How Interior Are Wang Gang’s Portraits

After winning a prize at the World Press Photo with his B&W Yi Shepherd, Wang Gang discovered the works of American realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and decided to study color photography, to achieve what he calls the balance between the subject and the background. He chose the daunting task of natural light, which is usually minimal inside the dark and depleted interiors of the Yi and the Tibetan rural people, among whom the only discriminating factor would be between those who live off subsistence farming versus those living off animal husbandry.

According to Wang Gang’s description the light source in the Yi (the Nuosu) dwellings tends to come from a hole in the roof whereas the light in the Tibetan homes would shine through windows or doorways. The first one is usually a vertical subtle beam of light while the latter is more like a powerful lateral projector, reflecting the differences in their geography, meteorological conditions and life style: the Yi people of the Greater Liangshan living in a humid, rainy broken upland area between 2000 and 3000m altitude, while the Tibetan dwelling starts at an average altitude of over 4000m with lateral openings to accommodate a cold and dry plateau climate.

Each time he would spend a minimal of times, one week, no more. But he would return with an impressive harvest of “interior” portraits marked by a contained use of chiaroscuro that would magnify details of the accoutrements or of the faces in a generally dark and somber background. Apart from the iconic charwa cape of the Yi made of wool or hemp and the prayer beads and tressed hair of the Tibetans, what we see are portraits of a humanity that goes beyond their mere identification as being “Yi” or “Zang” (Tibetan in Chinese). They could as well be Maya or Aztec or Ashanti or other high land people. Wang Gang simply wants us to see them as they are, that is “subject of art”, worthy of his photographic sitting, and he wants to share his emotion of the moment he discovered them in the most dignified attitude. Unlike the “camera-rifles” of other photographers who “hunt” ethnic minorities for their exoticism, Wang Gang’s photo “shooting” is a serious exercise of color rendering with the sole purpose of matching his mental records of Dutch school of painting or the oil painting of 19th century American school of realism.

Obviously the pose is carefully chosen and the background and home objects that go into the frames too. We are still far from clichés and stereotypes, far from National Geographic or any other pictorial or travel magazines. At times the attempt is a bit self conscious, tentative and hesitant, bordering on the academic pose, which some may qualify as “salon photography”, but even there Wang Gang has achieved a unique style thanks to his own imagination and literary and philosophical culture. His talent is undeniable for portrait photography in his own way and his own style, mixing the heroic (for those familiar with Chinese martial arts literature) and the (subconsciously) religious (for those with a Christian iconographic culture), though apparently “realist”, the exercise conveys an out-of-time, out-of-space impression that is simply spiritually uplifting, transcending our own “interior”.

Jean Loh

Wang Gang - Interior Portraits
4 color printing
96 pages