Home | Photographers | Don Hong-Oai: Photography as Art

Don Hong-Oai: Photography as Art

What classical Chinese landscape painting can teach us about photography

Snowy branch and rowing boat during winter at West Lake, Hangzhou, China

Branch and Boat, Hangzhou

Hangzhou Homage

I took the above photo in Hangzhou back in January of this year. It’s not unknown for West Lake to see snow during winter, but it’s not exactly an annual occurrence. I got lucky. Particularly so given the images I had in mind to take.

I’d seen exactly what I arrived in Hangzhou looking for a few months before. I’d bookmarked the page and made a mental note of the images, but by the time I was out in the snow hunting for similar images, I couldn’t actually remember anything about them except for what they looked like. I couldn’t remember where I’d seen them or whose they were. I know now that they are the work of Chinese photographer Don Hong-Oai.

Born in Guangzhou in 1929, Don Hong-Oai left China to live in Vietnam at the age of seven after the death of his parents. As a young man, he apprenticed at a photography studio in Saigon, travelling and honing his skills in his spare time. It was here that he became interested in landscape photography and began to develop an awareness of the techniques and style which would define his later career.

don-hong-oai-boat-and-branch

Don Hong-Oai used a montage technique to create his scenes

don-hong-oai-photograph

Note the branch in this and the previous image

Symbolism vs Realism

He remained in Vietnam during much of the war, moving briefly to France in 1974 to take up a position with a former teacher who subsequently died, and then to Malaysia to work as a photographer for the Red Cross. He returned to Vietnam when the war was over, but was on the move again in 1979, fleeing the country at the age of 50 for California in the wake of the Sino-Vietnamese war. He lived in San Francisco and was able to make enough money from selling his prints to return to China every few years to take new photographs. He died in 2004 after finally gaining recognition for his work during the last few years of his life.

Don Hong-Oai’s photography was greatly influenced by the time he spent under the guidance of the photographer Long Chin-San in Taiwan. Long Chin-San had developed a photographic style based on the Chinese landscape painting tradition, which emphasised symbolism over realism, and concerned itself with the artistic interpretation of a scene rather than its faithful depiction.

In this way, traditional Chinese landscape painting had more in common with classical poetry than the documentary-style painting that was coming out of Europe at the time. Such painted-to-order realism was simply not what the Chinese would have considered high art. Their practitioners were mere tradesmen, not artists. Artists shouldn’t simply replicate what was in front of them, according to the Chinese, rather, they should go beyond the given scene to uncover the deeper connections with the human experience that it masks. It is this sensibility which Long Chin-San, and later Don Hong-Oai, carried over into their photography.

boat-don-hong-oai

don-hong-oai-birds-and-mountains

Asian Pictorialism and Long Chin-San

The Asian pictorialism style that they developed, used symbolism and montage to evoke the photographer’s response to a scene. The scene was built, rather than captured (note the similiar branches in the first two images), using traditional motifs such as birds, boats, mountains and water to convey the artist’s vision. The vast tradition of Chinese art and poetry could thus be called upon in order to give a more allegorical and allusive final photograph than maybe a single faithful image could.

Don Hong-Oai’s photography was greatly influenced by the time he spent under the guidance of the photographer Long Chin-San in Taiwan. Long Chin-San had developed a photographic style based on the Chinese landscape painting tradition, which emphasised symbolism over realism, and concerned itself with the artistic interpretation of a scene rather than its faithful depiction.

This realism/symbolism distinction is maybe even more important in photography given the camera’s ability to record directly whatever is in front of it. But I think the real achievement of Don Hong-Oai’s photography is the realistic nature of the images. Not all of his work featured this montage technique, and some images, particularly those featuring animals, are fairly obviously not single photographs. But more so than his mentor Long Chin-San, Don Hong-Oai’s images are faithful to the compositional elements of traditional landscape painting and photography.

don-hong-oai-west-lake-hangzhou

don-hong-oai-sand-dunes

don-hong-oai-birds-and-mountains

Use of Space

For me, it’s the use of space and the positioning of the elements within the frame which is most striking about Don Hong-Oai’s photographs. The boat and branch images, for example, only have two items to work with, but there never seems an excess of space. The frame is always filled. It’s a landscape of minimalism, but one which is perfectly composed.

It’s the reason I knew exactly what I wanted to come away with from Hangzhou despite not having seen my original inspiration for months and knowing nothing about the photographer or his technique. There’s no montage gone into my shots (just saying), but I think I captured the essence of what I was looking for, at least with the first image.

What can classical Chinese landscape painting, and the photography of Don Hong-Oai, teach us about our own technique? Well, if there’s one thing, I guess it’s this: keep it simple. Decide what is essential in your image and do away with the superfluous. Fill the frame but don’t be afraid of space. Is there really any more than this?

Mountain-Path-in Spring-Ma-Yuan

Fisherman-Wu-Zhen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

Powered by themekiller.com anime4online.com animextoon.com apk4phone.com tengag.com moviekillers.com