Yan Wang Preston: Interview and Images

Matthew Webb

England

The Yangtze River begins in Tibet and runs the length of China, dissecting the nation into North and South. At 6380 km long, it is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world. Its route has carried goods and centuries of cultural exchange. Many key strategic positions along its length have been fought over for millennia. The Yangtze saw the Battle of Wuhan in 1938 and the Yangtze River Crossing Campaign between 1945 and 1949. It plays host to the largest hydroelectric dam project in the world.

But none of these human landmarks are specifically sought out in Yan Wang Preston’s images. Although it’s typical that we impose our own history over geography, Preston’s approach is different.

In Mother River, Preston introduces us to a contemporary photography battleground, that of representation, objectivity, wonder, and gaze. She traveled the length of the Yangtze, taking photographs at precise 100km intervals, thus passing over the photogenic sites that appear between her frames. She has taken herself somewhat out of the archetypal photographer’s role to capture decisive moments and instead presents her own view.

Beginning in August of 2018 and continuing over several months, Matthew Webb conducted interviews with Yan Wang Preston to talk about her photography project, Mother River, and the events that led to this investigation. The result of these talks illustrates that the event of photography is never simply about the photographer and the photograph but is ongoing.

Growing up in China

MW: Before we dive into the Yangtze, could you tell me a little about your background in China?

YP: I grew up in Henan, which borders Hebei, South of the Yellow River. When I was 12, my parents moved to another town to set up a private hospital while I stayed with my older brother. At 18, I moved to Shanghai to study medicine, which was a natural choice as both my parents are doctors and I had always been surrounded by doctors. Although schoolwork was hard, I had never questioned my future as a doctor, and soon I was working as an anesthetist in a large state hospital.

MW: Did you make photographs of Henan in those early years?

YP: When I was around ten years old, my father traveled to Japan and came home with a Canon camera and a photo of a sunset. The scene was underexposed, backlit with silhouettes throughout the image, unlike any sunset I had seen in real life. In my mind, Henan provided few opportunities for photos. Life was hard and monotonous. It wasn’t until I was in Shanghai in my first couple of years at university (1994/5), that I saw what photographs could be.  On seeing images published by Black Lens and National Geographic, I was deeply moved in ways I still cannot articulate completely. Beautiful photos in black and white with crisp details, unlike anything I had seen before. The traveling bookshops, which were my main way of seeing books at that time, didn’t have many books on photography.

Shanghai

MW: How did your experience in Shanghai inspire you to pursue photography?

YP: In Shanghai, I took up photography as a hobby and tried to join the university photography club. Just as entrance to university had been competitive, so too was the entrance to the club. There was an exam. We were all given a book on photography theory, which did not contain a single picture. I failed the exam and was not allowed into the club, but I became friends with members. It was through them that I entered the world of photography. It then continued as a hobby for me for some time though I was never really part of the Chinese photography circles.

At some point at the beginning of the 2000s I began to question my future. I quit my job and went rock climbing, met people who weren’t doctors: foreigners, people working in IT, people who had time and resources to travel extensively. It was at this time that I traveled to Tibet and became more serious about climbing. I read Mountain Light, by Galen Rowell, the illustrious mountain photographer. It opened my eyes to the craft of photography, choosing different film types to achieve different results. How Velvia 50, for example, had a different character than other films. How the angle of light can change the photo completely. Wow. That opened a lot for me.

Beijing

MW: What were your first photography projects?

 YP: I started working on little photography projects around Beijing. The first was the “Small Business Edition.” I would ride my bicycle around Beijing making photographs of all the small businesses I came across. At first with a Seagull camera and then with a Nikon FM2 35mm camera with a 28-85 lens, always using the cheapest black-and-white film. Initially, I always used black-and-white film to keep costs low, but when I traveled, I would always photograph using color transparency film. The transparencies produced beautiful saturated colors. Sometimes though, the photos started appearing too saturated, and they were always, always, difficult to handle. The range of light was too narrow to use in complicated scenes where the exposure in the shadows and the highlights were several stops apart. I then started to use Fuji Pro S films, which although grainy I stayed with until around 2008, when film became much harder to source.

The Years in Between

MW: Tell me about what happened next.

YP: After 2008, I moved to a large format camera system and Kodak Portra, which was a revelation. I could push the film 5 stops over exposure and it still worked, by exposing for the shadows. I was also becoming much more methodical in my approach. I had three lenses and tested every lens at every stop—again using cheap black-and-white film—to see how the camera and lenses worked at different settings and what output to expect.

While I was learning more about photography, my passion at that time was still climbing. I met an English climber from North Manchester, Neil Preston, and by 2003 we were married at the age of 27. We lived another two years in China before deciding to move to the UK together.

During these two years, I translated the book Ghosts of Everest, which was published. I didn’t return to medicine and didn’t receive pressure from my parents as they had busy lives and were occupied with their practice. I did consider returning to medicine when I returned to the UK, but ot would have taken me another five years to be able to practice there, and so I decided to be a photographer. I didn’t realize then it would take another 12 years to achieve this goal.

Redefining Her Career

 MW: What changed when you moved to the UK?

YP: On arriving in the UK and seeing a chance to define my career, I told everyone I was a photographer. I worked in admin support in the Co-Op financial group to make ends meet and enrolled in the part-time MA in Photography program at Bradford University, beginning in 2005 and finishing in 2009. Initially, I published postcards, photographed weddings, and made sales targets to help me develop my new career. I went to many portfolio reviews, and the consistent advice I received was that I should pursue a long-term project. This became Mother River.

I knew that Mother River would need several years of work and would be very expensive, well beyond my means. I considered working freelance or full-time photography roles, but neither would allow me to pursue or fund my project. The only way I could imagine taking the project forward, allowing time and also a way to raise funds, was through a practice-based PhD. I began in 2010. My parents were happy and agreed to fund the project.

I had long been enamored by the New Topographic photographers and the photographs of Andreas Gursky and Mark Power. The latter did amazing projects such as 26 Different Endings, The Shipping Forecast, etc. I remember seeing works by photographers who had traveled to the Yangtze to produce work: Ferit Kuyas (Chongqing: A City of Ambition) and Edward Burtnysky and Nadav Kander and others. But each time I saw the images, I was confused as they were different from my own experience of the river.

By that time, I had traveled enough to understand the scale of the Yangtze. I had been to the headwater areas in Tibet. I had visited my ancestral homes on the edge of the Yangtze catchment, as well as the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the river’s mouth in Shanghai. The Yangtze was very hot in the media then, with the Three Gorges Dam project, but why was the only story about environmental degradation and problems? I felt that each project had the same message, and I could produce something that added to the narrative about the river and China and that I could do so through a new photographic method.

Mother River

MW: Could you now tell me about your project along the Yangtze? What triggered the idea, the method, and the specific distance of photos at 100k intervals? Had you done something like this before?

 YP: I wanted to provide wider context, not just looking at human time but also geological time and not just environmental damage. I also wanted to do the whole thing and challenge the hierarchy of what is important to photograph. Then came the question: How do I do it? It should be topographic, certainly. It should be manageable. It was impossible to be objective, but I would try to make pictures that were more cerebral.

I experimented with English rivers first. I started with the Ribble at 121.6km. I photographed that river in eight equal sections. Then I followed the Urwell to the Mersey, taking water samples from seven equally spaced locations. I photographed confluences and then just things I found interesting. Finally, I decided to follow a strategy based on distances. Photographs at every 100km along the Yangtze seemed enormous but also manageable. Part of me was driven also by the adventure of seeing the places we would visit.

MW: How did you mark the exact points?

YP: I interviewed a Chinese scientist whose role with the Chinese Academy of Science was to measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon. He suggested that I go onto Google Earth, find the end point of the glacier and then mark every 100km along the river.

The first ten points on the map were semi-unpopulated and getting there was more akin to an expedition than a simple journey. Y1, the river source, is at an altitude of 5400m, 600m higher than the peak of Mount Blanc. Even just reaching the points on the map took 95% of our energy. We took two land cruisers for safety; should one car fail we would still be able to return. I kept the team small. On the first trip it was just two drivers and me. On the second trip, I would also take a filmmaker, but never with Neil.

Navigation

MW: How did you find your way along the river? Did you use maps or GPS? Where did you go first? I remember Chinese friends laughing when I first arrived in China with a map, several guidebooks and travel essays. What literature did you take with you along the way?

YP: You’re right. There is a cultural difference between how maps are used every day in the UK, for example, and in China where people rely much more on local information. It is a different lived experience.

My process went as follows. I would first consult Google Maps and look at the region where the point was. Then when I arrived in the region, I would buy local Chinese road maps. Once I got closer to the site I would then rely on local knowledge. My first major trip for the Y Points System was in March 2013, for which I covered points Y9-Y25. Up until Y38 I only really knew how to get to the locations once we had found our way already. You could see roughly where the location was beforehand but not necessarily how to get there. Once we crossed Y45 however, accessing locations became much easier. On one occasion, my mum came to join me in the mountains surrounding Y11 when she realized that the project could have historical significance. I tried not to read on the way. I didn’t want to be influenced. But in those few years I did revisit some classic literature, such as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and some new classics, such as the Chinese writer Mo Yan’s novels.

MW: China has many languages, not just the official language, Mandarin, but many local languages and dialects. How did you communicate with the people you met along the way, and were there any other barriers to realizing the project?

YP: At the beginning of the journey we encountered few people, but in Tibet it was especially difficult as Tibetans have an entirely different language. Many areas were technically “out of bounds” areas, other areas between Y15 and Y16 were not reachable at all, and Y28 needed a motorboat. Y35 presented another challenge. In the middle of a small village, the residents couldn’t quite understand why we were photographing there, we were reported to the police, arrested, and questioned separately for three hours each.

MW: Processing film can be difficult under the easiest circumstances, yet you traveled great distances. How did you handle film?

YP: I decided to process the films for Mother River in China in both Beijing & Shanghai. This presented many problems but at least, each time I left China, I knew broadly how the photos had turned out. In later projects I chose to develop the film in the UK, which gave more predictable results, but it made me very tense, waiting so long to develop the pictures. In my recent project, Forest, I took 400 large-format photos, and it was a long time to see the results.

In Mother River, however, I took far fewer pictures per site. I spent most of my energy getting to the site itself and, as you know yourself, each picture absorbs so much of your energy and concentration. I had budgeted for roughly eight exposures per point.

Reflections on Mother River

MW: In retrospect, did you go to China as a photographer, explorer, citizen, foreigner? Would you have been happy with the journey irrespective of the photographs you made?

YP: I went to China as a photographer to produce a project but yes, it was also a little like a game of hide and seek. Each journey was a puzzle. I would first look on Google Earth to see where the location was but then feel the excitement and trepidation of arriving at the location, seeing what the place looks like, what it feels like, and wondering what images produced from those sites would look like in a series. But I was also in all the other roles. I was a citizen in the sense that I have a Chinese cultural memory of and emotional bond to the landscapes, which no doubt impacted the way I made photographs. I was a foreigner in the way I was aware of how the Yangtze/China was represented outside the country. This awareness also impacted the way I photographed. My view was more “detached,” but this is more an aesthetics choice, perhaps a choice more associated with western aesthetics, although it doesn’t mean that a Chinese photographer can’t choose this mode of communication. I was of course an explorer, a keen mapper to go outside of the mapped terrains but also an internal explorer on the journey of self-discovery.

MW: Photography as an art involves including all the things that one would like and excluding all the things that do not add to the image or message within the message. Do you see photography as a reduction game, producing symbols, signposts, and referents?

YP: It’s true that photography is a reduction game, and in a landscape it’s perhaps possible to limit what you are photographing to just the essential elements; but there are many situations when it’s not easy. If one is photographing a crowd, for example, and you press the shutter you don’t quite know what everyone is doing at the very moment. You have a good idea but it’s not complete.

MW: It has often been seen as the photographer’s role to speak through their images, yet one doesn’t receive the full story of Mother River if one looks at the images alone. It is only through the methodology that one understands your work. How do you see the relationship between the author setting the context of the work and the work itself?

YP: The context generates most of the meaning in a piece of artwork. For a project like Mother River, the pictures are part of the work, the concept and the process are also part of the work. It has to be understood as a whole system, beyond pictures. In a way, I did the entire physical journey in order to make a complete work. Can you imagine, if I simply hired someone to complete the journey, the meaning of the work would be quite different. It is not about a personal search or struggle anymore. It would be about my resourcefulness and the questions for authorship. Therefore, in this instance the work goes further than the pictures, although the concept and the journey are to be imagined by the audiences, not to be seen.

I think the Mother River images cannot be fully understood without knowing the visual culture associated with representing China/the Yangtze through images. The Mother River images are made with an intention to be different from trends in these existing images. That is a relative position. One cannot be there without the other. It is, in fact, not difficult to see the trends in existing images. All you need to do is type “Yangtze River” in Google and have a look at the results.

MW: This is difficult because we’re not always in control of how the images are seen or what the viewer looks at or reads or how they interpret the text or image or combination. Would you characterize your approach in Mother River as a search for objectivity in the way that many art critics champion deadpan photography? Did your approach to photographing the Yangtze force you to unlearn facts about the Yangtze, to approach the subject afresh?

YP: Objectivity is problematic. In the Mother River project, it means two things. One is being open-minded and trying not to stick to what you already know. In this sense, the Y Points System did force me to unlearn facts about the Yangtze and to approach the subject fresh. Another meaning of objectivity is a constructed picture aesthetic. The pictures are made in a way that they don’t appear emotional or don’t give signs of the artist’s intervention. Instead, the pictures describe the subject and give the viewers not only looking but also thinking space. A good example is the New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House (Rochester, New York) in 1975. If you read into the work, you’ll realize that such objectivity in the picture is the result of a subjective decision.

Reception for the Mother River Project

MW: Many photo essays on China have been made with the intent to show China or one aspect of China to the world. How has your work been received in China itself?

YP: There were three major exhibitions of Mother River during the 2015 UK-China Year of Culture Exchange. At the Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum, Wuhan Art Museum, and then in Shanghai at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel Gallery, following an earlier exhibition at the Swatch Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale.

In 2016, the Three Shadows Photography Gallery showed the project, and in 2018 it was part of the Survey Show, 40 Years of Contemporary Photography, between 1976 and 2018.

The project has obviously been received well in China for its commitment, scale, and quality. But from comments by normal museum visitors, I knew that often they couldn’t understand my work, because my pictures are not as beautiful as the majority of Yangtze pictures. And, when beauty becomes the only, and the neutral, standard, everything less than that would be “negative.” But they knew they could not “argue,” since the GPS locations are real, therefore the pictures have added authority. Overall, my project is a small, different drop of water into the sea of Yangtze/China representation. But I hope this drop will have a tiny yet long-lasting impact.

Matthew Webb is the Creative Director at Panorama.

Dr. Yan Wang Preston is a British-Chinese artist interested in the contested definition of nature in contemporary societies, and how landscape photography can reveal the hidden complexities behind the surface of physical landscapes. Her major projects include: ‘Mother River’ (2010-2014), for which she photographed the entire 6,211km Yangtze River in China at precise 100km intervals on a large-format film camera; ‘Forest’ (2010-2017), for which she investigated the politics of reforestation by photographing transplanted old trees in new Chinese cities; and ‘Yuan’ (2011), for which she carried out a series of intimate performances at iconic locations on the Yangtze River, including the river source at 5,400 meters above the sea level. Preston’s work has won major international awards such as the Hundred Heroines, the Royal Photographic Society (2018), the 1st Prize, Syngenta Photography Award (2017), the Shiseido Photographer Prize at the Three Shadows Photography Annual Award in Beijing, China (2016) and the Reviewers Choice Award at FORMAT, Derby (2014). Solo exhibitions of Preston’s work have been presented at venues such as the 56th Venice Biennale, Chongqing China Three Gorges Museum, Wuhan Art Museum, Gallery of Photography Ireland, Impressions Gallery in Bradford. Preston’s monographs ‘Forest’ and ‘Mother River’ are both published by Hatje Cantz in 2018 and can be purchased here.