Feng Li, Good Night

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Jiazazhi Press (here). Softcover, 150x225x25 mm, 352 pages, with 187 black-and-white photos. Includes 1 poster, but no texts or essays. Design by Cheng Yinhe. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Street photography has always had its darker side, where the serendipitous moments and clever juxtapositions of urban life get a notch or two grittier and strangely surreal details slip out from the shadows. In many instances, photographers have deliberately gone in search of the nocturnal underbelly of the world’s biggest cities, where the wild things tend to congregate; in others, they have found that untamed everyday freakishness rears its head seemingly wherever we might look, even during the daylight hours. In both scenarios, it hardly matters which specific global metropolis we might choose, as the dreamlike and the bizarre seem to linger everywhere, from New York, London, and Rome to Tokyo, Bangkok, and Kolkata, and back.

Back in 2017, the Chinese photographer Feng Li added his name to the roster of surreally-inclined street photographers with his much acclaimed photobook White Night. In it, Li tracked the strangeness to be found in his hometown of Chengdu, bringing an eye for pops of color and the consistent use of energizing bright flash to his subjects.

Li’s backstory is worth noting – he works as a civil servant for the Sichuan provincial Department of Communication, where he takes photographs of local events in Chengdu for the Propaganda Department. While out and about for work, he also makes images for himself, and these are the eccentric moments that found their way into White Night.

Good Night is in a sense a follow up to the White Night project, or perhaps better, a kind of sibling or relative. And while brash color was a dominant component of Li’s White Night pictures, Good Night settles entirely into the murkier tones of black-and-white, letting blackness (with a blast of high contrast flash) be the primary (and only) color story. In many cases, Li’s flash is so strong that it is impossible to discern if it is day or night, which of course adds to the overall sense of confusing unreality that seethes through this photobook.

Good Night is a thick book, and weighing in at more than 180 images, it’s overstuffed by normal photobook standards. The cover sets an uneasy mood, with a picture of a parrot surrounded by a flash-lit palm frond and the encroaching edges of a building intermingled with the title and artist’s name in black, which are intentionally obscured by the silver overprinting of the image. Inside, the vertical images are shown one to a spread, always on the right hand page, while horizontal images are either given full spread treatment or are reduced in size and paired in top and bottom fashion. This leads to plenty of white space for most page turns, but also to the breathing room we need to process the perplexing strangeness found in each of Li’s images. Almost all of Li’s images require a two step process of engagement, where an initial sense of recognition is then recalibrated as we discover more of the details that upend a typical reading of the picture.

Li’s photographs cover a wide range of subject matter, making it difficult to break the mass of imagery down into useful categories or groupings (are lightning strikes, or spiders, or things wrapped up, or people in inexplicable costumes, or street fights, or people with their faces obscured patterns worth tracking?) More practically, it is Li’s sharp eye that connects these images into a coherent whole – he tends to find shadowy atmosphere (often vaguely menacing) when there are no people around, and he amplifies the theatricality of situations when people are present, whether they are “performing” or not, often to the edge of almost absurdity. Together, the pictures offer an uncontrolled, feral, and darkly unexpected view of everyday China, where this kind of subtle eccentricity isn’t typically featured.

Chance and good timing play important roles in street photography, but Li’s hit rate for “decisive moment” visual winners is much too high to be random. The most astonishing picture in Good Night is likely one of a boy bouncing a ping pong ball on his racket while his friend looks on from right nearby; the ball jumps up into the air, Li blasts his flash, which turns the ball into a bright white orb and casts a black circular shadow, the two “balls” perfectly aligned in front of the friend’s eyes. It’s an amazing photograph, of an entirely unassuming moment. But Li finds this kind of magic all over the place – in a man pushing a skeleton down the street; another carrying a jumble of white tubes like a crazy wig; a grim faced man who is found to be ready with his knife; a girl with feathered wings that become a dark doubled shadow; a baby seemingly left in a trash bin; and various people seen only by their reaching hands, behind frosted or fogged glass, coming out of river water, or raised in prayer (with one finger cut short).

While everyday life isn’t a horror movie, in Li’s hands, straightforward observations quickly turn into setups that feel ready to lead somewhere threatening or just wholly unexpected. Someone holds what looks like a severed head; dinosaurs emerge on the roadside for eager picture snappers; aliens dance in shiny costumes; bunnies emerge from a crashed van; people are taken away in handcuffs; strange eyes appear in the bark of a tree; a huge teddy bear is impaled on the spikes of an iron fence; and a man bleakly holds a handgun while he sits alone at a park table. Any one of these moments might be the beginning or the end of a short story, Li’s singular discoveries and situations left pleasingly open-ended.

When Li isn’t seeing the misty gloominess of a lonely Christmas tree or an artificial moon hoisted into the sky on scaffolding, he seems to be enjoying himself with the playfulness of visual interruption. Smoke rings provide one memorable obscuring effect, bested only by what looks like a fried bug (or just some candy) on a stick which juts right in front of the face of a smiling young girl. He then balances this deliberate disruption with just as many pictures of peeking through – from behind a slit in curtains, from out of an oversized suit, from behind a round hole in a tall air conditioner, through binoculars and a camera, and through the mouth of a bear costume. His visual fun is certainly contagious, reaching a peak of relatable silliness with a tossed nut caught midair between the thrower’s hand and the catcher’s gaping open mouth.

The broader conclusion to be drawn from Good Night is that the street photography genre is continuing to be reinvented and reinvigorated by contemporary photographers like Li. Nearly every image in this lively photobook can be logically followed by the question “what is going on here?” That intentional mystery, and the active engagement it then requires from the viewer, keeps Good Night fresh and exciting. Li keeps us guessing, and that off-kilter feeling of being just a little out of control creates the durable potential for surprise, even in subsequent trips through the images.

Collector’s POV: Feng Li is represented by Galerie Marguo in Paris (here), and by Concrete Rep in the United Kingdom (here) for his commercial work. His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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