by Wu Hung. Reaktion, dist. by University of Chicago Press, January 2016. 326 p. ill. ISBN 9781780235998 (h/c), $57.00.
Reviewed July 2017
Wu Hung, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago, is a name well known in the study of contemporary Chinese art. In this book, he brings nuance to the history of photography in China, offering a fresh, postcolonial context for photographs both well-known and previously unstudied. By titling the book with Histories of Photography, Wu acknowledges that disjointed narratives have been formed around the subject, beginning with photography’s arrival from the west soon after its European inception in the mid-nineteenth century. As Wu writes, photography was an imported technology that “arrived in China together with colonial expansion,” coinciding with the Opium Wars. This fact seems to have been an excuse for studying Chinese photography through a western lens. Wu works to return agency to both Chinese photographers and their subjects by paying close attention to colonial impacts on Chinese culture.
In the first in a series of case studies, Wu investigates a series of portraits made by Milton Miller in the 1860s, which have been illustrated in various prior publications. Much like Errol Morris in Believing is Seeing (Penguin, 2011), Wu dismantles assumptions that other authors have made about the people who appear in the portraits. Wu does this work with respect for other scholarship, but makes it plain that the level of research he contributes to the discussion is long overdue. For example, Jeffrey W. Cody’s excellent Brush & Shutter: Early Photography in China (Getty Research Institute, 2011) is cited as the product of new, interdisciplinary research that paved the way for this book.
Zooming In is not intended to be a general introduction or survey; the wordplay of the title also reflects the author’s methodology. The table of contents reflects the strong focus of each chapter. For example, in the chapter “Birth of the Self and the Nation,” the phenomenon of “queue cutting” portraits in the early twentieth century offers a window into attitudes toward Confucianism in the Qing Dynasty, with stereotyping propaganda presented as supporting evidence. Similarly, analyses of select contemporary photographers including Lieu Zheng and Rong Rong help to describe aspects of modern Chinese culture. These contemporary artists may appear in surveys, but rarely receive individual attention in the United States.
The book is well illustrated throughout, with careful photographic reproductions. It includes exhaustive references, a bibliography, and a brief index. It is recommended to complement collections that include books like Brush & Shutter or Terry Bennett’s series of History of Photography in China (Quaritch, 2009). Zooming In is also relevant for historical research and for collections that support postcolonial approaches to research.