Shanghaiist recently headed over to the Benetton Building to check out a photo exhibition entitled Becoming Shanghai, Three Memories of a City’s Transformation (作为上海，一个城市变化的三种记忆), featuring the work of three photographers — Greg Girard, Fritz Hoffman and Jan Siefke. Greg Girard’s preface to the exhibition states :
The photographs in this exhibition provide three different sets of personal signposts among the often competing ways in which Shanghai is experienced, recorded and rendered in memory.
The styles of each photographer are different indeed. Girard’s photographs are like still-lifes of buildings soon to be torn down and the interiors of homes. These pictures, often devoid of human subjects, are very everyday and certainly do not capture a “decisive moment” in the sense of touchdown pass or the moment of impact, but rather, quietly invite you, a stranger, to take a look at something you might dismiss as old-fashioned or just gloss over otherwise. The pictures are not sentimental or nostalgic, at least not overtly — what they express in Chinese would be called 沧桑cang sang, which indicates a sense of passing, of buildings pelted by rains and hammered by history, much like their (former) inhabitants. Girard’s focus is on recording what remains of pre-reform Shanghai, which is good, because in twenty years most of old Shanghai will be replaced by cookie-cutter apartment and office buildings.
Fritz Hoffman’s photographs bear the imprint of the photojournalist — the hustle and bustle of city life is captured in picture of snarling messes of traffic, the skeletal remains of soon to be demolished houses, window-washers, and construction workers. Hoffman’s work focuses more on the working classes and especially migrant workers. However, these are not photographs that show how the other half lives — these pictures don’t ask for our pity, but rather just a greater committment to observe the people that live all around us and in no small way make this city tick. There is also something of subtle humor to Hoffman’s selection of moments — are we supposed to feel sorry for the tired restaurant worker sprawled on a table with a cigarette still burning in his hands, or are we supposed to just think of it as a humorous moment. In fact, it seems to work as either or both.
Jan Siefke’s pictures are bit more abstract, and a bit longer. By a bit longer we mean that they look like panoramic pictures, which are twice as long as normal 35mm pictures. However, Girard’s preface to the exhibit notes the “violent crop” of these pictures, so we assume that they were not taken with a panoramic camera but instead were cropped into this format. There are abstract pictures of stock exchange numbers and a bird’s eye view of Nanjing Lu’s pedestrian only area, as well as old rooftops next to skyscrapers. The distance between the photographer and the subject in these pictures makes one focus more on their geometry and composition. Siefke’s pictures use a certain kind of repetition, not unlike the tesselation in MS Escher paintings.
Two complaints about this exhibit — firstly, since the exhibit is held in epSITE, all the pictures are printed on EPSON printers and paper. Printing pictures this big and detailed is a difficult job, and more so in the digital world — Shanghaiist found the EPSON colors were a bit too digital, glossy, and garish for our tastes. The other complaint we have is that the Chinese title （作为上海） seems a bit odd, because 作为 means “as”, as in “as your father, I have the right to take your cocaine away” — but this implies a state of being something, whereas the English title uses the word “becoming”, which implies a state of flux, something coming into existence that wasn’t there before. Oh well. Shanghaiist hates sounding like an Existentialism 101 professor, so let us conclude by saying that after seeing these great photos, go to the first floor to take a look at local student photo work, and then head over to Benetton to buy something pink and fashionable.
Becoming Shanghai/Three Memories of a City’s Transformation. epSITE Shanghai, 1st and B1 Floor, Benetton Bldg, No. 651 Huaihai Zhong Lu, at the corner of Sinan Lu. Free admission. Exhibition runs from September 2 through October 11.
Photo by Greg Girard, from the Monte Clark Gallery.