China in Kodachrome 1973-1980
September 20, 2012
by Bruno Barbey
Bruno Barbey, a 50-year Magnum veteran, is an established figure in photo-journalism, and a highly praised colorist especially for his portrayal of Morocco - his beloved birthplace. When he came to photograph Shanghai’s World Expo in 2010, we started looking together at the pictures he took 40 and 30 years ago, when China was still struggling to emerge from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Today China has risen to the top echelon of economic power in the world, most Chinese people do not bother to remember where they have come from, twenty or even ten years ago, as they are eager to look up to an ever-better-tomorrow. I find it though pertinent to show what China looked like in the old days, in the eye of a foreigner, the eye of a French photographer who came for the first time to this land.
In September 1973, as an accredited journalist to the presidential press corps, Bruno Barbey joined French President George Pompidou’s official visit to China, carrying with him a load of Kodachrome films in his bags. The year 1973 happened to be exactly when Paul Simon released his pop hit “Kodachrome”, his line “mama don’t take my Kodachrome away” turned out to be premonitory as Eastman-Kodak in 2009 officially retired Kodachrome after 74 years of glorious existence.
The French presidential visit took place a year after Nixon’s famous China trip, for which Pompidou has played a secret facilitating role in Paris. Those were some historical moments Bruno Barbey became a key witness to: such as the intimate friendship between Pompidou and Chou Enlai, the rare portraits of Jiang Qing in self-designed tailored Western dress and Wang Hongwen posing as heir apparent captured for the first time by a Western photographer. Besides the documentary Barbey has indeed composed a colorful photographic album recording the faces and landscape of China of yester-years, along the itinerary of the presidential visit: Beijing, Datong, Yungang, Wuxi, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Nanjing.
After joining Magnum in 1964 Barbey became a full member in 1968, by then some of his illustrious elders have already taken stunning photographs of China: Robert Capa had documented the war of resistance against the invading Japanese in 1938 in Hankou (Wuhan today); Henri Cartier-Bresson had witnessed the change of regime “from one China to another” in 1949. And in 1957, Marc Riboud made the first of his subsequent twenty two China trips. Each of these early Magnum photographers has approached China in his own personal style. Bruno Barbey became the first one to seriously document China in color, using Kodachrome which he especially loved for its lively “nice bright” colors.
In 1973, what Bruno Barbey saw through his viewfinder was a country living in a strange dichotomy: on the one hand, the revolutionary slogans and wall posters still exhorting the crowd to carry on with the revolutionary fervor, yet on the other hand the common people went about their everyday life in a quiet and casual way. Officially in 1973 the Great Cultural Revolution was not over yet, but most of the Red Guards had been sent “up to the mountains and down to the country”. One of the greatest masters of cinematography, Michelangelo Antonioni, visited China in 1972, and in his subsequent documentary “Chung Kuo” we could see a country thrown into some kind of languid aloofness - almost torpor, unimaginable for the outside world still mindful of the chaos of the turbulent sixties. Antonioni’s film eventually was projected in China in 1974; it displeased so much Madame Mao that the People’s Daily published a virulent critic that became the guideline for official Chinese photography over many years. In that context, Bruno Barbey’s realistic photo-reportage in Kodachrome renders the right tone to the special light that was in the air of Beijing and Shanghai at the time, without bringing a rosy view or painting a darker screen over reality. Bruno’s careful compositions took advantage of the omnipresent propaganda paintings on the walls, such as those rows of faces dressed in blue worker’s uniforms lining underneath a fiery red giant steel mill poster glorifying the production success of Anshan Steels, or the scaffoldings masking the glorious smiling faces of the Worker, the Farmer and the Soldier, the three model classes in Mao’s era.
Having never learned Chinese Bruno Barbey’s eye was content with unconsciously composing some poetic images like the three men squatting underneath a big Chinese sign that said “Fragrant” (or “smells good”) and enjoying their popsicles. Or these children in the kindergarten class each with a facial expression mimicking Chairman Mao’s slogan on the wall that read “Be united, be alert, be solemn, be lively”. The most significant discovery by Barbey was the photo studio (probably Wang Kai) on Nanjing road in Shanghai, its window in 1973 displaying standard portraits of the Cultural Revolution, but seven years later, he would be welcome inside to document “the making-of” of wedding photography which would soon develop into a booming business all over China.
Indeed by 1980 Bruno Barbey came back to China on assignment for the US edition of GEO magazine, and he stayed on for a month focusing on Shanghai, the Sichuan and Guangxi provinces. Still using Kodachrome he captured the vivid contrast between the modernizing city such as Shanghai and the still under-developed rural life in the province. For instance in the Northern rural area of Chengdu, an elderly woman carried her grandson past a wall painting representing Hua Guofeng (the supposed-to-be successor of Chairman Mao, soon to be taken over by Deng Xiaoping) with the anachronic slogan: “Industry should learn from Daqing” which was a slogan launched back in 1964! While in Shanghai, passers-by looking busy walked past a huge painted advertising poster for trucks made in Japan. The poetry of Bruno Barbey lies in this photo of bicycles passing in front of the statue of the saluting Chairman Mao shrouded in morning mist, in a strange, quiet and fluid choreography, totally indifferent to the Chengdu traffic policeman who stood in the middle. On the red banner a slogan called for the Four Modernizations. The raised arm of Chairman Mao seemed to be paying tribute to the city centres today paralyzed by traffic jams common to thousands of Chinese cities as the country has now become the biggest automobile market in the world.
This “China in Kodachrome” is a precious document generously donated by Bruno Barbey to the history of Chinese photography and to the history of a nation in development.
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On the eve of China National Day 2012
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