Closeups of Distant Faces

I FIRST met Emily, an anthropologist who is Chinese-American, in Lijiang, western China. She had managed to cut through reams of Chinese red tape to become the first Westerner to study a remote Naxi community near the Tibetan border. The Naxi, a minority people descended from Tibetan nomads, are perhaps best known for their pictographic language (the only one in the world still in use) and a once matriarchic society.As I carefully turned the pages of Reagan Louie's photo essay, Toward A Truer Life: Photographs of China 1980-1990 (Aperture/The Friends of Photography, 95 pp., $35), the memory of Emily reemerged. Although Reagan and Emily study vastly different Chinese worlds - he focuses on the Han Chinese - what binds these two together and gives them uncommon passport is their Chinese-American heritage. Their "invisibility" allowed them "easier" access to their subjects. That heritage allowed Louie to obtain a highl y accurate, uncontrived portrait of Chinese society today. Associate professor of photography at the San Francisco Art Institute, Louie was raised in California and named after movie star Ronald Reagan. His photo spree began as a search for his "truer" Chinese identity after a trip with his father to southern China in 1981. Numerous return trips, 3,500 rolls of film, and eight years later, he emerged "with both the art and the connection that I so hungered for." His search makes an apt metaphor for China's own identity quest after decades of revolution. These photographs whisper of a society sagging from internal struggle: Wary, dolorous faces hint at decades of insularity, stifled opinion, unremitting toil. Here is China stripped of pretension. Louie's series depicts a land in transition, a land of contrasts: Opposite a photograph of an older man practicing Tai Chi in the beautiful tourist city of Hangzhou is a jarring portrait of a young factory worker in the stifling, coal-dust-smeared city of Kunming; a shop window displaying wedding portraits of brides in Western gowns is paired with a photograph of stolid, hard-bitten women in hard hats being eyeballed by male coworkers. "What are the controlled, distant faces in Reagan Louie's photographs trying to tell us?" asks China scholar Jonathan Spence in the introduction. Spence blames China's "pitted and scarred" history of repeated revolutions for the sad countenances. Louie's photographs "reveal sorrow at the waste that has encumbered, and still encumbers, the lives of so many," he concludes. "The brightest, most alert faces in these photographs belong to the young demonstrators in the student group." One can also discern integrity in those young faces, and expectation of "a truer life." Ironically, the photographs were taken before the Tiananmen massacre. One can't help but wonder if those alert faces are still alive.

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