※My Cousin from America§ - A photographic biopic by Tatjana Loh

The title, deliberately ambiguous, is actually my own ※cri du coeur§ about the people and history personal to me. One fine day in 2008 a beautiful brunette, Tatjana Loh, glowing with a California suntan, walked into our gallery. Immediately we hit it off by talking about photography. She eventually confessed that she was a photographer and we exchanged business cards. I saw that she had the same last name as mine: LOH (*1). So I asked: ※Do you have anyone in your family tree from Shanghai?§ She replied: ※Yes, my father is from Shanghai. He migrated to the US in the 1940s.§ ※So!§ I exclaimed: ※You are my cousin from America! You have to show me your pictures some day!§ Two years later I received a FedEx box from the US: Tatjana Loh, my cousin from America, did something nobody is doing anymore: she sent me twenty 40 x 50 gelatin silver prints, beautiful black and white photographs documenting her family. I was moved by the images and, based simply on what she sent me; I decided to show her work here to the Shanghai audience.
Her photo-essay, especially the portraiture of her father, resonates deeply with me--both my personal history and my relationship with my father, himself a son of Shanghai, born in the district of Baoshan in the town of Dachang, but who passed away in Torrance, California. Yet, most of all, Tatjana*s series of family portraits are an excellent occasion to meditate again on the practice of family photography, which has been characterized by the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu in 1965 (*2), rightly or wrongly, as an ※art moyen§ (a ※minor art§ as practiced by the Middle Class).
I too was born into a displaced family. My father, who left Shanghai in 1939, had married my mother who came from a Fujian refugee family in French Indochina: both of my parents had been uprooted by the Japanese invasion. Very early on my mother decided that each year we would have our family portrait taken at a professional studio in French-Colonial Saigon. As the number of children grew, first my older sister, then me, then my two younger brothers and one younger sister, these family portraits,? which were supposed to update my? grandfather in Shanghai, served also as a formal registry of a firmly grounded family with improving material conditions (both my father and my mother started out with practically nothing). Alas, this registry that was supposed to describe a family firmly grounded, soon ended as the children grew up then left to pursue higher education far away in the US (the girls) and in France (the boys). When Saigon eventually fell to the Communists, my parents were displaced again, moving to Taiwan, then Thailand, until my father finally retired to California. In addition to these official annual portraits, my parents had a Rolleiflex and took their own pictures of the children in daily family life, birthday parties, school ※kermesse§ gatherings, piano lessons, New Year celebrations, visits to other families.?? Just as for families around the world, photos are a way of keeping memories grounded, keeping a family*s idea of itself in place.? Families use photos to remind themselves that, ※We were together, we were happy, we were young.§
Many years later I came to Shanghai and met my uncle (the younger brother of my father). I learned that all the family photographs that my grandfather had kept, dating back to when the ancestral home was still standing, before the Japanese bombings, including the pictures my parents sent from Saigon, (because of these photos, our Shanghai relatives had been labeled as ※having spies abroad§)-- all had been destroyed and burned during the Great Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards had gone from house to house searching and punishing families for harboring such a shameful capitalistic hobby: cherishing family photographs. That autodaf谷 of photographs, a burning at the stake of these memories, at least in the Chinese revolutionary practice, lends some justification unfortunately to part of Bourdieu*s field of investigation classifying family pictures as a bourgeois middle class* ※art moyen§. That partly explains why I fell in love with Tatjana*s family photography.
If we examine Tatjana*s photographs with a kind of Jungian lens, one is struck by the interrelationship or the dialogue between the tender observation of the children at rest and play, shot mostly in landscape format, and the ironic and sometimes comical commentary of the father figure, usually presented in portrait format. More than anything else, Eugene Loh is the central figure of this so-called ※family circus§ (a label used, with an eye wink, by Tatjana herself to describe this body of work when it was previously exhibited in a gallery). The bigger-than-life old man stands tall in spite of - or perhaps thanks to - the daughter*s attempt to show him in all his human frailty: cold and shivering on the beach, searching in the dumpster for leftover coffee, helpless in the hands of nurses and doctors at the hospital, even looking like an extraterrestrial in a sort of oxygen tank in a preburial ritual.? We see the frail gymnast hanging upside down on the bars in his torn swim trunks that he found in another dumpster. Is he really that pathetic or does he exude the same zest for life that we see in the photographs of his youth?? In the old photo album of the 1950s indeed, Eugene Loh smiled with all his bright white teeth, Shanghai*s son at the peak of his glorious conquest of America: from earning three master*s degrees and a Ph.D. at the best universities, to escorting California girls in his glamorous Buick! A man who used the German that he learned in Shanghai to conquer the heart of another immigrant, Gisela Jacobsen, though later she would divorce him, and he went on to marry and divorce and marry again three times.? All the photos are open to different interpretations.
Concerning pictures of one*s parents, Roland Barthes describes the evocative magic of photography, as he muses on a photo of his mother in his book, Camera Lucida (*3).? He reflects on a photograph*s powerful effect on the spectator and how it can create a false illusion of ※what is§ (c*est), when, in fact, it merely represents ※what was§ (?a a 谷t谷).? It is a tragic realization that one cannot hold on to the lasting presence of our loved ones. This reminded me of Raymond Carver*s poem in which he ponders a ※Photograph of My Father in his Twenty Second Year§ (*4)
October.? Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen
I study my father's embarrassed young man's face.
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string
of spiny yellow perch, in the other
a bottle of Carlsbad beer.
In jeans and denim shirt, he leans
against the front fender of a 1934 Ford.
He would like to pose bluff and hearty for his posterity,
Wear his old hat cocked over his ear.
All his life my father wanted to be bold.

But the eyes give him away, and the hands
that limply offer the string of dead perch
and the bottle of beer.? Father, I love you,
yet how can I say thank you, I who can't hold my liquor either,
and don't even know the places to fish?
Perhaps it is too commonplace to say that Tatjana*s photographic biopic is actually a love poem to her father. I would? offer that these photos show that the camera can become a sort of umbilical cord that reconnects us with our progenitors, and that it helps calm our own existential fears when we grow old enough to realize our mortality; we are compelled to photograph our aging parents as a way of holding? onto them. This is for the weakest of us all, we, who still cannot accept our breaking away from the divided cell. Our father or our mother, the animus and the anima, are the two faces of this coin branded in the middle of our belly, this universal "scar" we share with all human beings. Photography of one*s old father has become almost a genre; Annie Leibovitz (*5) touchingly photographed her dying father (also the last days of her companion Susan Sontag). Richard Avedon (*6), who questioned truth in photography, also photographed his dying father, though with more cool. Referring to the fact that ※all cameras lie§, Avedon has said that in real life ※family members scream, argue, and cry§, and yet he had never seen a photo album with people in such moods. But in Tatjana*s album there is no posing, children are crying and laughing, and father Eugene is certain to attract attention from people with his eccentricity. If these images are a love poem, we can see indeed a lot of physical contact in this human menagerie, hand touching hand, caressing, caring, ear cleaning, nails cutting, eating together, sleeping together, it is a highly tactile family, rich in gesture and body language. Using a linguistic twist we are very far from the ※Immediate Family§ of Sally Mann (*7), a great woman photographer from Virginia, USA, with her elaborate esthetics and haunting portraits of her naked children. Tatjana*s sensitive portrait of her nephews and nieces appears to be a revenge on the lack of love from her own father yet her anger towards her father hardly disguises a certain fascination with the charismatic and seductive persona of Eugene Loh.? American photographer Philip Toledano (*8), in his deeply moving portraiture ※Days with My Father§, wanted to explain to the viewer: ※Now you have to realize my dad was very handsome when he was young. When people talk about &film star handsome* well, that was my dad.§ But there is no need for any subjective glorification about Tatjana*s father: we can see for ourselves that Eugene Loh was really &film star handsome* when he was young. At the same time the power of photography lies in its cruel but truthful documentation of the aging process and its damages. And it is the courage and love of Tatjana in seizing the ordinary and the not so ordinary moments of this Amer-Asian family as it is--and as it has become, with a natural and intimate lens. At the same time Tatjana has provided us with a marvelous and entertaining occasion to appreciate the best practice of the American school of photography of the 1970*s (*9) in terms of lighting and composition 每 or the apparent absence of composition, through irreverent ※snapshots§ as inspired by Garry Winogrand (*10) and Ken Graves (*11) who were among the first to ※steal§ from the style of amateur snapshots to compose a serious body of photographic work.
Our existential anguish in the end finds some relief and solace in the innocence and tenderness of childhood, delicately and magnificently displayed through the ※almost candid§ camera work of Tatjana*s and in this profusion of Southern Californian light; we are bathing in a refreshing and cathartic exposure.
Jean Loh
Curator 每 Shanghai June 2010
(*1)The Wade-Giles system of Chinese romanization before Hanyu Pinyin was widely in use, but for places and names the French Postal Map system based on Ecole Fran?aise de l*Orient was adopted incorporating local dialect. So the character ※continent§ in Mandarin pronounced LU in hanyu pinyin in Shanghainese becomes LOH.? Hence in old French maps of Shanghai ?※Lujiazui§ was spelled ※Lohkazi§ and ※Xujiahui§ = ※Zikawei§.
(*2)Pierre Bourdieu: Un Art Moyen, essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie, Les Editions de Minuit 1965
(*3)Roland Barthes: La Chambre Claire 每 Le Seuil 1980
(*4)Raymond Carver: The Collected Poems - 1983
(*5)Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer*s Life 1990-2005 每 Random House 2009
(*6)Richard Avedon: American Masters - Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light (DVD 1996)
(*7)Philip Toledano:? www.dayswithmyfather.com
(*8)Sally Mann: Immediate Family 每 Aperture 2005
(*9)Anne Biroleau : 70* La Photographie Am谷ricaine, Biblioth豕que Nationale de France - 2008
(*10)Garry Winogrand: Figments from the Real World 每 MOMA 1988
(*11)Ken Graves: American Snapshots, Scrimshaw Press 1977



Tatjana Loh - My Cousin from America
       
 
             
Tatjana
Loh
               
 
             
 
             
4 color printing
21x14cm
136 pages