Feng Li’s White Night is the result of 10 years spent roaming the streets of Chengdu, China. Mostly flash-lit, with an unsettling/nauseating green cast to most of the photos, grinning faces of awkward people and pretty people in awkward situations, it’s a collection of the absurd, filled with visual jokes, puns, and juxtapositions.
Feng works as a photographer for the local government, a propagandist, shooting “’urban construction, community and social activities, and different conferences etc’ in his local region, all of which must be ‘portrayed in positive images regardless.’”*
But when he’s off work the gloves come off, and Feng is ruthless. In interviews, he doesn’t seem malicious, but to look at the pictures themselves, and especially their sequencing, I don’t feel the fascination that he claims. I’m sure life is somewhat different in Chengdu, China, and I’m sure the culture and attitudes of the people are vastly different than what I live in here in Irving, TX. But when you have an almost Bruce Gilden-type flash photograph of an older man with bad teeth, then follow it up with a grinning, googly-eyed, sick-looking panda with a suspiciously similar grin, the fascination with the absurdity of human life takes on a sinister feel.
White Night was shortlisted for the 2017 Paris Photo – Aperture Foundation First Photobook Awards, so there’s something to this book, and, truly, there is. It’s an incredible body of work, really. It’s just that so much of it is so deeply disturbing to me, nauseating. I wonder if something happened to the color during printing. Sure, people are weird, and we all do the silliest, most surreal things all the time, little micro-expressions and gestures and all. And I guess these are worth capturing and reproducing in the most surreal ways possible, so I guess it works, but wow does it really turn my stomach.
In a great interview/walk around Chengdu with Léo de Boisgisson on ASX, Feng talks about all the changes in Chengdu, the modernization of everything and the inability of people to keep up with it all. They eat peanut chicken, wrapped in Wonderbread, and walk down through the former silk trading district, now remade with endless office buildings and karaoke bars. The ancient, derelict temples have been torn down and replaced with modern, safe, structurally sound, prefab tourist sites. And it’s this change that Feng reacts to, I think, and it’s not the people’s fault that Capitalism has run rampant in Communist China just like it has almost everywhere else, everywhere where there’s money to be made, anyway.
Or, rather, it’s everyone’s fault, including Feng’s. After all, he’s a propagandist for the state in his day job, shooting sunny photographs of new shopping malls and festivals and glittering office parks, masking the hazy gloom that normally covers the city, and that recalls the passage in Job, quoted on the back cover, from which, Feng culled his title.
By day they meet with darkness, and grope at noon as in the night.
The book is beautifully printed and well made, but somehow feels cheap, with a spine that makes cracking noises, and a cover that looks wrinkled and scratched, until you notice it has a protective film over it. I keep going back to the color, and I keep thinking it’s wrong, but it must be intentional, and if it is, well, the whole thing is really a brilliant critique, and one that I’m fully a part of, even from halfway around the world.
Overall, I give White Night 3.8 stars.
Other authors have written much better, more studied, and thoughtful reviews than this one. Robert Dunn’s review at Photobookstore is excellent, as is the review/interview on the British Journal of Photography, and an interview with Cat Lachowskyj on Lens Culture is informative and fascinating. I got one of the final available copies of the first edition, but fear not: Jiazazhi printed a second edition that sounds largely identical to the first, and you can find it direct from China.
If you like disturbing, hardcore, street photography, it’s a don’t miss.
*Quoted in the British Journal of Photography. Retrieved from http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/11/feng-lis-feted-book-white-night-shows-the-absurdity-of-life/ 17 September 2018.