Photobook Review: Gun, Camera, Action: Retracing the History of Photography

In Game of Photos, Cai Dongdong revisits China’s photographic past. He rubs, cuts, draws and erases to reinvent both the images and the history of photography. Propaganda, pornography and portraiture are reimagined in a gentle, intelligent examination of why we make images and how we see them.

Cai Dongdong first encountered photography in the People’s Liberation Army when he was assigned to take ID photos of his fellow soldiers. He left the army, studied photography at the Beijing Film Academy and became a photographer in civilian life. He photographed the streets, daily life and many naked women.

Many years later, he looked at those photos and wondered, as all self-aware photographers do from time to time, what the point of it all was. These images, he concluded, were images made within the limits of functional photography. They were now useless, a waste of time and space.

He then undertook to destroy them, to erase, to cut out and, more generally, to mutilate what had been the expression of his creative and photographic art. As he destroyed, he regained his once boring images. “I started to work on the rest: scratching, rubbing or rubbing… Like a surgeon, I operated on these photos,” he wrote in the book’s afterword.

And when he was done working on his own photos, he began collecting images to work on…images from the past, from the 1950s to the last years of Mao’s reign and beyond. He collected photos of farmers in the field, young pioneers, local militiamen posing with their guns, irrigation projects and re-enactments of major events in Chinese history, such as Mao’s famous bathing along the Yangtze.

Cai found that these interventions transformed images from their original starting points, undermining the original photographic and political messages, and thereby unmasking “…the false semblance of history that photos once brought”.

And that’s what A Game of Photos is about; a series of games played with images that resonate with idealized correct views of China and the photographic message. Think Beijing Silvermine and their more playful visual teases, but with the political message brought to the surface and you’re halfway there.

You’re not quite there because I don’t know if it’s possible. The messages Cai sends are both playful but also opaque, giving the sense that meaning is always out of reach.

The games begin with the cover, an image of a dancer holding a red string that Cai has embedded into the image. She stands on her tiptoes, her pink ballerina flats stretched out, her hands holding a thread of red string that runs down through the frame, around her ankles and out of the frame.

There are mirrors, reflections and image reversals. Cameras and lenses are integrated into the image; a wooden rifle has a built-in stereoscopic viewer instead of telescopic sights, a mirror faces image of a young woman trained to use a rifle. Lay the book flat and you see yourself in the mirror, clutch the book and the young woman shoots herself.

Some of the images are from installations; an image of workers carrying stones from a quarry is embedded in a large format camera frame, a road yet to be built has the printing surface rolled up like a tin of sardines, and an image of a squad in shooting position is laid out with an actual Leica camera pointing at it.

There are breasts in a wet t-shirt paired with a soldier in the NON propaganda pose, a naked woman reading Marx with her legs wide open, her vagina covered in a black circle staring at the viewer, and a team of snipers. elite trained along a riverbank, their guns aimed at the image on the opposite page of two men riding a balloon-covered bicycle.

A Picture Game is a fun and engaging book, with half the fun being trying to surface hidden messages in the pictures, their reflections and their pairings. What it all means in the end, who knows, but it has both humor and depth and it’s a wonderful place.

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All photos © Cai Dongdong

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Photo Game – Cai Dongdong,

214 pages, 1st edition of 300 copies

BUY HERE

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Cai Dongdong was born in Tianshui, Gansu in 1978. He joined the People’s Liberation Army at a young age, taking on a role as a portrait photographer. This work became his formal training in the medium, turning into a career path as he returned to Beijing and opened his own studio. Through the use of archives, found photographs and installations, Cai creates semi-fragmented realities. Taking ready-made materials – a nod to Duchamp’s Dadaist sensibilities – he pierces the skin of these photographs with mirrors, arrows and other objects, forming what he calls “photo-sculptures “.

Colin Pantal is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and landscape. Follow him on Twitter and instagram.

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