On Chen Zhixian's Works
Chen Zhixian — The Statue on the Square
A man; a square; an industrial city in the south-eastern part of Shanxi province, in the north of China. For the last 32 years, Chen Zhixian has visited Jincheng every single year, and often more than once. He even recalls having attended 12 Spring Festivals, 5 Lantern Festivals, and 3 Mid- Autumn Festivals. When he visits, he spends most of his time on People’s Square.
Chen is not a native of Jincheng. He was born about 1400 kilometers away in southeastern China in July of 1954. Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, is where he spent his childhood and lived until the age of 45. Nor does he work in Jincheng, but over a thousand kilometers to the east, in Shanghai, where he moved his successful electric appliance business in 1999.
Chen fell in love with Jincheng and its square on his first stay, in 1985, as it was being elevated from a county to a prefecture city. Since, its population has increased by almost 30 percent to more than 2.3 million. Everything has changed on and around Jincheng’s People’s Square, but for the statue of Chairman Mao erected in September 1968.
Gone are the carts, the bicycles, the farmers’ outdoor market of the 70s and 80s. Gone too, in the 90s, the remaining hutongs and the bus terminal. Today, we see an expanded esplanade that hides a big underground parking lot, with manicured gardens and, in the right season, a playful and colorful nightlife. The buildings are taller. Traffic on the edges of the square is dense, with pedestrians snaking their way around the SUVs, motorbikes, and brightly colored buses. High-rises, fast food restaurants, hair salons and neon lights shape the new urban landscape.
We can see it all because of Chen Zhixian: he photographed it. Relentlessly. Year after year. He walks us through the square from black-and-white to color, from film to digital. Chen is a committed photographer. He got the bug from his father who loved literature, calligraphy and photography. In the late 70s he bought his first Seagull 4A and processed his black-and-white film in his bathroom. He has never stopped photographing since. First, to nurture his visual diary as he became one of China’s very first traveling salesmen following the deregulation of the economy; then, as he married, at 23, a primary school teacher to keep a trace of his family life and their travels.
Self-taught, he loves the medium, the equipment and the technology. Cameras, lenses, he ‘collects’ them in all shapes and sizes, from today’s small digital cameras to the more ancient medium-format bodies. He photographs from any angles without inhibition. In Jincheng, he seems to have spent a lot of time lying on the square looking for other ways to photograph. He likes to engage his subjects. Yet, at other times he prefers to be discreet and furtive. He clearly avoids any pre-conceived or formal approach to taking pictures. ‘Decisive moments’ or carefully clean-edge composed images are not his concern. He is fast, instinctive, more in the looser practice of Robert Frank. He sees; he feels; he shoots. Then, he smiles. He profoundly enjoys the act of taking pictures. There is something strongly and spontaneously filmic about Chen Zhixian’s visual writing and direct “snap-shooting” style.
The un-cropped pictures by Chen Zhixian presented here — or less than three a year on the average — are culled from tens of thousands of frames in various formats. They constitute an extraordinary and vivid documentation of China’s recent transformation into a major economic and cultural powerhouse. They also illustrate how photography remains such a relevant and powerful tool in the observation and understanding of history. Especially when recorded with great passion.
President, Contact Press Images (New York & Paris)