Long Chin San's Photographic Painting

"Photography should take us on a journey within. Good images should allow us to tap into our imagination and see beyond the subject to a meaning that is ours alone, a personal impression or feeling"

I have a large collection of photographic books at home. So many in fact, that until recently, they had extended beyond the book shelves and were taking up space on my studio floor. I've tidied them up and done a bit of autumn (it's coming!) cleaning, to give my book collection the space it deserves.

One book that I've revisited this month is a small publication from China about the photographer Long Chin San. I thought I would share with you some of the images from this book. These were made in the 1950's, and I just love them. 

Long chin San took objects such as flattened flowers, leaves and twigs and placed them onto photographic paper, exposing them to light to create these innovative photographs. He called these works 'photographic paintings'.

I'm not a verbatim photographer. I don't see photography as a means to capture what was there, but instead, as a means to give an interpretation. I think we are still very much at the emerging stage of photography: it is going to evolve and change so much over the coming century that to think of it only as a means for recording real pictures is to limit its application and potential.


I believe the past often gives us clues and hints as to where we are going in the future. With this in mind, photography has always been an experimental medium and photographers have always manipulated their work since the first images were recorded. We all know that Ansel Adams greatly manipulated his prints and that they were often a radical departure from the initial negative. Manipulation and specifically interpretation of a scene are nothing new and this knowledge, and acceptance of photography as a creative medium, not just as a way of recording the real world is vital in letting the medium evolve.

Thus, looking at these beautiful 'photographic paintings', I see not only beauty, but great potential for the future. There is always room for exploration.

I know that influences come from many sources and I'm touched to think that perhaps my most recent Icelandic 'minimalist' images are derived from looking at these photographic paintings of Long Chin San's. I've never been much interested in the verbatim aspects of photography. I'm much more interested in creating a new reality, or a vision of one. I'm more  'art' than 'verbatim', and that's why I find these images of Long Chin San so appealing.

Photography should take us on a journey within. Good images should allow us to tap into our imagination and see beyond the subject to a meaning that is ours alone, a personal impression or feeling.

In these photographic paintings of Long Chin San's, I can't help feel he has conjured up beautiful compositions that would be most difficult to find in real life: because real life is never this perfect. And yet, when we look at landscapes, I think this is what we do: we try to distill them into some kind of order, some kind of sense of arrangement that pleases us, and makes us feel good. That is why the paintings of Hokusai for instance resonate with me: the great wave off  Kanagawa is perfect: everything is in place, as it should be. One would hope in our photography that we can reach such idealistic compositions.

I love these 'photographic paintings'. I'm convinced they have been instrumental in my own photographic development. I find them very beautifully composed and very pleasing and I think I often aim to simulate this level of beauty in my own work.

The book by the way, is called:

'Landscape on Negatives,
A special exhibition of Long Chin-San's Photographs Works',

Published by Cultural Relics Press, 2012.

The Father of Asian Photography

Photography continues to give me so much joy. Often I never see where that joy may come from until it arrives and last week has been a perfect example of that.

While running a workshop in the north of Scotland, one of my clients - Anmeng - told me that my photography reminded her of a photographer from her homeland of China. She explained that Lang Jingshan's photographs almost feel like paintings, and she saw the same aesthetic in my own imagery. I was intrigued, because I know my influences well: Michael Kenna's work from China and Japan have made quite an impression on me and I think I've learned a great deal about composition from immersing myself in his beautiful work. So I had a hunch that what Anmeng was seeing in my own work, was perhaps Kenna's influence on me. 

Drawing Water from the River at Dawn, 1934, photograph   by Lang Jingshan

Drawing Water from the River at Dawn, 1934, photograph by Lang Jingshan

After the workshop, Anmeng came round to show me some of the work she had been mentioning and also to tell me about some places in China that she thought I would really enjoy visiting. The conversation was very good and I felt I learned a bit more about China, but also, that I got to hear about a great photographer that I'd never heard of before.

The images you see in this post today were made by Lang Jingshan, who died in 1995 at the age of 103. He is considered to be the father of Asian photography by many.

Some of the work you see here dates from around the 1930's or earlier. I read up a bit about him today and discovered that he 'defined a style', which I feel is almost a photographic version of Chinese historical painting. It's very beautiful and I believe many of the images are the result of merging several negatives together in the darkroom. This is nothing new of course as photographers have been combining negatives and other such manipulations in their work since the dawn of photography. But I think there is a very eastern 'elegance' to the work shown here.

Photograph   by Lang Jingshan

Photograph by Lang Jingshan

There's obviously a sense of romance, but also of space and delicate use of light and space in the work. I think I am a fan.

I had a look around to see if it's possible to buy some books of Lang Jingshan's work, but they are either out of print or simply impossible to get. Which is a real shame.

I'd like to know more, and continue to be inspired by what I see in his work. He makes me want to go to China now, and although I have no intention of copying the style, I can't help wonder what might come of spending time in some of the beautiful landscapes of China.

Mooring in the Misty River at Night, 1937, photograph by Lang Jingshan

Mooring in the Misty River at Night, 1937, photograph by Lang Jingshan

As one thing leads to another, so to does inspiration move from one photographer to another. I believe that what my Chinese friend saw in my work, was Kenna's influence, and Kenna in turn, has been influenced by his study of Chinese art and other photographers. I know so because Michael told me of his love for another Chinese photographer who's work he has collected in the past.

Photograph   by Lang Jingshan

Photograph by Lang Jingshan

Maybe these images look historical or old to you. Maybe you see the beauty in them that I see also. There's so much to be gained by learning about photographers, old as well as new. Sometimes work that was created long ago, is only interesting from a historical perspective, but it's also wonderful when something like Lang Jingshan's work leaps out at me and fills me with wonder. I think that's just such an amazing thing to happen: that we can be inspired by work that was created so long ago, and is, to most, long forgotten.

Many thanks to Anmeng Li for coming to Skye with me, and for sharing Lang Jingshan's work with me :-)