Chen Changfen Photographs The Great Wall Of China; One Subject, Ever Changing
The photographs of Chen Changfen speak of tranquility and mysticism. Winter
snow melting into the sea beneath a cold blue sky; miles of sand and rock as
well as mountain landscapes have created a poetic background for the Great Wall
of China over the years. For the past 30 years Changfen has trudged the steep
paths to photograph the rough, hidden beauty of the Wall in a variety of magical
and atmospheric surroundings.
"I have seen many photographers who have photographed The Great Wall," Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, says, "but none of their photographs have the poetry of Chen Changfen's. A lot of it has to do with his Taoist philosophy. The heart of it is that in nature there is never anything stationary. It is constant flux, like when winter is becoming summer. There is no dominance.
Beijingjie, Beijing, 1999
"Being Western and having this dialectical approach I kept saying to
Chen things like the Wall and nature were at war with each other and he would
smile and say, `It's not either--it's a cycle...'"
Built over 2000 years ago, the Wall itself gives the impression of always changing as it disappears into the distance. Built of tamped mud and willow branch then stone and finally brick, there is a variety of textures and environments, created by different dynasties and built on various borders at different times. The Ming Wall remains the most familiar since it was the last dynasty and is only an hour outside of Beijing, from where it is most easily accessible. Changfen is documenting the transformations as the Wall is deteriorating or being restored, winding his way upward in extreme heat or bitter cold in an explicit pursuit to get his pictures. "Chen is fascinated," Tucker says, "and he is using the Wall in the way Ansel used Yosemite and Stieglitz used Lake George, a subject to go back to and to embody with his own life philosophy."
Jiayuguan, Gansu Province, 1986
Born in 1941 in Central China's Hunan Province, Changfen became a professional
photographer at the age of 18 during the Cultural Revolution that created such
a huge turmoil in China until '76. Over the past 30 years that he has
explored and photographed the Wall it has been Changfen's feeling and
need to do something he feels good about and can concentrate his energies on.
"It has become a commitment, a dedication to an idea as well as a preservation
of history," Tucker says.
Changfen's work not only has an engaging sense of beauty; he sees the Wall artistically. Many images are black and white. Others are photographed in color. For Changfen it is a different way to express what he sees, often using the black and white when he is photographing the Wall and its structure and using color to portray the natural elements, the seasons, or
Anbian, Shanxi Province, 1998
Changfen has been described as "not a scholarly man but rather a thoughtful one." He is without a doubt a true artist who cares deeply about the rough beauty of his subject, both as a symbol of something wonderful that has been accomplished and with sadness that China is destroying it with highways cutting through and allowing the tremendous amount of tourism that takes its toll on the environment.