Simon Vansteenwinckel, Wuhan Radiography

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Editions Light Motiv (here). Softbound book with blue vinyl jacket, 21 x 31 cm, 100 pages, with 52 monochrome photographs. Includes an essay by Johan Grzelczyk, with translations in English, French, and Mandarin. Design by Simon Vansteenwinckel. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the digital revolution approaches maturity and more of our daily activities occur online, the boundary between virtual reality and the so-called “real” world becomes ever murkier. The screen realm is ascendent, and likely to become even more dominant in the future. Just a few years ago, this outcome might still be considered remote, but the timeline was jump started two years ago by the coronavirus pandemic. Within a few months of its onset, physical stores closed, employees shifted to remote work, Zoom replaced meetings, and social media assumed an increasingly dominant role in political and group dynamics. Many of those tentative changes now seem likely to become permanent. This text was written on a screen. You are reading it on another. 

As observers of culture, photographers have naturally been attracted to the shifting dynamic and its inherent ambiguities. If human activity and behavior increasingly occurs inside a computer, perhaps it makes sense to hunt for photographs there too? This was the thinking behind a wave of work beginning roughly a decade ago with Michael Wolf, Doug Rickard (reviewed here), Jon Rafman, and others. They treated GSV’s archived locations just as a street photographer would approach the stream of real life, substituting screen-grabs for exposures. A few years later, Gerco de Ruijter’s Grid Corrections (reviewed here) took a similar approach to virtual reality, but with a twist, using Google Earth to shoot aerials of American farms. Jeff Mermelstein’s #NYC (reviewed here) focused on the text messages on phone screens of unwitting bystanders, while Tabitha Soren’s Surface Tension (reviewed here) mixed iPad contents with user-imposed screen smudges. All danced on the line between virtual and real. But it was Leonardo Magrelli who perhaps pushed the ball furthest downfield. His book West of Here (reviewed here) employed Grand Theft Auto’s internal Snapmatic camera to shoot candids of virtual events in real-time.

Simon Vansteenwinckel’s Wuhan Radiography follows the model of predecessors. But the Belgian photographer’s approach is novel enough to merit attention in its own right. Born in 1978, he is just about the right age to have a foot in both virtual and real worlds. It’s no surprise his book blends elements of both. As one might guess from the title, it’s based in Wuhan, China, a very real place, and ground zero for the coronavirus. The pandemic proved an unexpected entrée to the city for Vansteenwinckel. Like numerous photographers—whose 2020 endeavors are now surfacing in a flurry of pandemic-era books—he found himself trapped indoors and at loose ends. “During lockdown,” he writes, “I wondered how to stay curious, to keep traveling, looking and reaching out to others, to carry on advocating openness rather than withdrawal into oneself.” 

The solution proved to be close at hand. “While being confined in my living room,” he recounts, “I opened a window on the world via Google Street View which is an incredible tool that allows us to travel through almost the entire planet.” What better place to explore virtually than Wuhan, “that former little-known city worldwide (which) has become the receptacle of all rumors”? Some might prove true, some not.  Sniffing out the facts would not even require a visit, nor even stepping outside his front door.

Like his previous projects documenting the real world, Vansteenwinckel’s Wuhan pictures can be loosely categorized as street photography. He explored the city’s virtual neighborhoods on virtual foot, reacting to material as he encountered it. And at first glance, GSV Wuhan appears indistinguishable from the real thing. Vansteenwinckel used medical x-ray film (originally intended to diagnose lung disease) to give his photos a high contrast graininess similar to the are-bure-boke tradition of post-war Japan. A double-paged impressionist spread of a man’s unfocused face wouldn’t seem out of place in Bye Bye Photography, and the whole series could almost pass for yet another Provoke-era acolyte. Has the future arrived, one might ask, in which real and virtual are finally indistinguishable?

Not quite yet. Several anomalies beg further investigation. The odd diffusion effects in some pictures—recalling the dreamy tonality of Kodak infrared film—might be explained by condensation or poor lens quality. Fine, but what is that strange blown out orb in the skies? The hazy white form crops up near the top of several photos, appearing vaguely sun-like but outsized and mismatched with nearby shadows. In the opening spread, it seems to emanate from the city itself, blotting out the skyline like a mushroom cloud. The same bright form invades several images, casting a pall of alien uncertainty over Wuhan. It might be a rocket or a nova, or perhaps a giant coronavirus.

The explanation is more prosaic. The disc is Vansteenwinckel’s flash reflected against his computer screen, the physical residue of his attention. Most photographers would try to eliminate its glare by choosing a different vantage. But Vansteenwinckel leans into the flaw, to surprisingly clever effect. “I like the idea of misusing a tool,” he explains, “of shaping a personal and deformed X-ray of one place like a fantasized and poetic version of it, a distorted vision, yet also acting as a certain form of exorcism.”

Once the flash is decoded (the trick is divulged in the text), other exorcisms give the game away completely. Some frames capture composited blends, as if GSV’s algorithm was caught mid-decision, unsure of which scene to depict. A woman’s face is obliterated by brick lettering, for example, while a man’s suited legs seem to sprout like a ghost from a corner alcove. Anyone exploring Street View has encountered similar discrepancies, and Vansteenwinckel could capture countless glitches if he wanted. Surely Rafman, Rickard, and company had a field day mining the territory, their subsequent pictures sometimes assuming surrealist overtones. It’s a credit to the book that the bugs are limited. They appear here and there, just enough to give the reader pause. Something feels off, even as the series generally comes across as straight documentary.

Vansteenwinckel must have spent days roaming the digital streets of Wuhan. His initial curiosity was driven by Wuhan’s role in the pandemic, but he’s turned up no new evidence on that front. It’s likely that his GSV source material was shot before the virus hit, although the exposure date is unknown. Even if documented post-virus, Wuhan might look roughly similar. The city appears unhurried and uncrowded in these pictures. For a megalopolis of 11 million residents, its pace is relaxed and verdant. People gather here and there in small clusters. Much of the compositional space is comprised of forested pockets, sky, and open vistas.

Of course, like any good street photographer, Vansteenwinckel is interested in pedestrians. But he is not after decisive moments or clever juxtaposition, content instead to capture them in ones or twos, isolated groupings foregrounding the social landscape. They dine in restaurants, wait for the bus, and practice Tai Chi in the park. Life goes on as normal it seems, pandemic or not. And perhaps this is the book’s take-home lesson, an effort to normalize a city which still suffers under global stigma and ephemeral orbs.

Vansteenwinckel helped to design Wuhan Radiography himself, and he’s done a nice job. The main body is rather flimsy, essentially an open spine sheaf of matte pages. But they’re nicely locked down and firmed up by a screen-glow-blue translucent dust jacket. It’s cover graphics and immense Chinese characters play against the underlying page, while the choice of dot-matrix typeface hints at Vansteenwinckel’s source material. A dreamy text by Johan Grzelczyk is translated into three languages, then inserted as a separate booklet, and this minor section is couched in a faint GSV over map of Wuhan. These are all thoughtful touches, and they give Wuhan Radiography creative weight and physical presence. We may be heading toward a digital future, the book hints, but some things are still better experienced in the flesh.

Collector’s POV: Simon Vansteenwinckel does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, so interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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2 comments

  1. Pete /

    That’s a particularly useful series of links to other work within this niche.

    The methodology given by the artist as explained above detracts in some way, for me. I liked the mysteriousness of the discs of light in the sky, the infra-red glowing figures, and what looked like jarringly mashed together frames. Explaining is prosaic, it leaves less space for wonder, and these images are rich with that.

  2. Blake Andrews /

    I agree that knowing how these pictures were made affects how they’re received. That’s true of all photos but probably more applicable here than most cases. FWIW, the book presents the photos as images with no text. The explanation comes at the very end, in a short afterword. So I think the book is meant to be digested with no foreknowledge. Ignorance is bliss, right? But getting to that state can be a challenge.

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