In my fiction writing class, after a piece has been read out loud, the first question we ask is: What’s the story? I like to have the students kick around what they think the story they’ve just heard is, how it sets out, where it takes us, how it turns, twists, resolves. That question gets to the center of the writing, and from that the rest of the piece opens up.
With a photobook my first question is often: Is there a story? By story I don’t mean a plot or even any clear sequence of events; photobooks move differently from other art forms. What I am asking, though, is: Is there a shape behind the array of shots? A sense of correspondence, of pace, of theme, of direction? Simply, what holds all the images together—images that might not reveal any literal sense but should be composed, and ordered, as in a private poem. The late John Ashbery, a fave of mine, did this exceptionally well in his poetry books: Lift us, take us on a journey of images (and language), and always keep us a bit lost as we try to make sense of his work.
With Feng Li’s powerful White Night, I’m sensing just that intention … a strong story he has to tell, but one which I don’t have much of a clue about. It seems a natural tale of his wholly unnatural world of Chengdu, China … a photobook that’s part surreal, part hallucination, all street work, and the product of a powerful artistic intent.
Come, let’s jump in.
The cover of the book intrigues. It’s a thick, black, almost solid sheet of plastic, just translucent enough to let the outlines of the photo underneath through: The back of a shapeless woman, in a huge fur coat, her knock-off tan designer bag at her side. She’s alone on a gray street, a brooding image countered immediately by the first shot in the book itself, branches of what look like cherry blossoms before a turquoise sky, a common enough Chinese image that leads to … a moody shot of a man carrying what looks like a fake tree of cherry blossoms down a murky street.
Immediately we know the photos are talking to each other, and observations undercut by visions of artifice is a theme in play. That’s all the more true in the next photo, a plaid-jacketed soul spinning a giant fireworks sparkler, followed immediately by a similar band of colors in a rainbow stretching above a ledge topped by broken shards of glass.
Private images, private poems. And pairings across spreads that are so far from accidental they seem almost uncanny. A few pages in we find a young Chinese woman gazing mysteriously heavenward across from a line of black-leather-clad women, each wearing over-the-knee leather boots and brandishing a long cat-of-nine-tail whip.
Ohhhh-kayyyyyy. Chengdu, where Feng Li lives, is evidently a pretty curious place, at least through his eyes. From a fascinating walk-around-town interview with him that appears in American Suburb X, I learned that Chengdu is the historic capital of Sichuan province, and through Feng Li’s work, a place with more than a hint of surrealism rising up from its ancient streets. Feng Li is evidently one of the most successful professional photographers in this artistic city, but the photos in White Night are the private work of a decade. As Leo de Boisgisson, the lucky writer strolling around town with Li, puts it, “[Li] is not into ‘the decisive moment,’ or aesthetic settings. For him, the decisive moment is now, and he would never settle somewhere to wait for it. Every snapshot is an unexpected and sometimes inconvenient encounter with fate.”
Is that what underlies the deep story of White Night … fate? It seems as good a theme as any. The world of Chengdu is being modernized, changing rapidly, and Li captures the gaps between the old and the new … the way fate plays out inside the everyday. A stunned-looking woman on an escalator across the page from a goofy-looking guy with old-school bad teeth. A one-legged man in an unzippered bunny costume followed a few photos on by an ingénue in a much more formal bunny-cotillion costume (shades of Hugh Hefner, late between draft one of this piece and now), this photo paired against one of a guy in a tiger T-shirt so realistic the beast’s snout extends at least as far from his stomach as a pregnant woman’s.
What? Where the hell are we? I take a lot of my shots in New York’s Times Square, looking for that concatenation of hordes of different people, layers of reflected images, strangeness, astonishment … and I’ve never seen a guy wearing a tiger shirt that looks like it would be happy to rip out your throat. Spooky stuff.
And lots of it. White Night is 184 pages long, the product of at least a decade of flâneuring around town, very much the private work of a very busy professional photographer. (According to the American Suburb X piece one can find Li’s professional shots on huge digital screens around Chengdu.)
But not in his book. Who’s going to put up on a billboard the photo of a woman held high aloft on a white pole, enwrapped inside some kind of cloth bulb like a bright red Hershey’s kiss. To sell what? The absolute surrealism of daily life here? Where’s the money in that?
Somewhere, evidently, because people sure are acting out in Chengdu. The next spread contrasts a string of nippled breast balloons with a bald man’s head almost squeezed in a window frame, and that’s followed by a man surrounded by flame-red lamps presumably in some kind of quack medical treatment, that shot paired with a fur-wearing woman shot from the back (like the cover shot), but this time with just the same red-yellow-orange fiery glare erupting from the scalp below her thinning hair.
Weird, weird, weird … and on and on. I’m just getting going with White Night, and already I’ve seen shots I’ve never seen before, and could never have imagined. Brilliant. Disturbing. Breathtaking.
There’s a bit of Bruce Gilden here, though the subjects are not at all uniformly grotesque. There are traces of the intense colors of the late Ren Hang, though not many actual portraits and no apparent undertow of sexuality. Really, Feng Li is his own photographer, his own man. As Li puts it, “My wife often tells me my pictures are weird, and I tell her it’s not my fault if so many weird things happen right in front of me!”
Besides the weirdness, one thing that’s consistent is wit, especially in the way the photos line up. Here’s another spread: Four women on their backs doing exercises, white panties vivid, paired with a man carrying two plastic-wrapped costumed dummies down another of those murky Chengdu walkways. And another: A child with its hands up and pressing against a pane of glass paired with a kid in a folkloric fox costume, also with its hands up. That last pairing is about as obvious as Li ever gets; most pairings are far more ineffably appropriate than clever, more mysterious than just a visual pun.
But as I said above, all the photos talk to each other, the pairings particularly engaging, similar themes and imagery fluttering, darting through the whole book … until the images end with another tree of budding flowers, though here the buds are all glowing white lights, the life and beauty of the cherry blossoms buzzing now with manmade electricity.
So what is Feng Li’s story in White Night? That everything connects; and that life is amazing, absurd, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, you ain’t seen nothing.
Which is, perhaps, the best, most timeless story of all.
White Night by Feng Li can be purchased here.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Carnival of Souls are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here). In Spring 2017, Dunn taught a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.