Thomas Sauvin, Until Death Do Us Part

JTF (just the facts): Published by Jiazazhi Press in 2015 (here). Hardcover in a cigarette box, 108 pages, with 50 color photographs. Edition of 1000 copies. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Thomas Sauvin is a French photography collector and curator who lives and works in China. While there, he started collecting photographic negatives, seeing them as a valuable intermediate medium between the camera and the print. In 2009, as he was looking to purchase negatives, he came across Xiao Ma who was buying negatives in bulk online. Ma worked at a chemical recycling plant located at the edge of Beijing and was using negatives (as well as X-rays from hospitals, CDs and other trash) as a source of silver salt, which he could then separate and resell to laboratories. Sauvin got interested in the stacks of discarded 35-mm negatives piled up at the plant. He negotiated a price of about $10 per kilogram, and he started buying 30 to 50 kilograms a month. Sauvin estimates that the collection he has now amassed has grown to somewhere near half a million images.

All of these pictures were taken by ordinary citizens, documenting daily life, family gatherings, leisure activities, vacations or travels around China and abroad. Most of the images were taken between 1985 and 2005, spanning the widespread use of Kodak film camera in China to the rise of digital photography. Many of the photographs don’t have dates, but by studying haircuts, fashions, and other key indicators, Sauvin has been able to place them within a period of few years. Sauvin’s collection is a valuable historical record of everyday Chinese life, recording the incremental transformations of the post-socialist society. Sauvin often refers to himself as a curator of Chinese vernacular photography.

After spending years going through the negatives, Sauvin started to see them thematically and grouping them in various series; some of them include women posing with fridges or TVs, shots with Ronald McDonald, and tourists in front of Mona Lisa. In the process, stories emerged from the archive, revealing both universal themes and some unexpected angles and entry points into Chinese daily life. Sauvin’s most recent publication Until Death Do Us Part uncovers a bizarre smoking tradition common at Chinese weddings. As part of the wedding celebration, one of bride’s duties is to light a cigarette for every man attending. After that, both the groom and the bride join the cigarette smoking game. Guests smoke cigarettes in the celebration of the newlyweds. The archive of images used for this project documents this now disappearing custom.

The first image in the book shows a smiling bride lighting a cigarette for one of the guests; another guest is seen smoking in the background and a red pack of cigarettes appears in the forefront of the frame. As the pages flip, we see various shots from different wedding celebrations, with guests and cigarettes documented again and again by amateur photographers. One of the most bizarre shots depicts the bride as she lights a dozen cigarettes inserted into a plastic bottle as the groom takes a puff. Another weirdly captivating photograph shows a baby with a cigarette in its mouth, in the company of smiling parents. Other images capture happy couples as they mark a new period in their life, with the Chinese symbol of double happiness as a repeated decoration.

Sauvin has found a clever way to present this series, as these images often shot by amateur photographers (and not intended for a wide audience) could easily be rather boring. The book (produced by the Chinese publisher Jiazazhi Press) is designed to look like a pack of cigarettes. In all its details (size, colors, typography, even the wrapping paper that covers most of the pack), it authentically reproduces the Chinese cigarette brand “Shuangxi” (literally means “red double happiness”), one of the oldest and most influential in China. The choice of the brand comes as no surprise, as the bright red packs seem to appear on every table during these wedding parties. There is a tiny book, hosted inside the box, and it looks like an arrangement of cigarettes from both the front and back; when you open the box, you see the cigarettes sticking out. On the sides, it is shiny gold (another color that often appears in Chinese weddings). This small fragile object contains about 50 full bleed color photographs, with one image per spread.

Sauvin’s Until Death Do Us Part creates a playful and unexpected way to experience vernacular photography in book form. He’s gone beyond just editing his archive and showing us a sample. The innovative construction of his pocket sized book not only offers a unique glimpse at a disappearing Chinese ritual, but it does so in a memorably original manner. He has found surprising cultural significance in his scavenged and discarded images, and presented it with witty creativity and whimsical ingenuity.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a collection of vernacular photography, there is of course no gallery or auction history for the material. Sauvin’s Instagram feed (here) offers more samples from his extensive archive. There is also a short documentary about Silvermine and Sauvin’s project (here), and an animation (here) produced in collaboration with the Chinese artist LeiLei.

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Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 59 photographic works, generally framed in beige wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. (Installation shots below.) ... Read on.

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