The Mirror of Three Kingdoms: Shanxi Family Portraits

I visited China several times in 2011 as Academic Consultant to the Pingyao International Festival of Photography. On one of these trips Zhang Guotian, the festival’s Chief Artistic Director, showed me some photographs he had borrowed from traditional homes in Shanxi. These were, in one way, modest collections of family snaps and formal identity portraits collected into simple wooden frames. But, as Mr Zhang understood, they had the potential to cast light on the role of photography in the quest for human connection and meaning.

Since then I have thought much about those images and what they can teach us.

When I was growing up, photography was having yet another battle to be taken seriously as Art. One way of focusing the discussion was to ask the following rhetorical question:

You have a choice between a painting of Jesus Christ made from life by the Dutch master Rembrandt (1606–69) and a photograph of him by the Armenian/Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908–2002).

Undoubtedly the Rembrandt painting would be the greater work of art, with a substantially higher price tag. But if this hypothetical image is to be the world’s only opportunity to see what Jesus Christ looked like, which would you choose? Would you pick the painting which, for all its great artistry, is the construct of its creator’s perception – an interpretation? Or would you select the photograph, because you believe that it reflects a truer, less subjective likeliness of the man?

In the new century when the great conversation of images is multiplying exponentially, matched only by our thirst for visual information, the question might be recast thus:

You have a choice between a photograph of Jesus Christ by the master photo-portraitist Yousuf Karsh or a snapshot taken by his Jesus’ mother, Mary.

What would you answer?

The fact is that, skilful and dramatic as the photographs of Karsh may be, I think I would choose the snapshot because I would expect it to be more honest. It would not be the honesty of skill but of its absence. The image would be guileless.

The method of art is to carve from the chaos of the world something eloquent, elegant and expressive. Art is as much about what is left out as to what is put in. In music, to create harmony one must remove all the sounds that cause dissonance and amplify and order all notes which lend coherence to the chord or cadence. In visual art, the habit is to remove all distractions and dilutions in order to amplify the observable truths as they are perceived by the artist. So with the Karsh photograph, we know that great skill has been employed to create an ‘image’ of the sitter. That is, not simply a reflection of what they look like, but, through careful posing, lighting, cropping and printing, a heightened sense of who the photographer understands the sitter to be … or wants us to understand the sitter to be.

The snapshot, on the other hand, is made with little thought for the art of the camera but springs from an intuitive connection with the subject. The snapshot gathers up everything, indiscriminately. The inexperienced photographer does not distinguish between the personal focus of what they see and what remains unnoticed or ignored but will, nonetheless, be recorded with equal faith and verisimilitude in the final photograph. Just as a tree, overlooked when the shutter is released, appears in the photograph to sprout from the head of the subject, so the meanings contained in a photograph extend beyond the intentions of the untrained maker. There is the gap between perception and photography.

But while the unschooled photographer’s unthinking, undiscriminating approach to making images can lead to occasional visual silliness, it also gathers and preserves many of the details that an artist would consider irrelevant and be at pains to eliminate. And for a social historian interested in gaining a clear and unmediated sense of the past, this additional information is pure gold. For the details can be sifted and reviewed like the relics on an archaeological site. After all, the archaeologist learns far more about how people lived in pre-history from the detritus they cast aside than from the works of cultural and religious reverence that have been carefully preserved.

So, the first quality that makes these little domestic photo collections significant is that they are rich in a sense of the individual, each represented in all their chaotic and contradictory ways. For it is the nature of being human to be paradoxical. Or, as the humanist writer Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) put it: “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead.” Which is perhaps why veneration of our dead ancestors can be a source of comfort and why tradition gives a sense of stability; both are removed from the unpredictability and contrariety of the living.

Of course, not all of the images were made by unschooled amateurs. Many are studio photographs or identity images shot by journeyman photographers. But these too are all the more interesting for their lack of pretentions to Art. The sitters frequently seem a little uncomfortable. It is often said that the mark of a great portrait photographer is their ability to set the sitter at ease. We imagine that in doing so the photographer frees the subject of the portrait to reveal their true self. But perhaps not… as the eminent English barrister and dramatist John Mortimer (1923–2009) noted: “I always think we underestimate the amount of acting that goes on in what is known as ‘real’ life… with all this acting about in the world why should not the sitter perform as usual for the benefit of the [camera] lens?”

Mortimer was writing in the introduction to a monograph of portraits by the famous British photographer of celebrities and aristocrats known simply as Snowdon (Tony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon, born 1930), himself an aristocrat through a former marriage to Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret.

An advocate of simplicity and the ‘snap-shot’ feel of a photograph, he understood that much of life is a kind of performance and putting a sitter at their ease is not necessarily the best way to see behind the social mask.

I don’t want things to be too relaxed,” he wrote. “Often the only way one can break through someone’s prepared face is to make them slightly uncomfortable, physically or mentally. Sometimes people can be awkward or ill at ease in a way that expresses themselves better than when they are relaxed.” He went on to add, “Often when people are told exactly what to do they become more themselves than they know.”

So it is with these small studio portraits from Shanxi: obeying the instructions of the photographer yields more than the photographer instructed. The apparently expressionless gaze into the lens of the official camera carries with it an unguarded glimpse of the interior: of vulnerability or aspiration; melancholy or mischief. For all their formulaic method, these apparently perfunctory pictures reward careful consideration with a level of subtle insight that is lost in the choreographed poses of the celebrity portrait.

Reflecting upon these family portraits brings us two unexpected forms of insight. The first arises from the direct and guileless gaze of one family member upon another; the second, paradoxically, affords us a glimpse behind the mask refracted in the discomfort of self-consciously presenting the mask for official scrutiny.

But there is something more that they bring; something of even greater importance. For, as Mr Zhang explained to me, if these were to be shown to the public, it was important that they were presented in their original groupings and frames. There is a tendency in the field of art to shape all content to the formulas of Fine Art. Thus, a peasant’s rice bowl from the Qing Dynasty is presented on a museum pedestal when it might be better understood in the context of a family meal. Similarly, snapshots from the past, when they enter the museum, are frequently enlarged to the size of paintings and presented in sanctioned good taste of a museum-standard frame. Composites are ungrouped and reordered according to dictates of curatorial conceit because the curator’s interpretation is considered to be of greater importance that of the image maker or owner. In this case, Mr Zhang argues against such conventions, and I believe he is right to do so. These images are much more than cultural content, they are the shadows of lives lived and of kin loved.

These modest photographic accretions in their modest frames of modest scale are in essence the ancestral shrines of the ordinary man and woman. What they lack in expensive decoration and imposing scale they more than make up for in simple humanity.

And these humble frames do something more than the aristocrat’s gilded ancestral shrine, for they not only attempt to link the living and the dead, but also the experiential past and present, and those who remain with those who have moved away. Each frame is a mirror of three kingdoms. Not the warring kingdoms of Luo Guanzhong’s romance about Wei, Shu and Wu, but three internal realms of personal experience and imagination: the kingdom of the dead from where our ancestors watch over us and wait for us to join them; the kingdom of the past where once we were young; and the kingdom of elsewhere where children and grandchildren now reside, long since carried from the family home on the tidal waves of economic change that eddy across China in the new century.

The opulent ancestral shrine and these modest domestic frames share the deep human aspiration to come to terms with loss and to do so by constructing a sense of interconnection. Connection to one’s ancestors has long been a central tenet of personal identity and filial piety in China. Maintaining a sense of connection in the turbulence of technological progress and economic expansion is a significant new challenge. And the quiet interior connection to the person one once was steadies each of us on our journey though life, before we too cross over to join our ancestors … a face in a frame on a wall amid the family of the living.

Alasdair Foster

This article was first published in Chinese by《摄影之友》[Friends of Photography] magazine, Beijing, in 2012.