Thomas Sauvin, Great Leaps Forward

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Beijing Silvermine (here). Sewn binding with cardboard slipcover, 128 pages, with 136 black and white reproductions. Includes a short background text in English and Chinese. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A collector’s edition is also available, which includes one of three c-prints. In 3 editions of 20 copies each (same link as above.)

Comments/Context: One of the challenges routinely faced by intrepid collectors of vernacular and archival photographs is that after something special has been unearthed, the next task is to figure out how to share that discovery with the wider world. There is of course Instagram, and other websites, and if the material is particularly notable, perhaps the answer might be a physical exhibition, assuming such a show can be economically organized and an appropriate venue can be both found and secured. More often these days, a photobook provides a more straightforward solution, especially since such a publication answers (at least somewhat) the questions of long term durability and broader distribution.

In the past decade, Thomas Sauvin has gathered together a monumental trove of Chinese vernacular photography, his Beijing Silvermine archive now numbering over 850K images. And starting in 2013, he began to use photobooks to feature some of this material, and has since published a total of 10 separate books with a variety of notable international publishers. Some of the highlights from this publishing program include Until Death Do Us Part (reviewed here), a visual study of the unlikely smoking tradition at Chinese weddings, housed in an innovative design that mimics a cigarette pack, and No More No Less (reviewed here), a three book collaboration with Kensuke Koike, where the artist’s physical manipulations of found portraits are given form by three different publishers.

The backstory to Great Leaps Forward begins with a plastic bag Sauvin bought at a Beijing flea market in 2016. Inside were some 300 sports photographs taken by a now unknown member of the Department of Photography at the Xi’an Physical Education University. Not only did the action shots catch Sauvin’s eye, so did the date – all of the pictures seem to have been taken on the same field in June of 1960. What was exciting about this discovery was that while Sauvin’s archive primarily contains imagery made between 1985 and 2005, this package was the first he had ever come across from the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). This short period in Chinese history was marked by a broad attempt by Mao’s Communist government to radically transform the Chinese economy, aggressively pushing the rural countryside toward large-scale agriculture and industrialization; the results were disastrous, creating the deadliest famine in human history. Very few photographic records exist from this time, so the images take on an additional layer of unexpected significance.

The photographs document a range of young people, both male and female, doing a variety of sporting activities outside. Some do simple calisthenics, lunging and twisting on the grass. Others do gymnastics, their splits, handstands, and back bends full of energetic enthusiasm. The same can be said for groups of young women doing ballet stretches and synchronized dance steps, and when the young men arrive, they lift weights, perform soaring leaps, and flip through the air. More puzzling images follow along as students practice basketball and volleyball moves without a ball, their passes, jump shots, serves, and two-handed blocks done in an eerie kind of pantomime. Then come the gymnastics equipment drills, with young women spinning on the uneven bars and jumping off the balance beam, and young men flipping between the parallel bars, spinning on the pommel horse, and swinging on the hanging rings. The images from the floor exercise practice (where mattresses have been laid out on the field) are perhaps the most acrobatic, with students flying through the air in exaggerated kicks, flips, and splits.

As a group, the pictures are filled with fresh-faced athletic optimism, where good looking young people perform with determination and effort. As such, they fit into a larger tradition of athletic imagery that stretches back to Alexander Rodchenko and Max Penson in the 1920s-1930s Soviet Union and Leni Riefenstahl at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In these cases, athletics documented with an eye for aspirational idealism become representatives of the ideals of the state, sport becoming a vehicle for inspiring propaganda. The Chinese pictures made a few decades later are filled with a similar can-do spirit, the perfection of a smiling straight legged kick or a broad-chested jump equated with duty and honor to the state.

All of the photographs in Great Leaps Forward are square format, which poses some particular design challenges for the photobook. The typical solution is a square book with one image on each side of the spread, in essence repeating the squared format again and again. Here, the book has been made vertical, with two images on top of each other on each side of the spread, creating a four image grid when all the slots are filled. This design works well with images that are compositionally similar to each other, only the poses changing from frame to frame. When the spread is laid flat, the book returns to a square size, and full spread images (printed in a silvery sepia-toned color, distinctly different from the other crisp black-and white pages) fill the space edge to edge, allowing more dramatic images to deliver an extra dose of punch.

Many of the full spread images recall the mid-air floating and tumbling of Aaron Siskind’s Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation series from 1953-1961. In several cases, the Chinese photographer has shot from underneath and cropped out the horizon, leaving the leaps and jumps to take place in unbounded skies, the bodies seemingly frozen in time. Even when a few trees or houses are included at the bottom of the frame, the acrobats fly high above the mundane realities of the everyday, their outstretched hands and aggressive kicks reaching for new heights.

In the explanatory postscript to the photobook, Sauvin calls this project “a posthumous collaboration with an anonymous photographer,” and that thoughtful characterization finds a natural balance between the person behind the camera and the one who has rediscovered and presented the work. The editing, sequencing, and design of this photobook have undeniably made the photography included in it more powerful, so Sauvin’s attitude toward collaboration (at a distance, over time) seems fitting. Set against the backdrop of such widespread human suffering and death, the photographs in Great Leaps Forward feel all the more inexplicable and surreal. They document a particular moment in that dark period in Chinese history when youthful positivity seems to have been amplified in overt disregard of the tragedies that were taking place elsewhere, and that poignant dissonance makes Great Leaps Forward much more than just a lively compendium of sports propaganda.

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

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