Acclaimed photographer to speak at library
By Lou Fancher
Caught in the dramatic light and shadow of photographer Ding Hong Wu's historic black-and-white images, the power and pathos of ancient Chinese culture is undeniable.
Pictures taken by Wu on the streets of Shanghai in the late 1970s zoom in on a line of hands being washed at a communal tap, or pull back to capture a military man who is missing one leg. The water is unclean but considered more precious than oil in the impoverished city. The war veteran leans on a fence, his crutch paralleling the iron railings -- his back turned to the camera renders him simultaneously anonymous and symbolic of mankind suffering devastating combat.
Wu, 66 and living in New York, in a phone interview with son Jun Wu serving as translator, says that a sea of change swept through Shanghai in the 1970s and '80s. A market economy opened to foreign participation by former Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping brought prosperity and represented a harmonic coexistence of East and West but threatened to erase centuries of Chinese culture.
Wu is scheduled to speak about his work and the documentation of Shanghai at the Pleasanton Public Library at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Zhongqi Shi and his wife, Eve Zhang, lived in Shanghai during China's Cultural Revolution and are longtime friends of Wu. The San Pablo couple recommended Pleasanton librarian Yu Tau invite Wu to share their native land's history with people in the Tri-Valley.
"It is quite different from other cities in China," Zhang said. "They tore down old construction, and that changed everything, but it is very precious in the pictures. It's a time that is lost: he kept the history."
Zhang said not many people owned cameras in 1980 Shanghai.
"We were very poor. Wu became rather famous for taking pictures and was looked up to in Shanghai," she said.
Wu can no longer recall the exact model of the Japanese camera he used to archive the disappearing architecture, culinary and religious traditions, dress and lifestyles of common people in the city. He'd saved money he was supposed to use for food to buy it, determined to continue to pursue the arts -- music, calligraphy, painting -- and the photography he'd trained in during more prosperous times in his childhood.
Today, he uses a Canon 5D Mark II. He prefers film to digital and says, "Photoshop sort of destroys the art of photography."
As he documented the changing culture, Wu says people forgot about the poor times and became less honest. Before outsiders' influenced the city, the hearts of the Shanghainese were simple and forgiving. Wu has witnessed a change.
"Today, they are trying to figure out ways to earn money, so their personalities are more evil," Wu says. "They are complicated. The money has corrupted them a little."
But before commerce erased the humble commonalities of everyday lives and people, Wu's favorite images were marvelous medleys of bitterness and joy, sadness and happiness, contentment and angst.
"A homeless man picking up trash from the streets as if it's valuable; people walking in streets holding hands; a grandfather playing with his grandson. Normal things on normal days," Wu says, listing his favorite subjects.
One image, the hands being washed at 15 taps in a cramped, two-square-meter space, is the photo he'd like Americans to see. "It's a metaphor, because water was so scarce, it was like Americans' value of oil," he explains.
Wu left his DingHong Photo Studios in Shanghai 13 years ago and brought his family to the United States in order for his son to receive the very best music education possible. He continues to take photos and hold exhibits and has authored several books on the techniques that earned him the title Master Human Figure Photographer in China. English versions of the books are not available, making his appearance in Pleasanton a rare occasion.
Wu's photographs, archiving a marvelous country bristling with drama at the end of the 20th century, celebrate transition without dictating a specific response. Asked if his subjects were ever wary or uncomfortable being photographed, he says they were not.
"I don't confront the person" Wu says. "I grab the moment from time itself and don't converse. They don't notice me: I just take the photo when the moment is perfect."