Lin Zhipeng (No. 223), Skinny Wave

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Same Paper (here). Softcover, 170 x 255 mm, 4 two-sided dust jackets, 254 pages, with 25 extended spreads. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 700 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The ubiquitous right-at-hand presence of our contemporary smartphone cameras has encouraged many of us to make pictures of the small visual discoveries we encounter in our day to day lives. Maybe we see the light of the sun in an unusual way, a blooming flower in spring, the sparkling sweep of waves at the beach, or an unexpected reflection off the wet sidewalk in the city. And when we return home and review our photo reel, indeed, we have documented these things, albeit with a kind of matter-of-fact inertness which often fails to capture why we found these things or moments so engaging in the first place.

But a number of fine art photographers have perfected ways around this trap, in a sense changing the visual dynamic from straightforward documentation to intimate presence. In their hands, we don’t just see the things the artist saw, but we feel like we are standing in their shoes, sharing in their profound experience of seeing. Photographers like Rinko Kawauchi and Wolfgang Tillmans have repeatedly found this kind of energy, their understated observations of the everyday filled with personal engagement and genuine wonder. When they reveal to us a pile of dirty laundry, a jumble of things on a window sill, a leaf, a floating soap bubble, or even a bug, we somehow join them in their momentary awe at the overlooked beauty (and unexpected strangeness) in the world around us.

In his recent photobook Skinny Wave, the Chinese photographer Lin Zhipeng has gathered together moments of this same kind of hyper attentiveness, encouraging us to join him in noticing what would normally pass unnoticed. Lin is best known for his images of youthful bodies and sensual encounters, infused with the vitality of being young in contemporary China. His 2019 photobook Flowers and Fruits (reviewed here) was filled with a mix of brashness and tenderness, his nudes and semi-nudes (both male and female) intermingled with flowers and fruits (as the photobook’s title would imply) in a constant tussle of provocation and intimacy. Skinny Wave steps back from this narrower thematic structure to embrace a broader fascination with the incidental. The photographs included stretch back more than a decade, each image a small amazement that caught Lin’s eye.

While the stereotypes of life in urban megacities might dominate our perception of contemporary China, Lin’s images overtly contain almost none of that sleek futuristic world, opting instead for the attractions of nature and the outdoors, or at least nature as seen in the context of parks, gardens, and trips to the countryside. Flowers are seen in many guises, oftentimes flash lit and isolated like a blast of focused attention, or allowed to drift into a kind of blurred photographic Impressionism, where grasses and blossoms become studies of light and color. Trees and their branches are given similar observation, where the details of intertwined trunks, blowing leaves, hanging moss, thorns on a branch, dry pods, and mushrooms growing on a trunk are seen with contagious fascination. The same can be said for Lin’s many encounters with water, where splashing waves, water rushing over rocks, watery sand, glowing spots in waves, and distortions in water are found to be surprisingly engrossing, a hunk of ice held to the sun or the textures of a frozen river highlighting Lin’s subtle observational precision.

Animals and insects appear again and again in Skinny Wave, each a small recognition or revelation. Some seem to have adapted to built environments, with snakes found on pavement, birds on railings, a trio of black cats in a courtyard, a lizard on a stone wall, and fish in tanks, but many more of Lin’s finds feel even freer. He sees black urchins on the beach, tiny moths on a branch, bats in a cave, and various bugs, caterpillars, and butterflies in amongst the greenery, like momentary encounters with something beyond himself. Even the delicate snails feasting on a piece of rotting fruit feel altogether natural, the tension of beauty and decay collapsed into the altogether predictable cycle of life.

Of course, people (and disembodied shadows) make appearances in some of Lin’s photographs, but with much less regularity than in his previous projects, and with a deeper sense of passing fragility. A contemplative or introspective mood is often being captured in these pictures, with heads bowed and bodies bent and pulled in. Lin shows us the bony bumps on the back of a neck, an elongated body swimming in water, a woman sitting with her legs out of a window, a man’s eyes covered by a drooping red blossom, and a man’s back near a spray of delicate white flowers. Lin then moves in closer, often to the intimacies of hands and feet, which are posed holding flowers (one growth grabbed like an erect penis), leaning on windowsills, splashing in water, and decorated by a moth on a wrist. And bloody scratches on a leg and a blood soaked sandal and heel provide reminders of how these seemingly lithe young bodies are indeed more vulnerable than we might always remember.

Still other images included in Skinny Wave are essentially still lifes, or perhaps minute observations of generally overlooked arrangements of everyday objects. Most of these images are enlivened by a splash of tension, either in the form of the unexpectedly sexy or just an offbeat eye for the surreal. Lin finds a sex toy in a drawer, notices a crumpled pair of “property of the USA” briefs on a sofa, and watches as water falls down onto a seductively split fruit, and then moves on to an apple perplexingly placed in a shoe, a twist of long hair caught on a barbed wire fence, and a still life pairing tomatoes and athletic socks. Even when he pays attention to some worn rocks on a windowsill, a hanging plastic rain poncho, or some clothes and eyeglasses left in a pile, he seems to slow down enough to actually feel their curves and contours.

That Lin can consistently pull off the kind of photographic wonder found in Skinny Wave tells us something about the sophistication and discipline of his eye. He makes this kind of image-making look casual and effortless, which it most definitely is not. Every single image in this decently thick volume is laced with something subtly warm and personal, drawing us into an approach to the world that feels open and engaged. Skinny Wave is an example of a photobook where volume matters – if we were offered just a few isolated pictures, we might miss the embracing sweep of Lin’s attention; when seen with more repetition, this visual voice becomes clear and resonant, moving beyond youthful decadence to something much more nuanced and curious.

Collector’s POV: Lin Zhipeng is represented by Migrant Bird Space in Beijing/Berlin (here), M97 in Shanghai (here), and Stieglitz 19 in Antwerp (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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