One of the most popular mediums of art, photography in our contemporary age has taken on diverse forms and styles. Contemporary photography in Asia has also taken on different modes of expressing political and social themes, to name a few, visualizing them for the masses. Photography here dabbles with other mediums and takes on different ways of presentation. They also fall under different genres, from Hiroshi Sugimoto’s minimalist landscapes to Robert Zhao Renhui’s curious narratives of animals, to Adi Putra’s spellbinding portraits.
It is without a doubt that good photography works make us feel. Whether it comes in the form of a sense of wanderlust, empathizing with another’s traumas from conflict, or even a sense of comfort. It provides us with a different perspective. The photographer has experienced this, and they are passing their interpretation of that experience over to you with the hope of some degree of understanding. You are seeing what they have seen, but now through your own lens.
The Artling brings you these famous Asian photographers who have and continue to change the landscape of art altogether. Their compelling histories and pictures have brought new insights to the world:
Beijing-based artist Cai Dongdong was born in 1978 and at a young age joined the People’s Liberation Army in China. His job as a portrait photographer for enlisted soldiers then became his formal training and led to his career in photography altogether. Taking archival and found photography, Cai experimented with creating fragmented realities, and formed what he calls ‘photo-sculptures’.
With a tendency of merging photographs from before he was born, he reconstructs the past with the present, creating a certain coexistence between the two. The production of his works falls in line with the idea of Chinese collectivism, a concept in Chinese communist ideology. With this, Cai opens up visual pathways to lost memories. Cai has exhibited internationally, at Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany; Hillstrom Museum of Art, Saint Peter, and Klein Sun Gallery, New York, NY.
Dayanita Singh has impressively published twelve books that use photographs as its primary medium. She has also been invited to the Venice Biennale twice. She decided to become a photographer at the age of 18 to escape the many social expectations that were assumed of her and has stated how becoming a photographer was her only was of gaining her freedom.
Singh has used her photography to track social issues in India, from child labor, sex workers, and poverty. The encounters from her photographs are compelling, allowing us a glimpse into a world of adversity many are not familiar with. She has photographed scenes from Old Delhi for The Times and continues to exhibit her works internationally.
Her show at the Hayward Gallery, London, is ‘Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer’ featured her ‘museums’ - large wooden structures that hold 70 to 140 photographs in various configurations - allowing viewers to engage with her works as an interconnected entity instead of encountering single images at once. This exhibition was the first major UK retrospective of Singh’s work.
Hiroshi Sugimoto has been cited over again as one of the most important active artists in the field of photography. A Japanese photographer and architect, he crafts elegant black-and-white images with a 19th Century large-format camera. Sugimoto uses this tool as he sees photography as a way of preserving time. Unlike his contemporaries who work with digital cameras, his patient mode of capturing images creates photographs with a different rhythm and understanding of the world.
This stands especially true in his ‘Theaters’ series. Using old, abandoned theatres as a backdrop, Sugimoto puts a reel of film on. He then opens the shutter of his camera at the start of the film and leaves it open until the end of its projection. What we see is an entire film in a single frame in all its gleaming, motionless beauty.
Sugimoto photographs of places, objects, and figures produce reality instead of captures it. Over the years, he has established himself at the absolute forefront of contemporary photography.
Although a multi-disciplinary artist, it is Robert Zhao Renhui’s photography that sparks curiosities. He uses this medium to capture observations and research in expressing his love for nature. In ‘A Guide to Flora and Fauna’, Zhao questions viewers on how far they trust photography and science. Zhao documents 55 different animals, plants and environments in photographs that are seemingly normal at first, when they are, in fact, completely fictitious. These biologies have been manipulated by Zhao to reflect how they might evolve in unexpected ways in our environmentally toxic climate, highlighting the human species as the main perpetrators of danger.
Zhao is an award-winning artist. He has won the Young Artist Award in Singapore, received an Honourable Mention at the Photo Levallois Festival, Paris, France, and was a Finalist at the HUGO BOSS ASIA ART 2017, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, China. He has exhibited internationally, and his works are in the collections of the Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco, UBS Art Collection and Statoil Art Collection in Norway.
A graduate from the renowned Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Taca Sui later moved to the United States to study Photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His works reflect his journeys through remote locations in China. These locations are reflective of Chinese history due to their religious and philosophical traditions. These black-and-white photographs come with poetic intensities. In 2017, he embarked on a journey in search of ‘grotto-heavens’ that occupy a primordial space in the Five Great Mountains of China. Interestingly, there are no references to the past or present in his photographs, only Sui’s ambitions of documenting largely forgotten places.
Sui works are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York - where he has also exhibited - the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Asia Pacific Museum in Pasadena, California.
Indonesian photographer Adi Putra has had his works grace the pages of DAZED and NYLON, with clients such as Republic Records and even the musician Moby. Working predominantly with film, Putra is a lo-fi lover and an LC-A+ user and has been cited as a true analog soul. His images come with a sense of fantasy as if they were stills plucked from pastel daydreams. He states now his photos are “simply visual manifestations” of his subconscious, and hopes his audiences feel from them.
Putra’s colorful images radiate energy that seeks to affect his viewers physically and mentally. By shooting in film, a grainy nostalgic look that cannot be reproduced with a digital camera emerges.
Nobuyoshi Araki grew to become one of Japan’s most famous photographers by defining the Western image of Japanese sexuality. In his work, Araki ventures into private life, capturing scenes that many are not comfortable with, yet sometimes experience. This honest brutality is carried through the many years of his practice.
Aside from the visually provocative works that he is known for, Araki’s exhibition at the Singapore International Photography Festival showcased the more tender documentation of his late wife Yōko and nostalgic photos of his cat, Chiro. The 118 photographs at ‘Between Love & Death: Diary of Nobuyoshi Araki’ traced his personal relationship with his late wife in a confessional diaristic style, allowing viewers an honest representation of universal loss.
The only artist in his family, Chen Wei is a self-taught photographer who moved around China growing up. He cites his work as “a reaction to Chinese life”, with his staged photographs depicting personal observations and memories from his childhood. Chen’s practice is not about the fast snapshots of fleeting moments, but rather a patient and self-conscious process of assembling details that he then captures. He even sketches out these images before constructing these scenes.
Staging these scenes in artificial settings, the results are beautifully lit photographs that exude Chen’s personal interpretations of a moment in time. His series ‘The Club’, features a sea of faceless bodies in strobe lights that creates a glowing, mystical air. It seeks to comment on the club scene in China and how identities shifted at the height of Communist China, allowing them to adjust to becoming more relaxed spaces as economic policies themselves relaxed.
A Sino-Japanese duo, RongRong & Inri began collaborating in 2000, and are now known to be a pair who shaped contemporary photography in China. Their works, like Chen Wei’s, are themed around China’s socio-economic transformations but are expressed through a more intimate means. In response to having two of their studios in China raided by police and being demolished, they began creating a series of works that depict their everyday lives amongst ruins. Their many other critically acclaimed series of works also provide insight into their shared life against the rapidly changing world around them.
RongRong & Inri execute this whilst pushing the boundaries of traditional black-and-white darkroom techniques. They continue to push contemporary photography forward by establishing the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre in Beijing’s Chaochangdi arts district, and a year later the annual Three Shadows Photography Award, aimed at discovering promising young talent in the field of photography. Rong Rong & Inri have been recognized with awards not only for their careers as artists but also the significant impact that they have made on Asian photography.
A Japanese street photographer, Daido Moriyama is best known for capturing provoking images that highlight a contrast between traditional Japan as it approached a post-war modern society. His black-and-white images have been noted to reject technical precision, prioritizing grain and contrast. They also present everyday life with a melancholic beauty - following ‘wabi-sabi’, a Japanese aesthetic, beauty is found in imperfections - with a strong focus on the aforementioned themes of post-war Japan.
Moriyama prints all of his photographs himself and his photographic production over his career has been monumental. He has produced over 150 books of his photography, as well as had over 100 solo exhibitions. A central figure in MoMA’s revolutionizing exhibition on New Japanese Photography in 1974, his retrospective ‘Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog’ saw the walls of SFMoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Japan Society in New York. He was presented the Infinity Award for Lifetime Achievement from the International Center of Photography in New York and is a winner of the 2019 Hasselblad Award.
A self-taught photographer, Li Hui creates soft, intimate images that capture ephemeral moments. She uses photography not only as a medium for her practice, but also as a means of visually articulating her personal world of encounters. Silver 35-mm film is used to create these quiet, relaxing, yet powerful images that showcase a powerful understanding of light. With a strong focus on youth, intimacy, and nature, Li Hui is interested in how people communicate without words in seemingly insignificant moments and in the human body. However, she avoids capturing faces in an effort to shift her viewer’s attention to the body language.
Li Hui has published several photography books, and her photographs have graced the pages of Vogue Italia and Vogue International and i-D Magazine. She has exhibited internationally, from London to Hong Kong, China to Norway.
Lu Guang tackles the hard and heavy issues of drug addiction, HIV and pollution in his works, and has been criticized by the Chinese government for such documentation. He started out as a factory worker in his hometown, Yongkang County, and fell in love with photography since he held a camera for the first time in 1980. Since 1993, Lu Guang has been a freelance photographer, traveling across China at his own initiative to develop major documentary projects.
From environmental impacts of the Qinghai-Tibet railway to drug addiction along the Sino-Burmese border and the SARS epidemic, Lu Guang’s compelling works have made visible some of the most significant social, health and environmental issues that China faces today. In 2004, he won the First Prize in the Contemporary Issues category in the 2004 World Press Photo contest with a series on Aids villages in the Henan Province. In 2005, he became the first photographer from China to be invited by the US Department of State as a visiting scholar. He has also won a National Geographic Photography Grant.
Anrong Xu’s works offer intimate insights to their subjects and the spaces that surround them, whilst addressing his own experiences, fears, and insecurities as a Chinese American artist. His series, ‘My Americans’, sought to be a significant body of work that captured Chinese American individuals as part of the American social landscape, something he realized no photographer had done before. Born in China and raised in New York’s Chinatown, Xu’s works, albeit seemingly ordinary, come with a rich cinematic stillness that further allows for emotional narratives through time.
He cites his ‘My American’ series as a passion project that he hopes to finish when he dies. His career as a photographer has been admirable, having photographed for The New York Times, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post, GQ Taiwan, The History Channel, Instagram, Airbnb, Underarmour, and Google.
Now that you’re here, why not check out these photography works?
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