Judging solely by the numerous photobooks and news reports that have inundated the West in the past ten years, modern China appears alternatively as a skyscraper laden wonderland or a threatening economic and political juggernaut. Rarely do more nuanced reports or reflections on these radical changes appear in the West. Avoiding the jingoistic and sensationalist tenor of recent books, Shen Wei’s first book, Chinese Sentiment, offers an antidote to the neon tigers and faceless masses of recent photographic work on China. Instead, Shen presents a beautiful dream fugue about contemporary China in the throws of tumultuous change that even its populace hasn’t quite fully comprehended.
Leaving his hometown of Shanghai at a young age, Shen came to the United States to study art and later photography. Returning many years later, Chinese Sentiment is his love letter to a China he has lost, but never forgotten. Captured by the eyes of a returning ex-pat, he creates intimate images infused with romantic longing for a world in which he no longer entirely belongs. Avoiding the major urban areas, Shen focuses on smaller cities and peripheral communities that exist outside the major development zones of China. Intimate portraits and nudes mix with restrained landscapes and details offering a poetic portrait of a country in flux.
Throughout the book, a sense of isolation and melancholy pervades. People are captured alone in their rooms, in somnambulant repose, or various states of undress – as if caught between activities or held inside, fearful of the changing world outside. Although we learn little about the people depicted, Shen’s images are intensely personal and intimate. Like Proust, Shen evokes a China of the senses – each image, pairing or gesture summoning the fleeting memories of a China that once was, but nevertheless still exists, hidden beneath the surface or dormant in Shen’s memories.
The book is beautifully designed and printed. In addition to gorgeously printed end paper, the cover is foil stamped with an exquisite cherry blossom design. Arranged in short chapters of approximately ten to twelve images each, the images run across the top of the spreads in a pleasing design. Guest edited by Lesley Martin of Aperture, the book also contains a short but insightful essay by Peter Hessler. Charles Lane Press has not put out many books, but they more than made up for the lack of quantity with their excellent quality. Like their recent books by Richard Renaldi and Allison Davies, Chinese Sentiment is clearly a labor of love.
The last several years have seen an onslaught of photobooks dealing with China. While this is not necessarily bad, there is a numbing sameness to the narrative. Photographers from all over the world seemed to rush to China with their large-format cameras competing to document these changes first – in many cases photographing the same buildings, intersections or construction sites ad nauseam. Emerging quietly after the storm, Chinese Sentiment offers a glimpse behind the COR-TEN and neon forest of contemporary China to reveal a world of poetry and quiet beauty.