The Yellow River
Reading the novel River of the North by Zhang Chengzhi has inspired my photographic project. Attracted by the powerful words in the novel, I decided to take a walk along the Yellow River to experience and feel the father-like breadth and width of this river so that I could find the roots of my soul. While I was walking, the river became inundated, in my mind, by different streams of reality. The river, which once was full of legends, went away and disappeared. I was left with a sense of profound pessimism.
In such a vast country, however, with such a long history, the future is still bright. There is the power of creation, and weak moans will finally be drowned by shouts of joy. From this point of view, it seems that all will be optimistic.
The Yellow River project took Zhang Kechun on a two-year journey along the river from the coastal flats of Shandong in the east to the mountains of Qinghai in the west. Always carrying his large format Linhof camera, he traveled with a fold-up bicycle. The Yellow River is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, often called the “Mother River;” but it can also be a threat, capable of breaking over its banks at anytime. In recent years, flooding has devastated areas surrounding the river. The river constantly dwarfs the people who rely on it and renders them vulnerable to its might.
Zhang Kechun’s photographs, with their eerily quiet atmosphere, capture some of the emotional impact of this flooding on local populations. He has photographed the river on cloudy days and overexposed the photographs to produce a soft, subtle tonal range. “I wanted to photograph the river respectfully”, he has said. “It represents the roots of the nation”.
Although he did not intend to confront environmental issues in this project, he found that ecological matters became unavoidable. “I started off wanting to photograph my ideal of the river, but I kept running into pollution,” he has said, “I realized that I couldn’t run away from it, and that I didn’t need to run away from it.”
While Zhang Kechun’s photographs imbue the altered landscape of China with a tragic beauty, they are often witty, showing the frequently absurd scenarios in which the inhabitants of the river’s surroundings find themselves.
From the catalogue The Yellow River [London, U.K.: Huxley and Beetles Gallery, 2016]
Zhang Kechun was born in 1980 in Sichuan, China, and started painting when he was a child. He studied art and design and worked as a designer in Chengdu before becoming interested in photography. His first series, The Yellow River, documented the effects of modernization along the second longest river in Asia, which is also known as Huang He. Zhang’s second series, Seascapes, is an homage to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s famous series by the same title.
The inspiration for Zhang Kechun’s The Yellow River series came from Chengzhi Zhang’s novel River of the North. His photographic project took him on a two-year journey along the river from the coastal flats of Shandong in the east to the mountains of Qinghai in the west, riding on a fold-up bicycle; he carried with him a large format Linhof camera. The Yellow River is Asia’s second longest river; it is considered the cradle of Chinese civilization, often called the “Mother River.” But the river is also a threat, capable of breaking its banks anytime. The areas surrounding the river have been devastated by flooding in recent years. Zhang Kechun intends to capture the emotional impact of these events on local populations through the eerily quiet atmosphere of his images. The river constantly dwarfs the people who rely on it and renders them vulnerable to its might.
“I wanted to photograph the river respectfully,” he said, “it represents the root of the nation. I started off wanting to photograph my ideal of the river, but I kept running into pollution. I realized that I couldn’t run away from it, and that I didn’t need to run away from it.”
Zhang Kechun won the Discovery Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles for The Yellow River in 2014. Working with the agency Most, he also undertakes editorial and advertising commissions. He won the National Geographic Picks Global Photo Contest in 1998 and was shortlisted at the World Photography Awards in 2013. He has been exhibited at Photoquai, Paris; the Beijing Photo Biennale; and the Delhi Photo Festival, India.