A Photographic Life of Beauty


A Photographic Life of Beauty

Na Risong


I met Jia Yuping, who I affectionately called “Old Jia,” a long time ago. It was 1993 or 1994, and back then, I often saw Old Jia at the Wande Photography Equipment Store in the Xuanwumen area of Beijing. He made two impressions at the time. First, Old Jia was rather arrogant; he seemed to disdain everyone. Even though he was over 60, he still threw tantrums like a kid, destroying anyone in his path. Second, Old Jia had a lot of money; he treated buying cameras like buying cabbage, taking giant piles of them home with him. That was a different time, unlike today when wealthy entrepreneurs and politicians are photography fans. Back then, the photographers who had money were commercial and photography enthusiasts had no money at all; having a Nikon FM2 was considered pretty awesome. At the time, I knew that Old Jia made calendars, and that, in addition to seeing beautiful women all day, he made a lot of money. This earned him both the envy and admiration of many photographers.

In 1999, I planned a feature in Popular Photography entitled “Beauties and Photographers,” interviewing six different types of photographers who specialized in images of beautiful women, including Jia Yuping. The article took an auto-biographical perspective, and after the magazine came out, the response was expectedly large; the piece was reprinted by many media outlets. Old Jia’s story attracted particular attention. Many photo fans called or sent mail to the Editorial Department, hoping to have Old Jia become their teacher. At the beginning, I was well-intentioned, and I gave Old Jia’s phone number to fans searching for a teacher. I never thought that Old Jia would call me several days later, sounding rather agitated: “Little Na, don’t ever give my home number to my fans! I can’t live normally anymore; these people are always calling me and asking me to be their teacher. Some have even come to my home; they’re almost crazy, standing outside day after day. They’re scaring me!”

I said, “Old Jia, a lot of your fans have also sent local delicacies as gifts for you. I should bring them over sometime.”

“No need, Little Na, thank you. You keep them. I’m going away for a few days to hide from my fans!”

From that time onward, I didn’t dare give Old Jia’s phone number to anyone. Of course, I enjoyed the local specialties they had sent for Old Jia—there was seafood from Dalian, refined sesame oil from Henan, wood ear from the northeast, and sorghum noodles from Shandong… Some I ate myself and some I gave away.

In the years that followed, Old Jia and I became friends despite the difference in age. Old Jia would often call me at 7 a.m. and invite me over to his house to see pictures. For me, a professed night owl, who usually wakes after 10 a.m., this was difficult, but no matter how unhappy I was, I got up and went to Old Jia’s house to drink his good tea and listen to him talk about where he had been shooting recently.

In his later years, Jia no longer photographed beautiful women; he threw himself into pictures of gorgeous landscapes.

Frankly, I have always had my doubts about landscape photography in China, which has caused a lot of misunderstandings. Some think that I dislike all landscape photography. I don’t have anything against landscape photography; I just criticized the pedestrian (yet somehow popular) landscape photography that praises nature but lacks any spiritual value. It could even be said that this false landscape photography destroyed the Chinese tradition of salon photography. I never really liked landscape photographs shot by photographers like Old Jia, even though they are pleasing to the eye and truly provide aesthetic enjoyment.

Except when used professionally (as a tool for making a living or recording society), the most significant function of photography is improving inner tranquility and cultivating the mind and body. This is especially true for photography enthusiasts.

In his later years, Old Jia turned his attention to landscape photography, and took quite a few magnificent photographs; he also gathered a large group of fans who traveled around the world with him. Jia used photography to shape his character and enrich his already colorful life.

From beautiful women to beautiful landscapes, Old Jia brilliantly captured beauty over his entire photographic career.