Zhang Kechun, Among Mountains and Water

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Imageless Press (here). Cloth hardcover, 10.5 x 10.5 inches, with tipped in cover photograph, in a cardboard slip case. 84 pages, with 40 color reproductions, and a brief essay by the artist. Captions and texts in Chinese and English. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Zhang Kechun was born in 1980, in China’s Sichuan Province. It took him some time to find his way into photography. He was drawn initially down a more traditional path, earning an undergraduate design degree followed by several years working in interior design. It wasn’t until several years later that he began teaching himself to take pictures. The interest began as a pinprick, then, as sometimes happens, swelled quickly into a passion. Part-time gigs shooting commercial photos led to full-time gigs, and then to art photography, a field into which he launched without a net. 

The landing has proven soft to date. His series The Yellow River won the Discovery award at Rencontres d’Arles in 2014, paving the way for its publication as a monograph. He won the Daylight award the same year, showed at London Art Fair, AIPAD, Fotofest, and gradually earned a foothold on the international scene. He is now based in the Sichuan capital Chengdu, a megacity of 16 million in southwestern China. Centrally located, his home city has been a convenient launching point for countless photo journeys by rail, bike and foot, leading to The Yellow River and other projects. 

Zhang’s life has coincided almost perfectly with the post-Mao era in China, a period of seismic shifts and vertiginous change. “China is undergoing high-speed development and immerses itself in the exultation of prosperity,” writes Zhang, more observation than gripe. If his career is emblematic of broader currents, his photographs are even more so. They are grand in scale, and seemingly boundless in ambition. Humans play a role in most, but almost invariably as minor elements, small figures propped on vast stages beyond control. An early photo of a man pausing with his raft on a Yellow River island is typical. He is dwarfed by the water around him, his skin color desaturated along with his surroundings. The frame is smogged in grey haze and captured at several hundred yards. All factors build toward a decidedly dioramic effect. 

Zhang’s sophomore monograph, Among Mountains and Water picks up roughly where The Yellow River left off (the final part of the trilogy is planned on the Yangtze River). Zhang’s dizzying perspectives and muted tones carry over from the debut, but the geographic focus has expanded from a single watershed to cross country jaunts, and the primary emphasis has shifted from construction to land forms. “The Yellow River is more like a line…Between Mountains and Waters [the project’s original working title] is more like a scatter diagram,” explains Zhang. In broad terms the visual approach is similar. Zhang positions his Linhof 4×5 at some distance from his subject matter, and sometimes elevated above it, then narrows the aperture to its minimum. With infinite depth of field he sharpens these sweeping scapes into dreamy miniature, creating scenes not dissimilar from ancient Chinese art scrolls.

The tipped in cover photo captures some measure of the book’s ambition. Shot in 2013 in Chongqing, it shows a large stone outcrop poking out of a wide muddy river. A crowd of swimmers gathers on the adjoining beach. They are belittled by the rock as well as the skyline on the far shore. Nature bats last, Zhang seems to opine. Silly humans. They might appear powerless, yet they’ve managed to carve out a slice of urban pomp. In the photograph Relaxing by the riverside, Jiangxi, the human element is reduced even further. Two men standing by a large bluff are barely noticeable in the foreground. A huge container ship is a mere dot in the distance. The remainder of the frame is mostly space, yet it does not feel empty. 

In exhibitions, Zhang’s photographs are typically shown at large scale, perhaps a meter or two per side. Viewers can peer closely and engage with these men and their nearby rocks, and other small details. But in book form, with images perhaps 9 x 7 inches, the material is compressed and muted into a sort of visual white noise, like listening to a stereo from 100 feet away. Perhaps this is the intended effect, to remind viewers of their relative insignificance.  

The title Among Mountains and Water is adopted from traditional Chinese values. As related by Zhang, “mountains are virtuous, rivers are moral.” Hmm. The urge to anthropomorphize geographic features makes more sense as an aphorism than in pictures, at least to me. Zhang’s enormous vistas shirk human sentiment as easily as passing seasons, and perceived virtues and moralities will depend largely on the viewer. But the title’s evolution might provide some insight. The switch from Between Mountains and Water to Among Mountains and Water marks a subtle shift, and perhaps a loosening of parameters more suitable to its sweeping horizons.

There is one more delightful twist. Zhang has interjected himself into these scapes. He directs these “displacements” (his term) by arranging the scene and positioning himself behind the camera, then switching places with someone in the frame who makes the final exposure in his stead. “I was both a witness and a participant,” says Zhang. “I stayed outside and at the same time on the scene.” In the book’s afterward he muses further, “I think there is nothing more intense and deeper than the feeling of being one of them, though only for a brief moment.” 

Leaving aside the logistical difficulties—how does he direct novice bystanders to operate a view camera hundreds of yards away, across open water?— the conceptual implications are profound. Zhang’s switcheroo hits several philosophical buttons in one blow, picking at the nature of self portraiture, the relationship between subject and observer, between staged and documentary, between outer direction and personal volition. Perhaps between mountains and water too? 

For me the most provocative aspect of these displacements is that, at least visually, they seem rather ineffectual. The people in Zhang’s pictures are so small and distant that swapping this or that person out does not alter them much. Peering closely I think I can pick out Zhang’s figure in several. Surely that must be him in orange boots overlooking a camel drive in Gansu? Is that him standing in the dragon boat in Hubei? Or watching picnickers by a bridge in Sichuan? Yes, I think so, but it’s hard to tell. After spotting Zhang—or what appears to be him— in a few photos, the book takes on a “Where’s Waldo?” dynamic. One looks for him here and there, but the results feel unresolved. The people in these photographs are minuscule and easily subsumed by their surroundings. 

Whether photographing himself or not, Zhang is a skilled formalist. He researches locations beforehand. Once on site, he composes with patience and precision, taking time to find the best vantage, and to weed out chance artifacts or extraneous material. He typically sets his camera broadside to the action—or lack of it?—creating level horizons just above the center line, with visual nuggets sprinkled strategically across the frame. A photograph of three men overlooking a temple in Shanxi is a masterpiece of quiet interplay, the figures mimicking the stepped terrace just beyond. In this photo, or the equally impressive overview of a desert lake in Inner Mongolia, Zhang commands huge vistas with seemingly little effort. On the contrary, his works are energized with a sense of exploratory wonder, as if he has pioneered some unknown corner and is hungry to engorge as much as possible.

In scope and subject Zhang’s works bear some similarity to Nadav Kander’s China photographs (shot just a few years before Zhang). For me they also bring to mind the early survey photos of Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, among the first to document the stunning landmarks of the Western frontier. In their pictures as well as Zhang’s, a sense of awe permeates, as if the photographer cannot quite believe what’s in front of him. 

Zhang’s landscapes translate that wonderment to the viewer quite effectively. Perhaps this is a function of my ignorance about China. Before studying this book I had merely the haziest mental picture of its natural landforms, so the geography depicted by Zhang comes as something of a revelation. Who knew that China contained such a variety of strange and beguiling features? Huge plains, imposing cliffs, sandy barrens, gravel washes, teetering rock towers, lakes, mesas, rivers, and more. In the spirit of O’Sullivan and Jackson, most of Zhang’s locations appear rather arid and desolate. Perhaps these were the areas least susceptible to industrial development? 

There are other parallels to the old West. Not many Chinese photographers have explored the country’s interior with Zhang’s degree of freedom, access, and drive. The modern rail system now spiderwebs to all corners of the country. Throw in a foldable bike and few sites are beyond reach. Natural landmarks beckon, but with China’s explosive pace of development who knows which will last and what will fade. The race is on. In Zhang’s pictures, one can see this aspect quite literally in the smog which pervades many images. As reproduced in the book it imbues the photos with faint color casts. Magenta in some cases, yellow in others. A few are on the edge of cyan. Regardless of hue the haze is a sort of background ether which helps the images pop against blank white pages. 

Some in China have called out Zhang’s smog as an environmental critique of the motherland. “People questioned the intention of my photographs; some even questioned if I was a foreign spy,” says Zhang. Such a claim seems absurd to me. These images are more prideful than critical. They capture a slice of Chinese backcountry which is downright gorgeous, and has not yet been well publicized. If that view captures a few warts in the process, so be it. But that may just be my take as an outside observer with no stake in the matter. In any case Zhang’s photographs are a shot across the bow to the art world, an announcement that China’s deeper regions are beginning to be probed by its own photographers, and that serious images are being produced. To date, just a trickle have made their way to the west, but we may well see a flood as China grows and flexes its international might. For myself, and perhaps other American photography buffs, Among Mountains and Water is a tantalizing foretaste. 

Collector’s POV: Zhang Kechun is represented by Huxley-Parlour Gallery in London (here), Galerie Paris-Beijing in Beijing and Paris (here), and La Galerie in Hong Kong (here). His work has little history on the secondary market, so gallery retail is the best option at this point.

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