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‘The Chinese Photobook’ looking back on the history of photography publishing

A new exhibition entitled “The Chinese Photobook” opened last week in Beijing. Curated by British photographer Martin Parr and Dutch artist-duo Wassink-Lundgren, it showcases China’s rich history of photography publishing over the past 150 years - including the country’s twists and turns over that time.

It’s never been easy to publish a photo book - it takes time, energy, and money to design, color, print and produce the album, all under demanding constraints that make each finished product a valuable artifact. And the photographs inside each carry a message, reflecting the times and adding new dimensions to people’s understanding of society and its culture.

To fully explore this untold history, ‘The Chinese Photobook’ begins with early twentieth century all the way to contemporary Chinese photography. These chapters say as much about China’s dramatic modern history as it does about photography itself.

The curators collected photobooks in China for years. In the exhibition, enlarged photocopies, videos and physical copies are all used to chronicle the unique role of these albums through history.

“In general you can look at China in different directions and different points of views, photography would be one of those. There’s quite a lot of photography histories made upon China, there’s not one on photobook publishing so far. So that’s a different perspective. For a photobook, you often need different circumstances. You need more budget, it’s more expensive than photography itself, and it often comes with a clear purpose. So the difference with photography and a photobook is that a photobook is carrying a complete message. It’s a body of more photographs, it also comes in a certain design, so there are more elements to it to express their message,” said Ruben Lundgren, co-curator of “The Chinese Photobook”.

From portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong, and pictures of Shanghai’s sharp-looking traffic police, to pocket-sized tutorials on football techniques and scientific studies of hairy men in China ... the exhibition sheds new light on China and its past eras through the eyes of photographers - and providing a patchwork history of the country.

“There are many different layers as well. Obviously in 1980s you see some very funny designs that you can laugh about now ... But in general I’d say it’s more like discovery. I’ve been buying book for 8 years now, in those 8 years I’ve found quite a lot of astonishing, very good looking or absurd books that I’m just very happy to share,” Lundgren said.

“The Chinese Photobook” exhibition comes with a commemorative photo book of the same name, which will be released in China in May.