Philosophical Reflection on Duan Yueheng’s Landscape Photography
(Professor Photographic Critic Shanghai Normal University) Lin Lu
At first sight of Yueheng Duan’s black-and-white landscape photographs, one would burst out, “How beautiful!” Indeed, beauty is the source of life as well as a human response to nature. And yet beauty in Yueheng Duan’s black-and-white photography goes beyond the simple aestheticism adopted by photographers in general. While aestheticism sets the highest standard, which is almost impossible to achieve, the essence of photography examined from all possible angles, including its highest status, is not aestheticism, but making a historical document. This essence was destined when photography was first invented. Many critics studying photography, such as Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and Susan Sontag (1933-2004) and so on have made similar conclusions, which became common sense today. Even the work of the famous American photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) can’t be judged simply by aestheticism. Moreover, the Group f/64 was organized at a time when Ansel Adams and others did not aim to achieve aestheticism, but to pursue the ultimate goal of photography—objective documentation. The creators of Group f/64, who practised Purist Photography or Straight Photography, attempted to manipulate the physical and chemical functions of the camera in order to accurately display more amazing details of the natural world, through which they paid their reverence to nature. It is along the same path where the Group f/64 artists had travelled that Yueheng Duan has extended and exceeded the masters with his own black-and-white landscape photography.
Perhaps Duan Yueheng’s photography also tells us how to absorb natural elements for our own emotional balance, for example the sense of tranquility that may be found in rocks and running water. In other words, the philosophical and Zen Buddhist elements signified by the images result from the artist’s proficient transformation of light into humanistic energy. His depiction of water, earth and sky in an interrelated atmosphere not only displays a single vast world, but also laments a by-gone time. The aesthetic style of his work brings to mind a scroll of Chinese brush painting. Therefore I hesitate to categorize his work in traditional landscape photography; perhaps it should be classified as contemporary concept art. Nevertheless, with either category, one thing is obvious: without a doubt, the photographer has paid a deep homage to the natural world like a reverent pilgrim.