Juxtaposition: Lois Conner’s “Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial”

Recently at ONWARD we’ve taken you to Tokyo, Berlin, Italy, and Japan: now we’re taking you abroad again! We review Lois Conner’s impressive publication, which examines the juxtaposition of old and new through the architecture of one of the world’s great cities: Beijing, China. Take a look at our latest ONWARD Book Review and don’t forget to check out our review of Andrea Modica’s As We Wait as well! Following images courtesy of Lois Conner.

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Bank of China construction, Beijing , China

Bank of China construction, Beijing , China

Released by Princeton Architectural Press nearly one year ago, Conner’s latest book has been hailed among the best monographs of 2014. It’s easy to see why. With more than ninety banquet camera-captured platinotype images within its pages, this work has something for both sinophiles and photography aficionados alike.

Tiananmen, Beijing, China

Tiananmen, Beijing, China

The book is comprised of 156 unusually proportioned landscape pages (8” x 15”, in order to accommodate the 5.5” X 13.5” reproductions of the original 7” x 17” prints). The page weight and printing quality is sumptuous, particularly on the two fold-out pages whose images stretch more than forty inches wide. The experience of gallery viewing is approximated quite well by these aesthetic details.

While those with a background in Chinese history and culture may appreciate the work on a deeper level, Conner’s landscapes and the corollary essay by Geremie R. Barmé aptly serve to initiate the curious newcomer, as well. “Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial” is, ostensibly, the documentation and celebration of this three-thousand year-old city’s most recent three centuries, as captured over the course of three decades by Conner. This monograph, however, is a great deal more than that.

Xizhimen, Beijing, China

Xizhimen, Beijing, China

Conner is unique among her contemporaries, the platinum printers of whom tend to favor portraiture. Her landscape artist peers skew journalistically. Conner holds a singular place at the crossroads of these genres, telling very human stories with only a rare incorporation of the human form.

Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Technically speaking, Conner’s photography exceeds the achievements of her splendid Lotus series with regard to depth of field and movement. Each composition seduces the viewer into perusing each meticulously-rendered detail along the subconsciously defined pathways within.

The Pei’s Bank of China photograph, for instance, is as awe-inspiring as it is unsettling. It literally jars the equilibrium as the eye appreciates the height from which the shot was taken, especially given the seeming instability of the girders below. The symbolic significance is clear; the country’s economic instability exists in juxtaposition with the construction boom leading up to and continuing into the twenty-first century.

CCTV Construction, Beijing, China

CCTV Construction, Beijing, China

The astonishing tonal range, a signature of Conner’s work, exceeds that which she has previously achieved, even in her American West photographs. The literal stark contrast of black and white within each photograph echoes the figuratively stark contrasts depicted by each subject. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, remarkably, are warmed and humanized, suffused with both richness and light.

Several photographs throughout the book exploit long exposures to great effect, not only achieving bright light in the darkness, but also depicting movement within otherwise still surroundings. These technical choices on Conner’s part artistically represent several iterations of political uprisings over the city’s history.

Yuanming Yuan, Beijing, China

Yuanming Yuan, Beijing, China

Few if any of the photographs feel staged or posed, which is the very hallmark of an assiduous eye and expert preparation. By knowing where to be and when, Conner captures otherwise ephemeral emotions, both ominous and beguiling, that serve as the through line of this monograph. Pagodas and tombs stand in contrast to the gleaming monuments of Beijing’s modern resurgence. This is particularly evident in the marvelous if possibly obsolete Olympic venues.

Yuanming Yuan, Beijing, China

Yuanming Yuan, Beijing, China

In sequencing the book, Conner has alternately exhibited natural vistas—simultaneously thriving and in decay—with similarly thriving and decaying urban panoramas. The reader is left feeling that Beijing is both impervious to time and constantly threatened by its own evolution.

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