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Battle of the China Portrait Books

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Battle of the China Portrait Books: A Photography Book Review of Biblical Proportions

Sorting through the stacks of China-themed litter(ature) that publishers have sent to our office this past year for review, a couple of similarly-titled books managed to catch our attention: Taschen’s China, Portrait of a Country, and Tom Carter’s CHINA: Portrait of a People.

Two photography books about China with nearly identical names being released on the same date (August 2008) was enough happenstance to invite a proverbial David-and-Goliath comparison between both “China Portrait” books: one a major title from a well-financed European publishing house (Taschen) and the other released under the radar by an independent publisher in Hong Kong (Blacksmith Books).

At first glance, Taschen’s large-format hardcover dominates. A reportage retrospective from 1949 until the present day, China, Portrait of a Country is a by-the-numbers illustrated book that offers newspaper images and state-issued propaganda spanning from the Cultural Revolution to the Beijing Olympics. It is an impressive, well-researched volume that will appeal to Asian studies scholars. But not unlike the ill-fated Philistine warrior, Portrait of a Country’s pomposity is also its downfall. Edited by Pulitzer-prize winning Liu Heung Shing, the acclaimed photojournalist went through great lengths to compile these old images, yet the book itself offers nothing unique to the coffee table. This rather dry archive of media stills, staged photo-ops and recycled photos of Communist Party leaders is not anything we haven’t already seen in an encyclopedia, nor is it a book that the average photography enthusiast could ever get really excited about.

Keeping in line with the parable parallel, Tom Carter’s debut book CHINA: Portrait of a People is the future king of Israel to Taschen’s Goliath. Standing at a humble 15cm x 15cm, what this cube-shaped book lacks in height compensates for in sheer volume: 640 full-color pages that took our editorial team an entire week to read. Whereas the Taschen book was shot by 88 credentialed photojournalists with all-access passes, lone photographer Tom Carter purportedly spent 2 years backpacking across 33 Chinese provinces to create his homage to the people of the P.R.C. His publishers claim that Carter is one of the only foreign photographers in the history of China to complete such a journey, and by all accounts they are correct; the Pulitzer people would do well to give some attention next year to this young man.

CHINA: Portrait of a People includes over 800 captivating photographs of regular Chinese folks whom Carter met during his travels across the Republic. “A look at the ordinary people who don’t make the international headlines, yet are the heart and soul of this country,” Carter writes in his prologue. There is an obvious spiritual connection between the photographer and his subjects; the smiles are sincere and portray a warm side of China that out-for-blood foreign correspondents often fail to report.

The candid street photography of CHINA: Portrait of a People is comprehensive, ranging from the humorous (man trying to eat rice while a monkey stares him down) to the titillating (two karaoke hostesses making out) to the disturbing (mentally-ill woman laying in the street while cars drive past her) to the heart-breaking (pubescent mother breast-feeding her impoverished child) to the breathtaking (rustic village bathed in the blue light of dawn) to the artistic (pair of bare ancient walls) to the newsworthy (peasant street-fight) to the minimalist (mug shot of a soot-faced coal miner) to the cultural (dynastic wood carvings with heads cut off by the Red Guard) to the confounding (bride and groom in full regalia hopping across a river). For all of China’s vastness, there’s hardly a location or moment that Carter missed in this photographic tome; it is exhaustive, definitive and absolute.

Carter’s endearment to antiquated villages, agrarians and ethnic minorities is apparent (the Tibet and Xinjiang chapters are twice as long as the rest) and his love for the proletariat is unabashed. He is a true man of the people who would have felt at home during The Long March. A self-proclaimed budget backpacker who sleeps in the gutter instead of in luxury hotels, Carter has in past interviews made no secret of his disdain for packaged tourism. Instead, Carter’s photos ingeniously focus on the droves of Chinese tour groups blocking the view of famous sites rather than the site itself.

CHINA: Portrait of a People is a portrait of China in transition. Contrast plays heavily throughout the book. Any photograph of China’s new skyscrapers also slyly include in the foreground a traditional tenement in mid-demolition, reminding us that China’s progress has not come without sacrificing its past. Even more profound are Carter’s startling comparisons of the rural Chinese populous with New China urbanites, such as the Fujian farmer swathed in palm-tree bark and conical hat, opposite the big-city teenagers with face piercings and “feather duster” hair, or the hip young city couple in Jiangsu opposite the peasant family hauling a bushel of weeds. Scratching beneath the surface of Carter’s work, we also noted the photographer’s subtle yet undeniable fascination with “hair salon girls” (11 photos in all), though this just may be an honest reflection of China’s disturbingly high prostitution rate. One wonders, however, how he maneuvered his camera so close to so many heels without getting kicked in the face.

Though his powerful photos will inevitably overshadow the brilliance of his writing, Carter exemplifies a rare double-talent not only as a photographer but as scribe. Introductions to each provincial chapter are a well-written blend of abbreviated history (“Beijing, where crumbling walls encompass steel skylines and the disquiet of deconstruction harmonizes with development’s din.”), amusing anecdotes (“A moment later we were facing the business ends of two submachine guns held by North Korean border-patrol soldiers.”), first-person composites (“I didn’t learn how to read until I was 75. My granddaughter in primary school taught me.”) and Tang Dynasty-esque poetry (“Sad wanderer once you conquer the East, where do you go?”). His references to American pop culture are inventive, including a Chinese reenactment of Norman Rockwell’s ‘Soda Jerk’ painting, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ (a girl really being attacked by hungry pigeons) and Quentin Tarantino movie quotes (“Let’s see your Tiger-Crane style match my Eagle’s Claw!”), though such clever captioning may be lost on the average reader.

The book itself is very attractive, meticulously designed by graphics design firm e5, and incorporates useful fold-out maps of each province along with heavy paper stock and solid binding. Grainy camera resolution, jaundiced CMYK conversions, a headache-inducing cover collage and throw-away dust jacket leave room for improvement, but it is a respectable debut worthy of being short-listed for an award or two.

While this battle of the China Portrait books may not be of the same biblical proportions as David and Goliath, first-time author Tom Carter proves that one does not need the backing of a highbrow publisher to create a true work of art. Unfortunately, if the establishment continues to block the door, the literary underdog that is CHINA: Portrait of a People may not ever receive the accolades that it is due. Taschen reportedly saturated the press with hundreds of complimentary review copies of Portrait of a Country. As a result, Liu Heung Shing’s pals at CNN, Time and Associated Press, in all their elitist sensationalism, chose to collectively review Taschen’s title over the lesser-known yet superior Portrait of a People, leaving Carter’s book virtually ignored by journalists save for a handful of expatriate ‘zines in Beijing.

During our interview with Tom Carter, the native San Franciscan said that a number of unfavorable factors, including the souring economy and a non-responsive international media, have made it difficult for his Hong Kong publishers to obtain global distribution or press coverage for Portrait of a People. When asked why their was no obligatory launch party, book signing events or even a general media advisory, Carter remains reticent, saying only that his joint publishers at Blacksmith Books / Haven Booksare working very hard with the resources they have.” Six months after its release, his book has yet to be sold in any brick-and-mortar bookstores, or even get listed on Amazon. Nevertheless, Portrait of a People has been endorsed by heavyweight Chinese authors Anchee Min (Red Azalea) and Mian Mian (Candy), and Carter is obsessively promoting the book online with an aggressive DIY buzz-marketing campaign, including producing his own book trailers for YouTube.

The fruits of Carter’s word-of-mouth labor remains to be tasted, but the product itself is now on sale (but only directly through his publisher’s website). CHINA: Portrait of a People is not just an idyllic souvenir for Sinophiles, but a timeless piece of literature that – provided his indi publishers can keep the book in print or it gets licensed out to the likes of Taschen – can be passed down through the dynasties as one of the most honest and educational illustrated books on contemporary China ever published.

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