Beijing: Through the Eyes and Words of Photographer Lois Conner

Magical, miraculous, and often times dangerous is how photographer Lois Conner has described some of her experiences capturing the images included in Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial: Photographs by Lois Conner. Opening at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Sunday, March 30 alongside Conner's in-person Artist Talk that afternoon, the exhibition features a vast visual tour of historic and contemporary Beijing, inviting the viewer to reflect on China’s rising power in the context of its history and cultural landscape. The sites depicted span three centuries, embracing the dynastic glory of the Qing and its decline, the revolutionary 20th century, and the post-imperial and post-socialist story of Beijing and China today.

”Conner has said that the subject of her photography is landscape as culture,” comments Barbara Tannenbaum, the museum’s Curator of Photography. “The designs of public squares, city streets, gardens, palaces, humble homes, and office buildings directly impact the lives and emotions of those who occupy them. Those spaces also reveal the intentions of their creators, whether it is to demonstrate political, religious, or social power; offer a soothing respite from urban bustle; or burnish the beauty of nature.”

A central focus of the exhibition is the Garden of Perfect Brightness, or Yuanming Yuan. This almost 2,000-acre garden-palace was both China’s Versailles and Louvre. It was built and expanded from the 1690s until 1860, and served as both the de facto center of the Chinese empire as well as a site for elite Chinese culture. Buildings, follies, and waterways were constantly altered. New structures and sites drew on elements of ancient political practice as well as poetic imagination and fantasy, cultural myth, and imaginative play.

Yuanming Yuan was plundered and severely damaged by an Anglo-French expeditionary force in October 1860. Today, Yuanming Yuan is China’s national ruin, symbolic of the country’s decline and humiliation and an inspiration to the dream of national revitalization—the tireless theme of official propaganda.

While the ruins of the magnificent garden provide the basis for the project, their juxtaposition with images of contemporary Beijing speaks to the anxieties about China as a new global power while reflecting on its troubled foundations.

Lois Conner (pictured above, photo by Lee Friedlander in Yangshuo, Guangxi Province) began her photographic explorations of China with a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984. Since then, she has returned annually, traveling extensively and using her 7 x 17 banquet camera to describe the landscape, architecture, and people. This exhibition focuses on her work in Beijing, describing its transformation over the past thirty years. Before its opening, we caught up with Conner for the stories behind a few of the photographs from the exhibition. Read her incredible stories below, and for more from the artist in her own words, be sure to not miss her lecture on Sunday, March 30 at 2 p.m. at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

 Interior of the Bank of China During Construction, 1998, printed 2013. Lois Conner (American, born 1951). Pigment ink print; 23 x 60 in. © and courtesy of the artist.

“I was on my way to the roof to photograph. The lobby, suffused with early morning light, completely took me aback. The raking light exaggerated the scale and the suspended dust from construction created a stage-like atmosphere.  This was 1998, and I was on a six month sabbatical from Yale.  For my trip, I had 500 sheets of film with me.  I learned only later that all my film had elaborate diagonal x-rays throughout; as that was the year the airlines intensified their searches of checked baggage. Though I developed some film at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, I thought I had enormous light leaks, and went to great lengths to tape my bellows. On my return, I learned that these light patterns were on every single sheet of film.  Only recently was the Photoshop software sophisticated enough to fix them seamlessly, and even then, it takes forever and a lot of patience.”


 Solitary Arch, Changchun Yuan, Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Extended Spring, Garden of Perfect Brightness), 1998, printed 2013. Lois Conner (American, born 1951). Platinum print; 14 x 24 in.© and courtesy of the artist.

“It was late November -- a few days before Thanksgiving – and I was already planning my trip south to Hangzhou to photograph, as the Beijing weather was changing.  Thrilled that it was snowing, I headed up to Yuanming Yuan with Geremie Barmé.  I'd photographed this arch many times. With the snow (and Geremie telling me stories and reciting poetry), it became more like what I imagined Qianlong's garden to be: vast, magical, and silent, except for the forces of nature.  Needless to say, it was full of people and cacophonous with their enthusiasm and laughter. My shoes had holes in them, and the water from the melting snow was leaking in.  My feet were so cold it was distracting me, in spite of my excitement.  We went to have tea, and Geremie gave me his extra pair of socks and rubbed my feet.  The restaurant futai was gracious enough to find me plastic bags to fit inside my shoes, so that my socks would remain dry. I spent the rest of the day photographing.  Later that night I went to the North Korean Opera at the National Theatre, all the melted snow froze with sub zero temperatures.  Leaving the theatre I still had the plastic bags inside my shoes (I only had one pair of shoes). In spite of the warning in five languages from my friends, I slipped on the black ice and broke my arm. They took me to the hospital; I lost a day of work, and just continued my journey and work, inventing new ways of carrying my camera with one arm.”

  Beijing World Fantasy Hotel, Shijingshan, 2000, printed 2013. Lois Conner (American, born 1951). Pigment ink print; 20 x 74 in. © and courtesy of the artist.

“I saw stars stretching out across this rooftop, from the corner of my eye as I was driving with a friend to the very western end of Chang'an Jie.  There was no elevator up to this 4th floor roof, only metal rebar sticking out from the bricks on the facade of the building.  When I showed my camera to the manager of the hotel, he miraculously gave me permission (at my own risk) to climb up on the roof.  It took me two trips: once with my film holders and tripod, and the second trip with my camera, all the while hanging on with both hands and trying not to look down, nor think of the fidelity of the metal rungs that with which I had entrusted my life. I spent the rest of the day there, in my fantasy world, moving slowly, studying the light, faint with exhilaration.  It was clear, and you could see all the surrounding mountain ranges.  Two days later I returned with a filmmaker friend to photograph at night.  Climbing up was even more nerve-wracking, but the excitement of the possibilities, seemed to, once again, erase the danger.” 

Don't miss Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial: Photographs by Lois Conner when it opens at the CMA this Sunday, March 30!

> Artist Talk: Lois Conner


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