risk of being arrested, these amateur photographers sought any chance to take a shot in the square. Due to official efforts to locate and destroy such documentation, these photographers hid their negatives and prints, and some even temporarily left Beijing to elude the authorities.
When the search died down, with the desire to share these images, they showed them to friends and started producing photo albums. For example, Wang Zhiping selected more than three hundred images (some taken by other amateur photographers) and produced an album called National Mourning 国丧 (figure 2), which, making its way in Beijing art circles, soon became very popular. A copy was even especially made for and given to Deng Yingchao, Zhou Enlai’s widow.
The death of Mao and the arrest of the Gang of Four as scapegoats for the Cultural Revolution, in autumn of that year, led to a dramatic shift in the political understanding of this event. Under the new party chairman, Hua Guofeng, it was now officially recognized as a patriotic movement. The state then launched another search for photographs of the public gathering of mourners, for a different purpose: to show the public’s patriotic gestures and their denunciation of the Gang of Four. These young photographers suddenly became “April Fifth Heroes,” and their photographs of the “incident’ were soon published in the official media. By late 1978, a collection of their images was shown in an exhibition titled The People Love the People’s Premier, the People’s Premier Loves the People, held to commemorate the death of Zhou. At the same time, more images of this incident were edited by these photographers into a photo book under the title The People’s Mourning 人民的悼念 (figure 3). With an inscription as preface by Hua Guofeng, the book was published in January 1979.
In this process, the independence of these photographs and photographers was inevitably compromised — they had been made part of a new direction in official political rhetoric. Some of these amateur photographers were soon accepted as members of the China Photographers Association. Their original initiative as independent amateur photographers was dramatically transformed to propagate the rehabilitation of the April Fifth incident: a way of legitimating the new Communist Party of China leadership and Hua Guofeng as Mao’s handpicked successor. Facing the government’s political co-option, the photographers either were powerless to resist or simply accepted. Although they did not articulate it at the time, it must have been disappointing for these young amateurs. Indeed, Li Xiaobin later said he felt “empty” facing this sudden fame.
The April Photo Society
In response to this emptiness, some of these artists started pondering what photography could be, other than a part of the state apparatus. It was early in the winter of 1978, while editing The People’s Mourning, that the idea of organizing a photography exhibition came to Wang Zhiping and Li Xiaobin. “Let’s stop the pursuit of politics,” Wang apparently said. “Let’s make art and organize a photographic exhibition of our own!” This idea of making art and showing it to the public sought to bring photography back to the field of art, giving the public an opportunity to look at images that concerned realities, depicted by these amateurs, that were both personal and social. The society held three annual exhibitions between 1979 and 1981, each under the same title, Nature, Society, and Man自然·社会·人 (figures 4–7).
Inspired by Soviet writer and journalist Ilya Ehrenburg’s memoir, People, Years, Life (first serialized in 1960), which Wang Zhiping had read in high school, Wang and Zhao Jiexuan, the literature editor for the Youth Publishing House, came up with Nature, Society, and Man as the exhibition title. (Part of Ehrenburg’s memoir was translated into Chinese in the early 1960s, and was classified as internal reference material for high-ranking cadres. However, it was leaked and circulated in art circles, influencing that generation of Chinese intellectuals.) Ehrenburg wrote about the tribulation in his country, highlighting the importance and individuality of “men” (that is, people). Many intellectuals in China had suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution, with parallels to the Soviet “Great Purge” of the 1930s, so they were particularly struck by Ehrenburg’s humanist approach. Wang Zhiping was one of them.
Just as the first exhibition was being planned by Wang, Li Xiaobin, and other April Fifth photographers, the Friday Salon was holding in Chi Xiaoning’s home an internal exhibition, titled Silver Stars 银星, for which Lü Xiaozhong even designed a poster. According to Ren Shulin’s notebook from that time, the Silver Stars exhibition was held on January 12, 1979, and displayed more than one hundred photographs. On hearing about this event, Wang and Li wanted to invite that group to be part of the exhibition they were organizing. This is how the Friday Salon came to be amalgamated into the April Photo Society.
The first Nature, Society, and Man exhibition opened in the Orchid Room of Zhongshan Park on April 1, 1979, and featured one hundred seventy images representing the work of forty-five photographers. Attracting an estimated seventy thousand people in twenty days (figure 8), this was one of the first displays of photography organized after the Cultural Revolution without a political agenda: instead, for sheer individual expression. In an introductory statement (figure 9), Wang Zhiping said the event aimed to be an art photography exhibition, independent of official ideology. This excerpt is an apt reflection of his overall approach:
News photos cannot replace the art of photography; content cannot be equated with form. Photography as an art should have its own language. It is now time to explore art with the language of art, just as economic matters should be dealt with by using the methods of economics. The beauty of photography lies not necessarily in “important subject matter” or in official ideology, but should be found in nature’s rhythms, in social reality, in emotions and ideas.
Here, Wang separated art photography from news photography, thereby legitimating art as an “equal” genre in photographic practice. In addition, he pointed out that art has its own specialist language that should be applied to its practice, notably referring to the government’s new promotion of reform according to economic rather than political principles as part of the “opening-up” policies. Cleverly drawing from the government line, Wang sharply pointed out that politics and ideology should no longer be the main purpose or guiding principle of art. Although he did not elaborate on what photography as art meant exactly, he called for photographic expression in everyday life, social reality, and human emotions as ways to depart from official ideology.
The relationship between “art photography” and “news photography” soon became one of the most vigorously debated topics. It was one of three key issues discussed at the first National Photography Theory Annual Conference, held in the Beijing Exhibition Center in 1980 (the others concerned the essential nature and social function of photographic art). During the conference, the ongoing significance of news photography for propagating party ideology was acknowledged, but at the same time it was noted that the dominating role of news photography constricted the creation of art photography and the diversification of photographic styles. For the first time in decades, art photography was officially differentiated from news photography, and its relative independence thus recognized. Again, although the conference did not clearly define what constitutes art photography, this official discussion of it signaled a relaxation on the control of image making, and to some extent encouraged the practice of photography as art.
Wang bravely pointed out in his statement that the focus on form instead of content was a way to explore the language of photography as art. Formal experimentation became a significant way to break through the Socialist aesthetic stranglehold. Moreover, Wang’s statement was timely, appearing just before the “content and form” debate was initiated by the noted painter Wu Guanzhong, when Wu published an article called “Formal Beauty of Paintings 绘画的形式美,”in Fine Art 美术 magazine, May 1979. Appearing a month after the opening of the first Nature, Society, and Man exhibition, Wu’s article stated: "In the creative arts, besides ‘What to express,’ ‘How to express’ has indeed been the major subject painstakingly explored by successive generations of artists, and it is likewise a benchmark for art history.”
Wu’s article triggered a heated debate within the art world. State officials, such as Jiang Feng — despite his advocacy for art in 1979 — aggressively attacked Wu’s views. In a speech in 1981 for an oil-painting workshop, Jiang said, “The denial of content, giving priority to form, is from the degenerate Western theory of abstract art, which will degenerate our fine art into bourgeois liberalism.” 
The art world in 1979, at the dawn of the reform era, was eager for modern-art theories from the West. However, constrained by old doctrines such as socialist realism, many artists and critics did not speak out. Wu’s “Formal Beauty of Paintings” touched on a topic that had been dormant for more than thirty years and helped to open a new era of formal experiment in art production. In this sense, Wang’s statement was very timely, advocating an idea that had long been suppressed, and even in the late 1970s and early 1980s was still met with staunch resistance from the establishment.
Having advocated for photography as art, Wang Zhiping undertook formal experiments in his own work. For example, in the first exhibition, his Golden Dreams (figure 10) depicted a willow twig in the middle of the image surrounded by some blurry luminous light spots, applying the technique of short depth of field to focus on the foreground subject and blur the background. A line from a poem under the photo reads, “Whose smiles induce illusive hope? However, what lingers is some faint emptiness.” Photographs shown with matching poems most distinguishes this exhibition from the subsequent two. After Wang Zhiping had selected all the works for the first exhibition, he realized that whereas some of them were titled by the photographers, others had been submitted without any. Wang decided to add titles and poems to all the works. Zhao Jiexuan agreed, and was willing to help. Together with the poet Ye Wenfu, Zhao and Wang wrote succinct yet romantic or humorous poems to match the theme or mood of the photographs.
In the second exhibition, Wang’s Glorious Memory 灿烂的回忆 (figure 11) depicted a cluster of old, ruined columns in the Yuanming Yuan awash with bright colors. Using a flash fitted with red, blue, green, and yellow cellophane papers, the usually gray debris of the ruins was rendered fresh, lively, and theatrical. As one of the few color photographs in the exhibition, Glorious Memory was a favorite of many. Apart from the technique, officials liked the image because it seemed to have educational value. Destroyed by French and British troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War, the ruins were classified as a Protected Historical and Cultural Heritage Site in Beijing in 1979, which officially became a reminder of China’s humiliating past under the feudal rulers and aroused patriotic sentiment when comparing it to the advanced Socialist present.
Wang, however, was not comfortable with this interpretation. Yuanming Yuan was for him a place where he spent time with friends; it was even a popular romantic spot. It contained memories from his youth as well as his adult life, and was thus personal and not intended to be educational.
Formal experimentation was specifically encouraged in the second exhibition call
for submissions (figure 12). Wang welcomed different experimental approaches, such as double exposure, collage, bas-relief, and solarization; and accepted were many works that fit these categories. For example, Ling Fei’s Only the Mind Flows 只有思想在流动 (figure 13) experimented with the bas-relief method by superimposing, slightly out of register, a sandwiched negative and positive portrait of a friend, creating a high-contrast, almost linear monochrome image. Interestingly, Ling appropriated this technique to re-create the traditional Chinese ink-painting effect of “leaving emptiness” 留白.
“Leaving emptiness” means to leave significant “empty” space on the page, emphasizing the subject but also creating imaginary space for the viewer’s appreciation. Ling has acknowledged the influence of this “less-is-more” approach in Chinese classical painting on his photography during the late 1970s and early 1980s. This kind of high-contrast effect (figure 14) became his style at the time.
Other forms of darkroom manipulation also became very popular among members of the April Photo Society. Xu Zhuo, at that time a collections photographer for the National Art Museum of China, used methods quite different from those of both Wang and Ling. For Xu, darkroom manipulation was more a physical process than a chemical one. He employed the darkroom as a studio: Using drawings, props, and models, he visualized an idea or a theme that he wanted to express. The arrangement of the compositions and the process Xu devoted to preparing each shoot were akin to the process of drawing. For him, taking a photograph wasn’t simply pressing a button; it required involvement of one’s body and other subjects — one needed to prepare oneself, just as one had to prepare paper and brush for drawing. His early experiments, which were shown in the 1979 April Photo Society exhibition, drew from the conventional content associated with a so-called socialist future, such as the realization of the “Four Modernizations” policy alluded to in his photograph Modern 现代 (figure 15). However, he quickly shifted to exploring timely social phenomena, demonstrated in works such as I Love You 我爱你 (figure 16) and the “Anti-smoking Series” 戒烟系列 (figures 17–19).
Whereas I Love You still used the darkroom technique of collage, the “Anti-smoking Series” was produced entirely in the studio, carefully planned to reduce the photographic “process” to the touch of a shutter-release button.
Drawing on the format of propaganda posters prevalent during the Cultural Revolution, these were dubbed “photo posters” by Zong Rao, who wrote a review on Xu’s Modern for the magazine Popular Photography, though this term probably described only the publicity approach of Xu’s works. Despite this name, Xu Zhuo didn’t make these images for the government, nor any work unit, community group, or company; they were produced for an art photography exhibit. Xu borrowed the “poster” format as an experiment in how photography could be used. He also moved from darkroom manipulation to studio experiments, from playing with the development and print process to choreographing the exposure itself.
“Xiaopin” 小品 Photography
In addition to the formal photographic experiments Wang encouraged in the exhibition’s call for submissions, he pointed out possible genres, which for Wang meant “portraiture, still life, animals, landscapes, street scenes, events, xiaopin, news, advertising, etc.” (See again figure 12.) The term xiaopin was appropriated from a genre of literature and ink painting. Literally “little” or short work, it originates in discourse of Buddhist sutras during the Jin Dynasty (CE 266–420) and refers to brief translated versions of them as opposed to the detailed translations, called dapin (“big” or long work). This term is applied in literature, theater, and ink paintings to categorize works that are informal, spontaneous, and interesting, compared to those tackling more serious subject matter or grander narratives. The photographic practices of the April Photo Society, just as Wang wrote in his introduction to the first exhibition, did not necessarily lie in the grander narratives of “important subject matter” or “official ideology”; rather, they sought to adopt a style that reflected each photographer’s free will, with relaxed, personal subjects, such as lyrical landscapes and humorous moments in everyday life.
The Nature, Society, and Man exhibitions showcased many photographs of natural scenes, from mountains, trees, and flowers to rivers, lakes, and boats. They were either purely artistic expressions of the beauty of nature or expressions of personal emotions inspired by nature. Avoiding the patriotic panoramic images of magnificent rivers and mountains embodying the motherland, photographs depicting the quiet beauty of “nature’s rhythms” often focused on close-ups of a scene or a particular plant. Zhao Jiexuan’s Lotus Pond荷塘 (figure 20), for example, is a low-angle view of a lotus pond near Yuanming Yuan on a sunny winter afternoon.
The poem, written by Zhao to accompany the photograph, reads: “The rich green has withered, the gentle pink has aged, the summer sun has set, the noisy frogs have gone. Now hasten no more — with my mind calm, I wander softly amid the peace of this pond.”
Like the historical xiaopin ink paintings, these photographs not only were intended as visual expressions of spontaneous sentiment, but were also accompanied by poems. Zhao Jiexuan, one of the few women photographers in the April Photo Society, explained later that she wanted to keep the artistic tradition of “poetry in painting and painting in poetry” 诗中有画，画中有诗 — referring to the well-known Song Dynasty poet Su Shi’s (1037–1101) comments on the works of the renowned Tang Dynasty poet and painter Wang Wei (701–761).
Apart from the lyrical landscapes, an important theme was the subject of private love, a topic that for decades had been taboo due to its association with bourgeois sentiment. Wang Miao’s A Date 约会 (figure 21) depicts two boats on a peaceful lake “leaning” together like a dating couple, creating a scene of romance.
Li Xiaobin’s How Are You? 你好吗？(figure 22) shows a young couple enjoying a visit to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, in the outskirts of Beijing. Ren Shulin’s This Is Much More Complicated than Leading an Army 这比带兵难多了 (figure 23) captures the awkwardness of an army captain on a date. Their body language, which reveals the tension between them, intrigued Ren. He adjusted the aperture of his camera and quickly snapped this “scene” when walking past the couple on his way home from work.
In stark contrast to the glorified images of military men even of that time, Ren depicted the ordinary life of a soldier and that attracted criticism from officials, who said the photograph was not representative of the People’s Liberation Army, as it depicted a solider with “bad discipline.”
Capturing humorous moments was a popular subject of xiaopin photography, an approach of which Jin Bohong might be called the master. He snapped such small vignettes in the park, on the street, wherever he went. In Leisure 休闲 (figure 24), a toddler pushes a pram at the park while his father or grandfather follows casually, hands crossed behind his back. In | 5 1 2 3 | 4 — | (figure 25), five children, aligned from tallest to shortest, are walking at the zoo. He took this snapshot because it amused him; he saw the lining up of these children as a simple set of musical notes.
Works Commenting on Society
The number of works on social issues was fewer than those utilizing formal experiments or xiaopin style due to Wang Zhiping’s interest in art photography. In addition to that being his own preference, Wang particularly avoided works with a strong political reference in order to safeguard the successful opening of this exhibition. Before the opening of the first show, in 1979, in the censorship session conducted by Xu Xiaobin, Yuan Yiping, and some other senior members from the China Photography Society, the organizers agreed that they would pull down any work the China Photography Society strongly objected to. For example, Wang Miao’s Woman Selling Fish 卖鱼妇 (figure 26) was removed. At a market in Hainan Island, Wang was fascinated by the fishmonger’s facial expression and her vivacity as she hawked her wares. However, perhaps because she looked poor, the censors did not consider her to be a good representative of Chinse people and thus the image was not their aesthetic preference.
Even though it wasn’t taken down, another of Wang Miao’s photographs, Inside or Outside the Cage 笼里笼外 (figure 27), was criticized by the Xinhua News Agency as a work with strong political allegory, implying that socialism locked people in a cage, which according to officials went against the fundamental interests of the Chinese people.
Wang Miao had taken this photograph, in 1974, by standing inside the monkey enclosure at the Beijing Zoo, intrigued by the extraordinary effect of seeing the crowd through the cage instead of seeing monkeys from outside. Although Wang has said that it was the visual imagery that caught her attention, the group of dull-looking men in the image seemed to embody the stifled life people endured during the Cultural Revolution. A poem by Ye Wenfu accompanied the photo, which was also written down by Ye at the back (figure 28): “I am free, you can also do as you please, so who is actually inside the cage and who is outside?” The image was popular with audiences in 1979; from the notes Ren Shulin copied from the comment book at the exhibition, one viewer wrote: “Remarkably true to life!”
Public and Official Responses
It is not difficult to imagine why the opening of a non-state-organized public exhibition of photography attracted so much attention, and both positive and negative comments from the public and officials. The first Nature, Society, and Man was mostly welcomed by the public. According to Ren Shulin, three days after the opening the comment book was filled with excited reactions. Ren’s notes (figure 29) show that most comments were very positive, such as “Gives us refreshment and soul!” and “First time to see such a photography exhibition after the Cultural Revolution! Marvelous works!” Yet there were also some negative remarks, from audience members who thought formal experimentation was not part of Chinese tradition and others who thought there were too many beautiful rather than “natural” women in the photos.
Responses from officials also varied. Zhong Juzhi, from the Xinhua News Agency, criticized the exhibition as “bourgeois” and accused it of lacking praise for the Four Modernizations, which was the top political agenda at the time. But it received some positive comments from relatively open-minded officials. Even the People’s Daily reporter Wang Rong’an praised it before the first exhibition closed: “With ideological emancipation, the photographers bravely explore the art of photography.”
Of course, as a state outlet, the People’s Daily positioned the exhibition’s achievement relative to the state’s “ideological emancipation” movement, ignoring the photographers’ initiative and desire to express individual visions. But their efforts and innovation were welcomed by Jiang Feng, then art adviser to the Ministry of Culture and Secretary of the Party Committee of the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Jiang wrote a review titled “Amateurs Show Fresh Approach,” published in the English magazine China Reconstruct, in August, a few months after the exhibition opened:
Unique in style, fresh in approach, evocative and aesthetically charming. . . . Their creators were innovative, breaking away from the Gang of Four’s restrictions on photography. . . Already their work, freed of such restrictions, demonstrates that they are beginning to select subjects according to individual preference and creative impulse based on their own personal impressions. . . . Of course, there are defects in the show — not enough on the spirit of the times, for one thing — and the artistic shortcomings in some of the works. Nevertheless, the boldness and imagination of these young photographers in both conception and execution has injected new vitality into art — a happy thing for Chinese photographic circles.
Even though Jiang couldn’t avoid mildly criticizing their works for lacking the spirit of the times, he was full of warm praise for these young amateurs, demonstrating the support of some relatively open-minded officials. The Photography Association had provided some support to the exhibitions as well. When organizers were preparing the second exhibition, they wrote to the association and asked for assistance for its production. The association agreed to help with the printing of color photos.
However, the successful execution of this exhibition was not only because of the state’s new policies and some officials’ support for the photographers’ brave subjectivity. It was also the result of certain practical aspects, such as access to cameras and printing equipment: privileges that reveal the various participants’ politically connected family backgrounds and strong social networks.
The material environment for photography in the 1980s was extremely limited. The cost of an average camera in the early part of the decade was more than one hundred yuan, which was almost four months’ wages for a typical worker. According to some official statistics, in 1980 only 2.84 cameras were owned per hundred households. By 1988, this number had increased to 16.03 per hundred households. Even though some wealthy urban residents could afford a low- or middle-range camera, the price of color film and development was extremely high, about forty-five yuan, a month’s wages for an average worker . Thus, taking photographs was not an everyday practice for the average person.
Unsurprisingly, those who could afford a camera, or had access to such equipment, and were able to set up public organizations and exhibitions belonged to families with significant cultural and sociopolitical networks. Most members of the April Photo Society were the children of high-ranking cadres and intellectuals and themselves worked in various state institutions. Some later became professional photographers and could thus access state resources. They utilized their social and political connections, as well as adapting the state’s new dynamics to serve their own agendas, to safeguard the successful opening of the exhibition as well as their future operation. For example, Luo Xiaoyun’s father, Deng Liqun, was Deputy Director of the General Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and a couple of years after the opening of the first exhibition would become the Minister of the Propaganda Department. Group members invited such high-ranking cadres to the exhibition through personal and family connections. Some even sent photos to Hu Yaobang — at the time the Minister of Propaganda and later the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China — to check after the first exhibition opened. With the verbal approval of such high-ranking officials —or, more often, their not overt disapproval — no one would be too critical of the exhibition (figure 30).
At the same time, the photographers deliberately stayed away from the Democracy Wall movement and generally did not want to be “out of line.”  With their family background highly connected to the core of the government, they understood the risk of being associated with such a movement. They wanted to explore “pure” artistic experiments and not be involved in politics.
Rather than being dissidents, their identities were highly malleable, adjusting to the complicated sociopolitical environment. They were rebellious and sought ways to depart from the state-sanctioned visual culture, but capitalizing on state resources through their work and family connections and actively disengaging from political currents, they were never directly critical of authorities. The state, for its part, would not suppress their activities when those activities could be seen as new evidence for the successful implementation of the opening-up and reform policies. Like the “gray zones” the Czech sociologist Jiřina Šiklová described regarding the collaboration between dissidents and the establishment in the former Czechoslovakia, in China there existed a meeting ground between the official and the so-called unofficial. At the beginning of the reform era, this was a crucial aspect of the possibility of making such private practices public.
The Group Disbands
Formal experimentation and xiaopin-style photography were important techniques that Wang Zhiping saw as the “art” of photography and as ways to steer away from politics and the style of socialist realism. Li Xiaobin, however, held a different view. In the third Nature, Society, and Man exhibition, in 1981, Li put a long note under his work: “Content is form too. For the subject of a piece of work, content and form are both important. Using the unique features of photography, I strive to display the beauty of life — that which I think of as beauty is not necessarily beautiful, but real and natural.”
The significant stylistic divergence between Li Xiaobin and Wang Zhiping was one of the factors that triggered the split of the April Photo Society. By the time of the third exhibition, held in the National Art Museum of China, no unified understanding on what photography should be had coalesced. Wang exclaimed in the exhibition statement: “It has been three years! Where are the treasures of art photography?” Wang’s pursuit of art photography could not be fully realized in the April Photo Society because it remained a loosely structured organization whose key members had different views on photography. 
In a 2004 interview, Li commented on the group’s disbanding: “There was no strict selection for the second and third exhibition. Even worse, there were works shown without permission. The quantity of works increased but the quality of the exhibition went down. Wang Zhiping, Wang Miao, and I made up our minds to stop the exhibition when we talked about the fourth one. . . . It was basically a hodgepodge . . . and had lost the character of the April Photography Society.”
The China Modern Photo Salon
A few years after the disbanding of the April Photo Society, some of its principal members, such as Wang Wenlan, a photojournalist at the China Daily, tried to continue its legacy by establishing the China Modern Photo Salon, with a much more organized framework and featuring an administrative committee with specific divisions. Its first exhibition continued the April Photo Society’s emphasis on art, and was held in Zhongshan Park, the same location as the first April Photo Society exhibition. It even included an introductory statement written by Wang Zhiping, who took part shortly before he moved to France (on May 14, 1985). In this exhibition, Wang Zhiping’s works had a much stronger modernist approach. His Portrait of a Female Artist 女画家肖像 (figure 31)
employed the modernist method of collage, through which he combined photos and paintings. He cut the portrait into geometrical pieces and glued them back together against a red painted board. Photos of the female artist’s drawings were also stuck to the board. Other works, such as those by Yu Xiaoyang, Li Mingzhi, and Gu Daxiang, expressed the photographer’s inner world and demonstrated the strong influence of Freudian ideas.
The China Modern Photo Salon’s second exhibition, Flashback: A Decade of Changes 十年一瞬间, held in 1986, focused on journalistic photographs. It was divided into six sections as a retrospective of the major social and economic changes between 1976 and 1986. Li Xiaobin’s now famous image The Petitioner 上访者 (figure 32) was first shown here. Taken in 1977, it shows a victim of
the Cultural Revolution, who had left his hometown to go to Beijing and try to make a petition to the central government. This shabbily dressed old man is wearing an expression of great grief or anguish; on his chest there hang a few shiny Chairman Mao badges. This image represented thousands of such people in in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. It captured the tragic lack of recognition of the current social circumstances and the cost of that decade, just as the government was launching a campaign to right its wrongs.
In 1979, Li Xiaobin had censored himself, choosing not to submit this photograph for the first exhibition of the April Photo Society, given that it portrayed a taboo topic. Indeed, in the mid-1980s the topic of petition was still relatively taboo. The reason this photograph could be exhibited at this time was that Yang Shaoming, the second son of the then CCP chairman, Yang Shangkun, was the head of the China Modern Photo Salon. His powerful connections and support for photography to “capture the new realities from fresh angles in an effort to probe answers to the challenges of the times” made the showing of this photograph possible. Also, it was apparent that the focus of the salon had shifted to journalistic images. Indeed, unlike in previous shows, most of the participants were already working as photojournalists.
However, it is also Yang Shaoming’s heavy involvement and his pro-establishment approach that led some of the original members of the April Photo Society to publicly or privately withdraw from their affiliation from the Modern China Photo Salon after the second exhibition. In 1988, after the third exhibition, held in the National Art Museum of China, the Modern Photo Salon’s name was officially changed to the Contemporary Photography Society 当代摄影学会, and it came under the administration of the China Association for Friendship 中国友谊促进会. The society became an official state institute, with a secretary paid by the state.
The eventual dominance of “photojournalism,” which had been a tradition of the Communist Party of China since its early years in Yan’an, may have been a way to marginalize the boom in photographic experimentation of the kind advocated by the April Photo Society and to promote the new ideological agenda of reform. This then amounted to what might be considered a disguised or sublimated “socialist realism” in photography. Sharing semantic references, these photographs, although obviously contemporary, nevertheless depicted the achievements of the government’s new reform policies, showing similar subjects and content as Maoist-era imagery, such as happy peasants and ethnic minorities, the bond between the people and the army, and material wealth (no longer agricultural; now technological/industrial). Showcasing sophisticated photojournalistic techniques, such as bolder angles and compositions, as well as informal and relaxing moments of current events, they might not appear to be the dogmatic “reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances,” yet they seem to remain within the category deemed “realistic in form and socialist in content” — as Boris Groys has described socialist realism — albeit with “Chinese characteristics.”
These new developments, originating in the April Photo Society, therefore, seem to have been co-opted into an official discourse as the state expanded its own sphere of art and cultural production in the 1980s, through the active and heavy involvement of state-connected individuals.
Current literature on art/cultural groups in China during the 1980s tends to overstate the conflicts and opposition between the so-called non-official and the official. It unilaterally emphasizes the rebellious and antigovernment gestures of certain groups, ignoring the busy “gray zone” between official and unofficial. Although dominant, this binary approach has been criticized by scholars such as Wu Hung, who considers the use of the term “unofficial art” to be “misleading,” as it exaggerates the political orientation of what it describes. Earlier, Geremie Barmé argued that unofficial culture more broadly could be seen as “a parallel or even a parasite culture” on the “overculture.” John Clark also pointedly reminds us that the “official” and the “unofficial” in practice belong to the same system. Their difference, Clark writes, “may not be between the outside and inside of an art system or between an establishment and an avant-garde, but rather between different elements that are privileged differently within the same system.”
Within these spaces, the official could coincide with, acquiesce to, or even support the unofficial emergence of new cultural phenomena that did not endanger the regime. At the same time, the unofficial could utilize its sociopolitical and cultural resources, sometimes from within state institutions, to explore and experiment with practices that the official could not implement. Binary approaches may help history writing, but exaggerating their opposition simplifies the complexity of Chinese art and culture in the 1980s. The formation of the April Photo Society, the successful opening of three Nature, Society, and Man exhibitions, including the final show, held in the National Art Museum in China, demonstrate this traffic between ostensibly official or institutional and unofficial or informal spaces of cultural production in contemporary China.
Chen Shuxia is a PhD candidate at the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University, with a research focus on Chinese photography. Her essays have been published in journals such as Trans Asia Photography Review, Made In China, China Story Yearbook, Art China, artforum.com.cn, and in the photo book Long Live the Glorious May Seventh Directive (2016). She is the 2014 grantee of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Greater China Curatorial Residency Programme.
This essay is based primarily on two field trips to Beijing, the first in late 2014 and the second in mid-2016, supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Greater China Curatorial Residency Programme 2014, Asia Art Archive. I thank the members of the April Photo Society, the Friday Salon, and the China Modern Photo Salon for their time and generosity in sharing with me not only stories from their youth but also their personal archives, full of old photos, negatives, slides, notebooks, and other materials, such as books, exhibition pamphlets, and invitations. In particular, I would like to thank the photographers mentioned in this essay, for their patience and for permission to use their images. I would also like to thank Olivier Krischer and the anonymous reviewer for their valuable suggestions.
The history of how socialist realism was imported, understood, and transformed in the field of art in China is under research. Because of space limitations, I am not able to discuss this topic to foreground this essay.
The “Up to the Mountain and Down to the Countryside Movement” was a policy that Mao Zedong instituted from 1968 into the 1970s, to send approximately 17 million urban youths, from cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, to distant rural areas, in theory to learn from the workers and farmers there.
The phrase “internal reference material” 内部参考资料normally signified translated books or part of a book from the Soviet Union and other Western countries. These translated books were published only internally, as resources for high-ranking cadres and related professionals from the 1950s through the 1970s to help them understand Soviet Revisionism and the West’s latest thoughts — in order to criticize them. See Yin Hongbiao, The Trails of Missing People: The Trend of Thought of the Youth during the Cultural Revolution (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2009), 226.
Wen Danqing, “The Number of Participating Works in the First Nature, Society, Man Photography Exhibition” 关于《自然·社会·人》艺术摄影展第一回参展作品的数量, in A Decade of Chinese Photography: April 1976 to April 1986 (Beijing: Inter Art Center and Gallery, 2016), 7.
Wu Hung, “Between Past and Future: A Brief History of Contemporary Chinese Photography,” in Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China (Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; New York: International Center of Photography, 2004), 16.
Jia Fangzhou, “The Formal Enlightenment in the New Area: A Retrospective on the Formal Debate Initiated by Wu Guanzhong” 新时期的形式启蒙—回顾80年代初吴冠中引发的关于形式问题的讨论, Artintern, accessed July 12, 2011, http://review.artintern.net/html.php?id=11296.
是谁，曾对我微笑，给我希望？却只留下柔弱的空虚。See Nature, Society, and Man: The Works of the First Unofficial Photographic Exhibition after the “Gang of Four” 自然·社会·人——四人帮后首次民间摄影展作品集 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Cultural New Wave Publishing House, 1979), 27.
Yuanming Yuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness, located northwest of the former Imperial City section of Beijing, was a complex of palaces and gardens constructed between the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as the primary imperial residence of the Qing Dynasty emperors.
Bao Kun recalled that it was the technique of Wang Zhiping’s Glorious Memory that inspired his and Ling Fei’s The Soul of a Nation 国魂. See Bao Kun, “The Production of Photographic Work,” in The Soul of a Nation 摄影作品《国魂》的拍摄经过, Xitek, accessed March 21, 2017, http://vision.xitek.com/column/baokun/201001/19-35938.html.
To read about how Xu made these photographs, see Chen Shuxia, “Manipulation as Art: Photographs by Xu Zhuo, 1979–1981,” in Trans Asia Photography Review 1 (2015), accessed 3 May 2017, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0006.103/—manipulation-as-art-photographs?rgn=main;view=fulltext.
浓郁的碧绿枯萎了，温柔的粉红衰老了，盛夏的酷曙下山了，喧嚣的蛙阵散场了，现在，已不用再那么匆忙——挽着，清冷的怀想，我轻地徘徊在这安静下来的荷塘。See Nature, Society, and Man: The Works of the First Unofficial Photographic Exhibition after the “Gang of Four” 自然·社会·人——四人帮后首次民间摄影展作品集 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Cultural New Wave Publishing House, 1979), 26.
Zhao Jiexuan, May 4, 2009, “The Idea of Texts for the First ‘Nature, Society, and Man’ Exhibition”《自然•社会•人》第一回影展配文字之创意, in the Ziranshehuiren Blog, 15 August 2010, http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_5085d4f00100dcez.html.
According to Wang Yongan, the journalist from People’s Daily who reported about the first exhibition, there were twenty to thirty photos depicting the subject of love. See Wang Yongan, “A Piece of News That Attracted Issues” 条短消息引发了一堆话题, in Eternal April, 177.
“Excerpts from the Chinese Photographers Association Meetings after the Second ‘Nature, Society and Man’ Exhibition”《自然•社会•人》第二回艺术影展观后座谈会发言摘编, in Photographic Theory Reference I摄影理论参考资料I (Beijing: Chinese Photographers Association, 1980), 9.
Before the second exhibition, they had formed a committee, but in individual interviews with Wang Zhiping and Wang Miao, both suggested that Wang Zhiping was still the person who made the final decisions. This was also confirmed by Li Xiaobin during a phone interview in April 2017.
Li Xiaobin showed The Petitioner to Yang Shaoming when the exhibition was in the planning stage. Yang welcomed this photo and thought there would be no problem in showing it. Interview with Li Xiaobin in Beijing, 15 November 2014.
See Paul Gladston, Avant-garde Art Groups in China, 1979–1989 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), and Kuiyi Shen and Julia F. Andrews, Light Before Dawn: Unofficial Chinese Art 1974–1985 (Hong Kong: Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, 2013).