After photography was invented in the mid-nineteenth century and utilized broadly in news reporting, advertisement, art, and daily life, this visual technology surpassed all previous artistic means in mimicking reality. It even substituted for reality itself, using photographic images to construct a world as the object to be observed and recognized. Scholars of the history of photography constantly remind us about the artificiality and utilitarian purposes of such substitution and construction, but when we face a photograph – especially a so-called “news photo,” “historical photo” or “private photo” – our direct response is still often: This is real; this is me.
A photograph already embodies cultural specificity and the photographer’s gaze in the original shot; the printing process further allows ample opportunities to interfere with and distort reality. Political scientists have documented many cases in modern world history, in which photographs were doctored for political purposes. Zhang Dali’s investigation further suggests that rather than being isolated incidents, such distortions indicate an essential, internal mechanism of photographic production. Doctored subjects include old photos and leaders’ portraits, as well as news photos and snapshots of ordinary people. The doctored images not only help reconstruct historical events and images of state heroes, but also lay a foundation for comprehending the world and the idea of the people. Instead of recording what is real, these images advance a certain “spirit” or ideology under the name of photo reportage.
The photographical prints collected and organized by Zhang Dali in this exhibition demonstrate a number of methods used to doctor existing photos (and thus to alter reality). These methods include: (1) erasing particular figure(s) in a photograph; (2) replacing undesirable figure(s) with desirable ones; (3) reframing a photograph, making a part the whole; (4) modifying the background of a photograph to reinforce the central figure(s); (5) inserting detailed images into or eliminating such images from an existing photograph; (6) polishing and perfecting the central figure(s)；and (7) adding or altering words in a photograph in order to change or reinforce the theme of the composition. These methods are often used in combination; their application serves various purposes, sometimes explicitly political, other times “artistic,” aiming to create a more balanced composition. It is worth noting that almost all these methods are facilitated by painting: the empty space left by an erased figure must be filled, and a tiny wrinkle between Mao’s eyebrows can be carefully flattened by delicate brushwork. Comparing these images closely, we are often surprised and even moved by the painstaking effort and skill of the photo editors.
The significance of Zhang Dali’s project does not simply lie in laying bare these phenomena. Rather, it leads us to think about two deeper issues. First, we begin to realize that the distortion of photographs not always serves political propaganda. In fact, it is accepted and employed by society at large, since everyone seems attracted by ideal, “sublimated” images of themselves. The negatives of old studio portraits, for example, always bear traces of “xiuban” – penciled refinement of people’s features. As for recent digital images, they are even more prone to elaborate editing techniques, from altering people’s faces to elaborating background scenery. The distortion of photographs in political culture is therefore not an isolated phenomenon, but has an enormous cultural and psychological basis.
The second issue raised by these images concerns their relationship with “revolutionary realistic” art and the theory of “revolutionary realism.” Based on Mao’s Talks in the Yan’an Seminars on Art and Literature, Guo Muoruo once argued that “genuine (revolutionary) art and literature is a symbolic world, created by pure spiritual factors through sublimating an extremely rich reality.” (Papers on Art and Literature. Criticism and Dream) This principle, in fact, can be applied to the doctored images in this exhibition, which all “came from life” but are “higher than life,” and which, as “sublimation” is defined in dictionaries, transform images from their “primitive state into something with higher spiritual or cultural value."