Introductory Text to exhibition “Faces of China: Photographs by Tom Zetterstrom”

I’d say they were very gracious subjects.            Tom Zetterstrom

In 1981 China was just taking the first few halting steps of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Reform and Opening Up’ policy. The worst abuses of the Cultural Revolution were only a few years in the past and no one – probably not even Deng himself – knew whether they were really over or just suspended. But 1981 was a year of optimism and opportunity in China as the reforms slowly and inexorably transformed first the countryside and then the cities to create the foundation for today’s China.

That year, the Yale-China Association commissioned photographer Tom Zetterstrom to create an exhibition of photographs to depict everyday life in China. Tom traveled with members of the Association to cities where Yale-China had worked for decades -- Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Hangzhou, Guangzhou, Lhasa and Hong Kong.   Zetterstrom called the exhibition of his photographs Faces of China and it traveled all over the United States until it closed in 1984 at the Asia Society.
 The prints in this Wesleyan exhibition are the artist’s personal set, vintage silver prints made and matted in the eighties, and now exhibited for the first time in their original, pristine condition.

In the early eighties, Chinese and foreigners were meeting face to face for the first time in decades. “Foreign guests” began to appear at tourist sites, in the cities and even in little country villages and there was great curiosity on both sides. For foreigners, there was a strong desire to, as Vera Schwarcz put it, “glimpse something of what was going on at the core of Chinese society” but it was difficult to visit common people and even more difficult to get an idea of what their lives were like. Schwarcz criticized journalists who were “hankering after pontifications about the meaning of normalization in trite, contrived settings…[and] proclaimed the end of the revolution in two minute shots in Peking beauty parlors.”  Academics had the time to develop more nuanced perspectives, but even they had only cursory contacts with common people. One way to open a bridge was with a camera.

Donald Lowe and Tani Barlow were also academics living in Shanghai in the early eighties, and they wrote, “Photography is the rage now. Everybody wants to rent or borrow a camera at least once, to take photographs of the family…..young men are turning photography into a serious hobby, and are showing their work in local photo contests. Prize-winning photographs inevitably fall into two categories, either highly stylized shots of natural scenery, or imitations of conventional Chinese landscape painting adapted to the medium of photography….the one thing we have never found displayed at the contests, is an unposed ‘candid’ shot, of the kind most common in the U.S.”

You can see how difficult it could be in Barlow and Lowe’s account of their own attempt at candid photography. “Once, visiting a garden in Suzhou, we spotted some peasant women in colorful headscarves who were also enjoying the gorgeous surroundings. They made such a lovely photo that we went over to ask their permission to shoot. The women didn't appear to understand [our Mandarin]. But a man standing nearby came over and asked, "Why do you want to photograph them?" And in response to our rather naive answer, that the women were "beautiful," he said unbelievingly, "They aren't 'beautiful,' they're just peasants."

Neither the clumsiness of the academics nor the urbanite’s disdain for peasants can be seen in Zetterstrom’s richly communicative images. Zetterstrom noted, “These are not candid shots, these are encounters where I would observe the subject and introduce myself with my primitive language skills and I would be in really close, really, at arm’s length…so I was able to engage with the subject on an individual level, one on one….Back then, being seated for a portrait would have been a special occasion,…the interaction was generally positive and I think they were honored to be chosen as a subject.”

Zetterstrom also shot billboards, signs and sculptures and they add a depth and perspective to the exhibition that is an important part of its appeal. “There was human imagery in all of them, the socialist art, the commercial art, as well as the religious art, so that the human imagery in addition to the street portraits is intermixed in the exhibition. So we’re seeing the cultural instruction that was part of the culture.”

The enormous achievement of Faces of China lies in its seeming ordinariness, the respect and delight we get looking at people who are not only part if their time, but who represent what is now a long-vanished epoch when China opened once more to the world. Zetterstrom’s talent and respect for the people, his skill and intuitive grasp of the visual culture of early eighties Chinese street life take you back to what it was like for a foreigner to walk those streets and meet those people “at the core of Chinese society.”

The Yale-China Association (雅禮協會), inspires people to learn and serve together. Founded in 1901 by graduates of Yale University, we foster long-term relationships that improve education, health, and cultural understanding in China and the United States.

Quotations are from:
Vera Schwarcz, Long Road Home, 1984
Tani Barlow and Donald Lowe, Chinese Reflections: Americans Teaching in the People’s Republic, 1985