Zhu Lanqing, A Journey In Reverse Direction

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Jiazazhi (here). Clothbound hardcover, 170×230 mm, 144 pages, with 90 plates. Includes texts by the artist in Chinese/English. In an edition of 600 copies. Design by Cheng Yinhe. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Zhu Lanqing begins her new monograph A Journey In Reverse Direction with a nod to base sensations. “When you roll down the windows you can smell home even with your eyes closed. It’s the smell of seawater, salt, and dead fish.” Indeed the book carries a faint musty smell. It’s not exactly seawater and salt, but closer instead to a Chinese apothecary. Such scents are a visceral quality which I’ve noticed occasionally in photobooks, but they usually require years of shelf storage to develop. This one gets the nostrils going right out of the cellophane, and their adjoining memory centers with them. 

Journey’s title page opens atop a double gatefold. Pulling back the leaves, we unlock a self portrait of the author. She stares out at the reader with a stern expression, clear eyed and determined. She is wearing her great grandmother’s embroidered wedding dress. Hold on tight, the photo seems to say, this book might hurt a little. It will be a thorough self-examination with no stone left unturned. 

Ms. Zhu was born in 1991 and grew up on Dongshan Island off the southern coast of China. She took up photography in secondary school, initially using a hand-me down camera from her grandfather to document her local village. While attending Renmin University a few years later, she was invited to make a handmade photobook about her home town as part of a class project. As often happens with adolescents, living afar sparked a fresh perspective on her roots. She became entranced by Dongshan Island, and made repeated visits there to photograph. This was roughly the point at which photography transitioned from hobby to serious vocation. Zhu switched to a Mamiya 330 twin lens and the school project bloomed into a multiyear exploration. Her pictures burgeoned into a thick scrapbook spilling over with snapshots, clippings, ephemera, and collage. Clumped into a three ring binder and barely contained in a blue silk pouch, it was literally bursting at its seams. The working title, A Journey In Reverse Direction, was a direct reference to past memories.

The scrapbook’s reputation spread. It garnered the Three Shadows Photography Award in 2014, a major coup at the age of 23. More international awards followed, then a residency in Switzerland. Zhu’s star was rising, and the gears were set in motion for publication. But the process proved arduous. By the time Journey finally made it into print last summer, it had been several years in development and had undergone radical changes. Like a clay model transformed into a showroom car, its rough edges had been smoothed to accommodate mass production. Nevertheless enough of the original relics carried over to make this an unusual book.

The Jiazazhi edition is organized into six themes, Bachimen Dam, Home, Food, Land, Gods, and Sea, addressed in order. Bachimen Dam comes first. Note that the word “dam” has a slightly broader meaning here than in the west – it is the earthen structure connecting Dongshan Island to the mainland. From this point “to travel north is to leave home, to travel south is to return.” Zhu’s dam photos have the circumspect courtesy of an outside observer. We see a concrete barrier, dead fish, a patio table, vegetation, and mudflats nearby. But strangely, the dam itself is never pictured. Despite its absence, this opening passage provides a mental road map to the island, and a loose framework for Zhu’s photographs to inhabit.

The bulk of the book—Home, Food, Land, Gods—is concerned with Zhu’s family and their domestic rituals. These series begin with an old snapshot of Zhu in the arms of her parents followed immediately by a portrait of her Ama (paternal grandmother) Wu Saie. Like Zhu’s initial self portrait, Ama is hidden behind a double gatefold. On its outer leaf is pasted a safflower barrette modeled from paper tissue and a toothpick. The tissue is pressed flat, but the effect is still jarring. A physical object tucked in a book! It spurs the reader to examine the portrait more closely, and we notice that Ama wears the same barrette in her hair. On the next page, variations of this barrette fill a double spread, their red flowers arrayed over a white background for maximum graphic impact. A few pages later, a grid of Ama’s food offerings in bright red bowls is laid out in a similar format across another gatefold. These are the only two such passages in the book, concentrating their impact as an homage to Zhu’s eldest relative.

Zhu moves on from here to survey her family and their surroundings. Here is a photo of the grandmother, the grandfather, the father, the mother, the aunt, the cousin, their various canopied bedrooms, their lawn, their food, and so on. Although heartfelt, these scenes are captured in an almost perfunctory fashion. A photo of her mother opening the fridge, check. Stuffed animal toys, check. Washbowls drying on the staircase, check. The visual style is quiet and deferential, a fly on the wall. One gets the sense that photography is not only a method of documentation for Zhu but of affirmation too. Living away from Dongshan, images of home now take on new resonance. They’re the bricks with which she’ll rebuild her past, so it’s important to form a complete record. “Photographing my hometown was like traveling through a dingy memory, through an internal negativity,” she writes. The gears are in reverse direction, at least for the moment.

Transitioning out of Home/Food/Land we begin to see snatches of greater China, a society which has undergone radical change over the course of Zhu’s young life. It’s a dreamland where hospitals form in ten days and skyscrapers might take just slightly longer. The pace of development is enough to startle even a disinterested observer. For a young photographer growing up in its midst, the shift must be even more unsettling. Zhu’s photographs hint subtly at the bustling transformation but resist addressing it directly. A pastoral scene includes a giant windmill but not as the main subject. Instead it recedes into the background as industrial furniture. A view of ornate rooftop barely hides the urban sprawl behind, while patches of construction scaffolding sprout in Zhu’s photos like weeds along every thoroughfare. But neither seems to garner her direct attention. She is focused on the immediate. 

The book’s final section Sea is its most whimsical, expansive, and geographically revealing. We follow Zhu through Dongshan’s coastal region as she encounters quiet beaches, fishing equipment, motorists, and bemused residents, all in varying states of dissolution. Through these pictures, we gradually come to see Dongshan Island as a quiet refuge from the frenetic strides of the mainland. A photograph of a tourist brochure from long ago hints at former glory. In the gatefold beneath is a photo of a multistory hotel. But instead of the nice adjoining beach you might expect, there’s a tarped boat in a scrubby lot. A quick Google search will unearth defunct websites referring to Dongshan as “a natural wonderland” or as Fujian’s Hawaii, but all in the past tense. One gets the sense its best days are behind it. The island’s forlorn charm dovetails nicely with the nostalgia sought by Zhu. She could hardly have chosen a more bucolic childhood. “My camera opens a ‘portal’ for me to examine life and discover an even bigger world,” she writes, her eye firmly set on greater things ahead. Meanwhile, Dongshan maintains its grip. 

Are these pictures merely the sentimental notes of a homesick photographer? Yes, at least partially. Material of a similar nature might be found in many family albums. But Zhu’s drive is so passionate it wins the reader over. Who says you can’t go home again? “My hometown has been influencing me and shaping me since the day I was born,” Zhu writes, with a certain degree of pride. She is not quite ready to put away childish things. Hers is a portrait of adolescence in transition, and of Chinese society maturing into a superpower even as some regions dawdle.

Zhu’s exuberance shines through easily in her original scrapbook. But translating that energy into a mass publication presents a challenge. How to capture the casual intimacy of brainstormed clippings into a professional product? In recent years, photobook publishers have attacked this problem by reproducing artist scrapbooks as facsimiles. Monographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Malick Sidibé, Julian Germain, Donovan Wylie, Walter Pfeiffer, Gregory Halpern, and Dayanita Singh have adopted this strategy, to name just a few. Their published photo journals combine the reliable perfection of trade copies with the mars, dogears, and homespun charm of an old stamp album. As advances in publishing quality have allowed faithful reproduction of virtually any detail, this model seems ascendant, and Jiazazhi may well have contemplated it for Journey.

What they chose instead was a more traditional design. Zhu’s sprawling prototype has been converted to a tidy 9 x 7 inches, its idiosyncrasies largely harnessed. The original glossy snapshots have lost some of their sizzle in Jiazazhi’s flat reproductions. Nevertheless remnants linger. The gatefolds which are a recurring design element throughout are a direct descendant of the homemade precursor, the cleancut remnants of pages which were oversized or unwieldy. They mark chapter sections and key interludes, inviting the reader to pause, take a deep whiff, and draw back the paper curtains to digest short text passages. Likewise, the tissue barrette and a pasted in photo of Zhu’s mother give the book tangible connection to its roots. An old tourist map of Donghan Island, presumably pasted as a scrap into the original mockup, is reproduced in a small inset on one of final pages. It opens onto the caption notes which are cleverly combined with a map and place notations behind yet another gatefold. Taken as a whole the design offers a nice compromise between crafty eccentricity and commercial polish. It’s an auspicious debut from a promising young photographer.

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

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