Lately I’ve been spending my afternoon breaks over at the Futai Mansion near the North Gate, looking at all of the photography books on display there before the exhibition ends at the end of July. It’s an impressive collection, larger than I’ve found at bookstores here or at the library. There are chairs to sit in, and it’s usually quiet with only the occasional passerby glancing in. Typically I can get through a book a day, though some of the more interesting ones have taken a couple of days to really appreciate. Others I get through very quickly, for reasons I will explain below.
I’ve found is that there is no relationship between the quality and size of the books to the quality of the images within. Large, well-bound tomes with hundreds of large prints contain the most dreadfully boring photos, while coming across truly interesting Taiwanese photography seems to be a matter of chancing upon a small mention of someone in a random collection, with smaller, poorly edited selections that require the reader to seek other mentions in other books, which is often in vain.
Photography in Taiwan seem to have more or less always been stuck in such a rut, leaving anyone seeking to develop outside the Confucian system of “master photographers” out in the cold, unsupported and all-too-often foundering without any objective reviews or guidance from the community. The only commentary one could level at the “masters” was praise if you wanted to get anywhere, and anyone else wasn’t worth the time to even denigrate; ignoring them completely was a far more destructive weapon. Ironically, Taiwan itself would come to be largely ignored by the rest of the world due to political concerns.
The deleterious effects of this “system” are obvious in looking at the work being celebrated up until the 1990′s or so. For a long time, any photography was good photography, simply because a camera cost as much as a house, to nothing of film and developing costs, and photography was therefore even more rare and precious than it was in Western nations at the time. Of the renowned “Three Musketeers” of old, namely Chang Tsai, Deng Nan-guang and Lee Ming-tiao, only Lee, the longest-surviving of the three, had a solid sense of composition and emotion, while the others were more or less famous for their resistance to the attraction of the “salon” school of studio photography that was the rage at the time rather than the quality of their work. One of the most promising photographers of the 60′s, Huang Po-chi, virtually gave up photography to concentrate on his job as a doctor. It makes me wonder how many other photographers gave up their dreams in the face of such barriers over the decades.
A wave of “new school” photographers came on the scene following the lifting of martial law, coinciding, as it happens, with my arrival on our fair island, but the quality of their work was erratic and often either abstract for abstraction’s sake or poor shadows of documentary. There was seemingly no way of reviewing their own work. One particularly revealing collection I examined contained the works of Liu Chen-hsiang, Lian Hui-lin, Yeh Ching-fang, Hou Tsung-hui, Kao Chung-li, Chien Yong-pin, Pan Hsiao-hsia, Liang Cheng-chu and, of course, Chang Chao-tang. I know some of these photographers, but there was one photographer in the bunch whose work stuck out, and that was Yeh Ching-fang. His photos are not only well-composed, they aren’t boring. He was able to capture the essence and gravitas of everyday scenes with elegance and emotion. He didn’t seem to be photographing out of a sense of obligation, just because he could, but because he saw differently, he saw well.
It’s a shame that Yeh Ching-fang led such a destructive lifestyle that eventually killed him in 2005, because he is the best Taiwanese photographer I have ever come across.
I scoured the collection for more of Yeh’s work, but aside from a couple of small books there was precious little of it, though large volumes had been dedicated to someone’s mediocre snaps, or cows, or orchids, or whatever. One would think that the situation would be different today, and had Yeh lived, his work would now be recognized and supported by the outside world via the Internet, and he might have been able to reveal Taiwan and our society to the world.