Shi Yilin, Particles

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2023 by Imageless (here) and Bananafish Books (no book link, publisher site here). Softcover (17.4 x 23.3 cm), 44 pages, with 41 color photographs. Includes an essay by the artist (in Chinese and English). In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Particles by Shi Yilin, a Shanghai-based photographer, is part of the Spark Zine series, co-published by Imageless and Bananafish Books, independent photobook publishers based in Shanghai, China. The series aims to “create a new community of promising and talented young photographers for their inspiration, passion and energy dedicated to photography and art.” All of the zines are released at the same time (there were ten in 2023), and follow the same format and design. “Spark thoughts, sparkle Youth” reads a tagline on the zines and website.

The work of Shi, who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2020, focuses on “metaphorical visual language to capture the extraordinary moments beyond the ordinary” and to explore “the essence of existence through appearances.” In this zine, the photographs document her surroundings and observations during the COVID lockdowns, with most of the images taken inside, focusing on plants, reflective surfaces, and the movement of light. 

Shi’s photographs generally capture unassuming moments and everyday objects. The photograph on the cover of the zine is one such observation: a plate with a couple of grapes, a crumpled napkin, and a few sprinkled oats, but the sunlight reflecting off a spoon and a drop of water on one of the grapes add a gentle touch. Inside, the photographs vary in their size, and with a few exceptions, there is one image per page. There are no captions or page numbers, and a short text by the artist describing the project is placed on the back cover, part of it reading, “Our finite life is but a particle carried by inertia in a grand curve of values, floating and sinking.”

There is no obvious linear story in Particles, rather the photographs capture tender moments, considering the nuances of isolation and disorientation, but with glimmers of intimacy. A close up of the new leaf of a house plant, still unfurling, opens the visual flow of the zine, like an invitation. The following page pairs a photograph of a different plant’s thin shadow cast on a gauzy white fabric with a smaller image on the right depicting blurry glass surfaces. The gentle light in most of Shi’s pictures provides a consistent atmosphere of intimacy, tenderness, and understated elegance.

An unexpected sense of heightened sensitivity fills many of Shi’s images. Another spread juxtaposes a shot of orange slices on a wet surface, with an image of an egg yolk and white in a glass placed on a reflecting table. A few pages later, a full spread photograph with just a small white border around it captures a row of silhouetted plants on a window sill in the twilight of evening. Shi’s photographs underline both the fragility and beauty of everyday life. 

There are no people in Shi’s images, but one spread pairs a photo of flowering roots in plastic trays near an open window with a smaller close up of a hand with a drop of water on the knuckle, almost like a tear. This juxtaposition feels intimate and even poetic. As the visual narrative moves forward, closer to the end, another sequence of images depicts scenes outside the apartment: a dry tree branch in the corner of a backyard, an empty street obscured by a reflection, a dozen fire extinguishers piled in a corner, and fresh flowers in a vase on a table in an empty restaurant shot through the window. A smaller black and white photo placed at the very end shows a billboard with a quote by Vincent van Gogh, reminding us that “looking at the stars always makes me dream.” 

Shi turns often overlooked in-between moments into possibilities to pay closer attention and notice what we’ve been missing. Particles is a modest publication that shows how a zine can be both the best matched photobook venue for a small self-contained project, and a great platform to showcase and discover the work of emerging artists.

Collector’s POV: Shi Yilin does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Shi Yilin, Bananafish Books, Imageless

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