Bruno Barbeys China in Kodachrome 1973-1980

Bruno Barbey, a 50-year Magnum veteran (*1), is an established figure in photo-journalism, and a highly praised colorist especially for his portrayal of Morocco - his beloved birthplace. When he came to photograph Shanghais World Expo in 2010, together we started looking at the pictures he took 30 and 40 years ago, when China was still struggling to emerge from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Today China has risen to the top echelon of economic power in the world, yet most Chinese people do not bother to remember where they have come from, twenty or even ten years ago, as they are eager to look up to an ever-better-tomorrow. I find it though pertinent to show what China looked like in the old days, in the eye of a foreigner, the eye of a French photographer who came for the first time to this land.
In September 1973, as an accredited photographer to the presidential press corps, Bruno Barbey joined French President George Pompidous official visit to China, carrying with him a bag full of Kodachrome films. The year 1973 happened to be exactly when Paul Simon released his songKodachrome which quickly became a hit, his line Mama dont take my Kodachrome away (*2) C who would have thought - turned out to be premonitory as Eastman-Kodak in 2009 officially retired Kodachrome after 74 years of glorious existence.
The French presidential visit took place a year after Nixons famous China trip, for which Pompidou has played a secret facilitating role in Paris. Those were some historical moments Bruno Barbey became a key witness to: such as the intimate friedship between Pompidou and Chou Enlai (*3), the rare portraits of Jiang Qing in self-designed tailored Western dress and Wang Hongwen posing as heir apparent captured for the first time by a Western photographer. Besides the documentary, Barbey has indeed composed a colorful photographic album recording the faces and landscape of China of yester-years, along the itinerary of the presidential visit: Beijing, Datong, Yungang, Wuxi, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Nanjing.
After joining Magnum in 1964 Barbey became a full member in 1968, at that time some of his illustrious elders have already taken stunning photographs of China: Robert Capa had documented the war of resistance against the invading Japanese in 1938 in Hankou (Wuhan today); Henri Cartier-Bresson had witnessed the change of regime from one China to another in 1949 (*4). And in 1957, Marc Riboud made the first of his subsequent twenty two China trips. Each of these early Magnum photographers has approached China in his own personal style. Bruno Barbey became the first one to seriously document China in color, using Kodachrome which he especially loved for its lively nice bright colors.
In 1973, what we could see through Bruno Barbeys viewfinder was a country living in a strange dichotomy: on the one hand, the revolutionary slogans and wall posters still exhorting the crowd to carry on with the revolutionary fervor, yet on the other hand the common people went about their everyday life in a quiet and casual way. Officially in 1973 the Great Cultural Revolution was not over yet, but most of the Red Guards had been sent up to the mountains and down to the country. The great master of cinematography Michelangelo Antonioni visited China in 1972, and in his subsequent documentary Chung Kuo we could see a country thrown into some kind of languid aloofness - almost torpor, unimaginable for the outside world still mindful of the chaos of the turbulent sixties. Antonionis film eventually was projected in China in 1974; it displeased so much Madame Mao that the Peoples Daily published a virulent critic that became the guideline for official Chinese photography over many years. In that context, Bruno Barbeys realistic photo-reportage in Kodachrome renders the right tone to the special light that was in the air of Beijing and Shanghai at the time, without bringing a rosy view or painting a darker screen over reality. Brunos careful compositions took advantage of the omnipresent propaganda paintings on the walls: such as those rows of faces dressed in blue workers uniforms lining underneath a fiery red giant steel mill poster glorifying the production success of Anshan Steels, or the scaffoldings masking the glorious smiling faces of the Worker, the Farmer and the Soldier, the three model classes in Maos era.
Having never learned a word of Chinese Bruno Barbeys eye was content with unconsciously composing some poetic images, like the three men squatting underneath a big Chinese sign that said Fragrant (or smells good) while enjoying their popsicles. Or these children in kindergarten class each with a facial expression mimicking Chairman Maos slogan on the wall that read Be united, be alert, be solemn, be lively. The most significant discovery by Barbey was the photo studio (probably Wang Kai) on Nanjing road in Shanghai, its window in 1973 displaying standard portraits of the Cultural Revolution, but seven years later, he would be welcome inside to document the making-of of wedding photography which would soon develop into a booming business all over China.
Indeed by 1980 Bruno Barbey returned to China on assignment for the US edition of GEO magazine, and he stayed on for a month focusing on Shanghai, the Sichuan and Guangxi provinces. Still using Kodachrome he captured the vivid contrast between the modernizing city such as Shanghai and the still under-developed rural life in the provinces. For instance in the Northern rural area of Chengdu, an elderly woman carried her grandson past a wall painting representing Hua Guofeng (the supposed-to-be successor of Chairman Mao, soon to be taken over by Deng Xiaoping) with the anachronic slogan: Industry should learn from Daqing which was a slogan launched in 1964! While in Shanghai, passers-by looking busy walked past a huge painted advertising poster for trucks made in Japan.?The poetry of Bruno Barbey lies in this photo of a flock of bicycles crisscrossing in front of the statue of a saluting Chairman Mao shrouded in morning mist, in a strangely quiet and fluid choreography, totally indifferent to the Chengdu traffic policeman who stood idle in the middle. On the red banner a slogan called for the Four Modernizations. The raised arm of Chairman Mao seemed to be paying tribute to the future traffic jams choking all the city centres one day as the country would soon become the biggest automobile market in the world.

This China in Kodachrome is a precious document and a generous contribution by Bruno Barbey to the history of Chinese photography and to the history of a nation in development.


Jean Loh
Curator C Shanghai
On the eve of China National Day 2012


(*1) The Maison Europeenne de la Photographie has scheduled a 50-Year Retrospective for Bruno Barbey in 2014 (in Paris).

(*2) Lyrics by Paul Simon 1973
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's
a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don't take my Kodachrome away

(*3) In spite of the great success of his China trip of September 1973, George Pompidou returned to France only to succumb to illness in April 1974, while Chou Enlai passed away in January 1976.

(*4) Henri Cartier-Bresson <Dune Chine lAutre> - Robert Delpire Editeur 1954, with foreword by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Bruno Barbey - China in Kodachrome
Bruno Barbey
4 color printing
120 pages