Rancinan China 83: Out of the Blocks!

When China, after three decades of absence, decided to participate in the Olympics in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Gerard Rancinan, who was member of Sygma Agency at that time, went into strenuous efforts to secure a visa for China, and became the first Western photographer to penetrate the training centers in China and to freely observe the Chinese athletes¡¯ pre-Olympic warmup at the 1983 National Games in Shanghai.

Under his lens, he will capture the pain and hardship in physical efforts, the grace and beauty of the body in motion, in the air or in the water. He will portraiture those ¨C in his words ¨C ¡°shy, tentative, and feverish future champions¡± that will earn him the first of his six World Press Photo awards.

Gerard Rancinan was born in 1953 in the Bordeaux region, he started working as a young photojournalist at age 18. He joined Sygma agency in 1978 and covered a wide range of reporting in and outside of France. His photographic missions turned out to be occasions for him to observe the world and to ponder the changes in our society. In1983, his vision of China was to him a sort of preparation, a warm-up for the evolution of his future creative photography. Beyond the genre, be they documentary on Scottish castles or kings without a kingdom, portraits of celebrities, or fashion photography with theatrical or cinematographic stage setting, Rancinan ¡®s works will always stay true to social documentary, even ¡°concerned¡± photography.

In his impressive ¡°Sports in China¡± portfolio, from training camps to stadiums, from the hard concrete Ping-Pong tables and rural basket courts to fully equipped state-run fencing academies, from track and field competition to swimming and gymnastics to wrestling events, Rancinan seemed to have been everywhere. Premonitory to the pyrotechnic super-production of 2008 Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony, Rancinan¡¯s ceremonial Red Flags March at the opening of 1983 Shanghai Games allowed the world a first glimpse of the Pomp and Circumstance of a socialist style mass event, those very red flags that were mainly used previously in political rallies such as anti-US Imperialism campaign or Cultural Revolution parades. Gerard Rancinan¡¯s most remarkable feat was to have captured the decisive moment of the first world record by a Chinese athlete, Zhu Jianhua the high jump champion from Shanghai, passed 2,38m at the 5th National Games, a great symbol of China¡¯s upcoming ¡°rise¡±!

Rancinan¡¯s style was also visible in the unmistakable empathy that transpires through his portraits, like this teenage gymnast with arms crossed and leaning against another elder gymnast who has placed his hands on the younger one¡¯s shoulders, looking straight into the camera, an iconic image. Or like these grinning faces of runners at the end of a race or that long-jumper¡¯s clenched teeth upon landing in splashed sand, those are wonderfully focused close-up shots in Fujichrome or Ektachrome from a pre-digital age, a pre-Photoshop era. Rancinan likes to give us some jewels sans parole, like this enigmatic picture a middle age trainer with a Buster Keaton face sitting on some mechanical horse as if he was demonstrating the correct riding style.

To quote David Burnett, world¡¯s best known sports photographer: ¡°once every four years, it¡¯s the photographers¡¯ Olympics, too. You have the best photographers in the world, all in one place, shooting the same thing.¡± Gerard Rancinan went on to photograph the Los Angeles Games in 1984, but instead of waiting with the other photographers at the finish line, he took position at the side of the track and caught Carl Lewis literally flying off the ground. He also came back to China in 2007, the year before the Beijing Olympics and shot two beautiful portraits, one of the diving star Guo Jingjing gently lying on a spring board covered with roses, Guo won two Gold in Athens 2004 and two Gold in Beijing 2008, the other one is Yao Ming, most well-known Chinese sports ambassador and former basket star, the national flag bearer at the Beijing Olympics Opening. Rancinan needed three shots with a medium format to fit in the full 2,29m of Yao Ming who is projecting straight at us his powerful and intense stare. Two pictures that say all about China, alluring yet full of mysteries, and overwhelmingly intimidating with its immensity.

Jean LOH

G¨¦rard Rancinan
3 color printing
90 pages