Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Red-Color News Soldier by Li Zhensheng

When Li Zhensheng interviewed for a position as a photographer at the daily newspaper in Heilongjiang province in China in 1963, it was his physical appearance that got him the job. The editor in chief of the paper, seemingly displeased with the physical appearances of the other four photographers on staff, needed at least one that he considered ‘presentable’ to cover visits by foreign guests. Thus was how Li Zhensheng would be cast as one of the most important photographers during China’s most tumultuous periods, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Red-Color News Soldier, published in 2003 by Phaidon collects Zhensheng’s photographs in a handsome volume complete with his personal written accounts of the events.

The Cultural Revolution was an attempt to weed out counter-revolutionaries and solidify support for the communist doctrine of Mao Zedong after his prestige had begun to wane. Five years before, Mao’s attempt to institute a vast network of ‘people’s communes’ aimed at boosting grain and steel production had ended in human disaster with over twenty million dead from famine. With the ensuing criticism of Mao’s policies and the threat of ideological treachery beginning to rise, millions of ‘educated youth’ and party officials started a decade long witch hunt for all enemies of the state that would seem to corrupt the progression of the People’s Republic.

Li Zhensheng’s photographs document fervor and confusion that was to overtake the country for the next decade. Many of his photographs describe the fascinating ways that the people denounced as enemies were put on display and humiliated. Forced to wear giant dunce caps and their faces smeared with black ink, they stand bowing for hours before crowds of hundreds of thousands. Some of Zhensheg’s more disturbing sequences follow several of the accused as they are paraded through the streets on the back of trucks, driven out to the outskirts of Harbin, and executed before crowds of onlookers.

Zhensheng used 35mm and medium format cameras in the production of thousands of negatives during this time. Besides being a remarkable photographer who had a front row seat to most of the events, what is curious to me photographically is how he experiments with different ways of documenting those events. He often took multiple exposures while panning over the landscape so that the three or four images sitting side by side produce a panoramic view. In the one marvelous gatefold in the book, he individually photographs each of seven accused Party secretaries complete with placards hung around their necks as they are denounced and the effect of seeing the photos side by side is akin to some perverse conceptual art piece.

Zhensheng’s writing is a fascinating account of his experiences. One of which tells of his own moment before a crowd as a suspect being denounced and the subsequent investigation into his life and ideology. It was during this investigation that many of his photographs were confiscated but foreseeing the potential for such an event, he hid his negatives under the floor of his apartment. It is the telling of this personal history and the detail in which he is able to remember all of the events that makes this not only a great read, but an important document for history.

The book itself is also one of Phaidon’s finer accomplishments. The printing is good but the designer Julia Hasting should get extra praise for her design and for introducing two different types of paper stocks to differentiate between the Li’s text pages and the photographs. This adds a more seductive tangible quality to the whole production. The cover stock is a bright red plastic that echoes Mao’s little red book and a paper wrap around adds a nice design touch.

Word of warning: Buy a 'new' copy of this book from a trusted source as many available from used sellers are sans cover wrap around and many are stamped with the annoying ’Phaidon non-mint copy’ on the front end paper. I purchased mine ‘new’ but it came stamped and without the wrapper.

Book Available Here (Red-Color News Soldier)

Buy online at Phaidon