We would go to the Crawford Collection, unroll a Tang Dynasty seventh-century scroll, which looked like it was made yesterday, so contemporary, so fresh. … There’s that point of looking at it where it unfolds into a cinematic form that really made me think about making panoramas myself because I was photographing the landscape.She began to use, and became a master of, the elongated rectangle of a 7x17 “banquet camera,” which she felt offered a different conception of space and time. (The artist David Hockney has spoken at length about the superiority of the painted scroll in visually defining space and time as we actually experience it.) To pay the bills, Conner got a job at the United Nations, and stayed for 13 years. “It completely changed my perception of the world, because all of a sudden I was in the world, not just in New York but surrounded by people from all over. I tried to tell their stories through photography.” The month she began work at the UN, the Taiwanese were replaced by the Red Chinese, a momentous change that affected Conner profoundly and planted the seed of her 30-year romance with China. Conner is primarily interested in using photography to reveal landscape as a canvas of culture, and as site-specific history. Her pictures of cities and rural vistas hold layers of detail that contain a multitude of marks and signs of the past and the people who have lived there. They are not sharp, high-contrast images, but often have a gossamer quality that rewards lingering inspection (and may not be best served in our video). Conner calls it “looking into the past while standing in the present.” Conner’s work is replete with the contrasts between serenity in nature (from rugged mountains to flower-laden ponds) and urban dynamism (construction sites, busy streets). Both contain flux, at different velocities, but retain their respective claims on historical narrative, and on the humanity of place. Conner is not a photojournalist methodically finding art in the typologies of Chinese life, like Michael Wolf. She’s an artist who intuitively shoots what she often refers to as “gifts” that illuminate her and, through her, us. At times the atmospherics of her pictures are heightened by figures blurred by protracted exposures. Her black-and-white platinum prints are of an ethereal aesthetic that transforms even the most pedestrian scene into subjective reveries.
My photographs are taken from real life but I feel that they’re fiction because they have to do with my point of view and my understanding of the thing I’m looking at. I’m trying to draw this larger portrait of China, but it’s not completely historically based. You have to deal with the fact of the thing in front of you and the light that you’re given; the fiction is in the selection, in what not to include.Lois Conner’s most recent book is Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial, in collaboration with Geremie R. Barmé (Princeton Architectural Press, NY). Her next book, American Trees (Princeton Architectural Press) will be released in Winter 2015. Her solo exhibition “Chinese Portraits” opens September 2015 at M97 Gallery in Shanghai.
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