Quotations from Curator Patrick Dowdey’s Interview with Tom Zetterstrom
August 2013

  “I was working in New Haven and I had my darkroom in the area...the Yale-China connection derived from the fact that one of their board members was familiar with my work…and [Yale-China’s board agreed] let’s send this guy Zetterstrom off to take some pictures. And they were very flexible, didn't give me any instructions, I had freedom to move in and out of the tour setting…and internally I had a lot of freedom because I didn't have any preconceptions…. I went with an open mind and to see what there was to see. The advantage was that everything was interesting to me, and fresh and visually rich in texture…. I didn't have any expectations, quite honestly, except that it was going to be a novel experience and…I had the right attitude….my appreciation of their personages and their capabilities…was empathetic. So therein perhaps is the basis for a good portrait.”

“I would check out the structured offering of the day and then I would disappear, you know, and then I would have to figure out how to get home with a cab and get a ride back….So that in a sense is a very freed up way of working because you’re not dealing with ‘oh I wish I’d gotten that shot’ or ‘I don't think I quite got it, don't move, don't move…you’re just going there for the moment and you’re smart and astute and alert enough…it’s what a good photographer does, basically, seizes that moment…it’s more like a dance, you go through the steps and they come and go, and then the dance is over and either it’s in the bag or not.”

Zetterstrom’s respect for the skill and self-reliance of the people doing small repairs or working on the street laid the basis for the trust and openness you see in the portraits here.

 “The skills, ingenuity and self reliance of individuals was what I focused on ultimately…these are not candid shots, these are encounters where I would observe the subject and introduce myself in my primitive language skill and I would be in close, really, at arm’s length….Dangling around my neck were three cameras, so I presented myself as the obvious photographer and not someone who was trying to sneak a shot on the run. So I was able to engage with the subject on an individual level, one on one.” 

“By and large, I think I had the advantage of being a novel experience for them. Back then being seated for a portrait would have been a special occasion….the interaction was generally positive and I think they were honored, maybe, to be chosen as a subject….I’d say they were very gracious subjects.”

 “I guess I have standards in my portraiture, the elements that are there are supposed to add up to the singularity of the image, and the more texture the better short of being a distraction…. Shooting individuals doing their thing in their environment, there’s three layers of texture: the face, which is usually pretty amazing, the posture and action and gesture, and then the setting.”

“The wire basket that contained the harvest of eggs was an object of extraordinary beauty as were the tin-smith-soldered watering cans and other little containers….All of those things spoke to a great texture in the culture as opposed to some extruded polymer watering can which has…minimal human meaning [compared] to a hand-crafted watering can.”

“When I examined the graphic arts in the culture, that became intriguing, and was at an interesting stage that reflected that early stage of acceptance of that capitalist orientation, which is to say, the billboard with what we at the time would have considered very primitive graphics, almost simple minded and caricaturistic, overstated in some ways and of course there was in it something aspiring to western culture….so in contrast to the capitalistic art that was emerging, that was the residue of the socialist art that preceded it for the previous three decades…that was this tattered billboard versus the new refreshed one. And that was revealing….there was human imagery in all of them, the socialist art, the commercial art, as well as the religious art, so that human imagery in addition to the street portraits is intermixed in the exhibition.. So we’re seeing the cultural instruction that was the background to the culture…that interplay reveals some discrepancies for sure, exaggerations and different directions, and distinctions between realities and ideals.”

 “And I was certainly eager to get home to develop those negatives and to see….in fact you didn't see anything for a month later. And then you rush to the darkroom and go through that slow process of souping the negatives and hanging them up to dry and then making contact sheets the next day and hanging them up to dry and scrutinizing them….The first exhibition which was in New Haven…really sorted itself out at the time of installation because…I got very involved in the physical aspect and the sequencing…”

“These photographs will hold a great deal of nostalgia for an era which except in the impoverished rural countryside, represents a generational change as great as any in the history of China. The acceleration of growth has left this perspective in the dust really.”

“And then of course, when you wait another three decades and pull it out of the archive, and it becomes even more valuable…what seems inconsequential in the moment, later in history has consequence.”