A history of Shanghai in photos: Q&A with Karen Smith

Penguin Shanghai Launch Party Invitation 企鹅上海酒会邀请函.jpg

This interview is by Julen Madariaga of the China Youren blog.

A couple of weeks ago I was at the launch of the new book Shanghai, A History in Photographs 1842 - Today. It is a spectacular collection of pictures of Shanghai showing all the changes that happened in the city over this time. The book is co-authored by H.S. Liu (Liu Heung Shing) and Karen Smith.

Liu is a veteran photo-journalist who has covered China since 1976 for Time and Life magazines, and for the Associated Press. He won a Pulitzer price in 1992 for his coverage of the Soviet Union, and he is the author of memorable photography books like: China, Portrait of a Country (see previous interview on Danwei).

Karen Smith is a curator and critic, specializing in contemporary Chinese art. She moved to Beijing in 1993 to explore the art scene, and since then she has witnessed the rapid evolution of China's avant-garde. Smith divides her time between between writing and curating. She has written and co-written a number of books, including Naughty Kids (2006), The Real Thing: Contemporary Art From China (2007) and Ai Weiwei (2009).

Smith talked to Danwei about the new book and the city of Shanghai:

Why choose Shanghai as the subject of this book?

It chose us really. The project was commissioned by the organizers of Shanghai Corporate Pavilion, who invited us to curate a photography exhibition for the pavilion. We chose to make this an historic retrospective look at the development of Shanghai from its modern roots (when it was forcibly opened with the Treaty of Nanking, and international influences began to have an impact upon its urban and social development) through to today.

From the wealth of photographic materials we uncovered, it was decided to produce a book that extended the reach of what could be accommodated within the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion. The result is this book, Shanghai, A history in Photographs 1842-Today.

How does this book compare with previous photography books, such as China: Portrait of a Country?

The focus is very specific to Shanghai, China’s leading city through a period of 170 years almost that spans three centuries, with all the accompanying flavors and historic shifts and events.

The approach is similar, but we have been able to explore the subject through a range of collections of historic images that were harder to gain access to for China, Portrait of a Country. The governmental support from SCP and Shanghai Municipal government was instrumental in helping us achieve this — opening doors to Shanghai Municipal Archives, Shanghai History Museum, Shanghai Library etc. There is also such a range of photographic works covering the history of Shanghai because through the years, so many people from a whole multitude of countries have lived and worked there. That is the international aspect of Shanghai past and present that makes it unique in China.

Are the pictures selected for their journalistic value or rather their artistic value, and what is the role of each of the authors in this selection?

There is something of both elements, but we laid particular emphasis upon what a photograph could say of its times, the content and using the best possible artistic/photographic language. Because our point of departure was history, these qualities had to be in perfect balance to ensure that this is a history that is meaningful to local Shanghainese and Chinese people, as well as a foreign reader, who might be familiar, for example, with the work of Cartier-Bresson, but not necessarily able to place it in the context of evens in Shanghai.

What is the source of the old pictures? In the newer pictures, are they originals by Liu Heung Shing, or is it a collection of different photographers?

This is a collection of images from 89 known photographers, and a great many more images from private collections, institutions, photo agencies and public collections which are anonymous—the photographer’s names not recorded for history. They come from Europe, America, Asia. It demonstrated how connected Shanghai has always been with the outside world.

What is in your opinion the defining aesthetic value of Shanghai? Is it in the old buildings, the modern architecture, or is it something completely different?

That is extremely difficult to answer. The obvious impression is of course the architectural legacy of the foreign interlopers which have survived through to today. That’s what visitors see first, and often what creates the lingering impression of Shanghai.But the Shanghai aesthetic in general is much more complex: it belongs to the spoken dialect, how local people go about their daily lives—what they eat in terms of flavors, dishes and timing; how they dress; and general sensibilities towards culture, towards personal values and choices of jobs, goals, ambitions. I think it is something profoundly marked but not in ways that are often visible: especially to outsiders.

Shanghai is a fast changing place, especially these last years with the Expo. Do you think this change is for the better or worse, and why?

I personally think change is always good. Especially today, where there is a growing sense of what the people want for their city, and that has begun to put a degree of pressure upon those making decisions about what gets changed and how.

Modernity brings with it many difficult issues: traffic congestion is an obvious one for Shanghai. A lot of the new building, the subways, the road infrastructure and tunnels are essential to dealing with this problem. The urban spread of Shanghai city centre is also inevitable, as it is for most modern world cities. There will always be those who wish to remain entirely in the past, but it important to remember that at each era of that past, what was built, and which we view as being historic today, was then new and probably as controversial as high rises are today. From all I have seen of Shanghai in the course of working on this project, and having been a regular visitor since 1990, Shanghai today looks pretty amazing.

There are currently 1 Comments for A history of Shanghai in photos: Q&A with Karen Smith.

Comments on A history of Shanghai in photos: Q&A with Karen Smith

Can you recommend a source in the USA to buy this book. Seems it is only in the Far East, Australia and New Zealand. Thanks.

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