Eyes of an era

 

By Tsai Wen-Ting

“Anyone with an index finger can take photographs,” or so some are known to mockingly say. Partly because photography is rooted in science (specifically chemistry), and partly because it is by nature accessible and its works are produced in multiple copies, the art and originality of the medium have often been undervalued, so much so that many do not even regards it as one of the fine arts. And so in 1999 many were surprised when the Third National Award for Arts went – with much debate preceding the vote – to photographer Chang Chao-tang. But the fact is that Chang had long been held in higher esteem in art circles than among photographers (who are sharply divided about his work). “He had the greatest eye, but he also had an ability to move people,” says Lin Hwai-min, founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. “He is the sharpest and most sensitive artist of the age.”

In the summer of 1962, two young men of similar tastes and temperament climbed Mt. Wuchih in Hsinchu. One of these university freshmen had a camera, and on the summit he suddenly had a flash of inspiration to combine the majesty of nature with a portrait of the liberated human body. He asked his buddy to pose nude, with his head bent and body leaning at an angle. To get the image he desired, the photographer crouched low. Through the lens he saw ridge upon ridge of mountains under the big sky, and the sun shining on the naked body at an angle that made it look from the clear lines of its muscular upper body to its round behind like a modern statue.

Now, some 40 years later, the model Huang Yung-sung has become the editor-in-chief of Echo magazine, and the photographer Chang chao-tang has won a National Award for Arts. Describing the works of Chang chao-tang’s youth, film director Chen Yao-chin echoes he words of those who once beheld Salvador Dali’s masterpieces: “No one who has seen them will ever forget them.”

Recalling the bold experiments of his youth, the 60-year-old Chang earnestly explains: “It’s fortunate that I took those photos then. Now it would be impossible for me to feel that innocent and adventurous.” Chang feels that local elder Photographer’s work may seem quiet and serene, but it often looks clumsy as a result of excessive thinking and talking. “If I could possess the wisdom of old age and the originality of youth, such that the relationship between the two would sometimes produce a kind of harmony and the sparks of conflict, which would be ideal.” Says Chang.

Chang Chao-Tang was born to a family of doctors in Panchoiao, Taipei County. A smart kid, he was granted admission to Taipei’s prestigious Chen Kung Senior High School based on his outstanding academic record alone, so that he did not need to take the joint entrance exam. While his junior-high classmates crammed for the exam, he borrowed a camera from his older brother to pass the time and ended up getting hooked. During high school, the school’s military instructors often punished him for letting his hair grow too long by making him stand in front of the mirror at the school’s entrance. Although rebellious, he made outstanding marks, which earned him entry to the National Taiwan University’s Civil Engineering Department without having the take the joint entrance exam for universities either.

During the 1960’s a barren cultural period in Taiwan, Chang spent most of his university days in the library perusing masterpieces of modernism: novels by Albert campus and Franz Kafka, theater-of-the-absurd plays by Samuel Beckett and Jean Genet, and surrealistic paintings. “These got tangled together in my mind and naturally emerged in my photographs,” he recalls. Chang particularly connected with theater of the absurd, where ordinary people going about their daily lives behave weirdly, sometimes in an almost slapstick fashion. The plays took as central themes life’s insipidness and emptiness and people’s ignorance and boredom.

And so he often placed his classmates against barren backgrounds for photographs. He sometimes painted half of a model’s face white or had him lie on a rock with a plastic bag over his head and a black cape over his shoulders. Chang tried to make his subjects look alienated and isolated, as if life had given up on them. These works reflected Chang’s innocence and curiosity. “Mr. Chang Chao-tang is pioneering photographer who has put concepts from literature, theater, and poetry into his photographs, giving them a modern look. “ Those works he produced 40 years ago were noted by the National Award for Arts committee and are still talked about by people in cultural circles.

Before he performed his military service, the 22-year-old Chang held a joint exhibition with Chen Sang-His, an older photographer in a restaurant on Poai Road in Taipei. At the time, there were really only two styles of photography in Taiwan: beautified salon photography and traditional realism. The unprecedented nature of Chang’s work caused quite a stir. Other photographers criticized it as decadent, passive and ghostly stiff and pale. Yet painters and modernist writers had high praise for the young man. ‘Through his camera’s lens.” Said poet Lo Fu. “ Chang’s tragic sprit hits our hearts with a sharp, direct blow, which at first makes us tremble, then moves us, and finally pushes us into a meditative silence. His works are more philosophical than artistic, what one might describe as art that makes people think.”

After graduating from college Chang chao-tang was in and out of the army. Then, having learned early in life to use a 16mm camera, he got a job at the recently established China Television Company. At a time when the “native soil” literary and cultural movement was just gaining steam, many painters and photographers are focusing on the stereotypically down-home images of dilapidated houses and old earthenware pots. Chang and his camera, on the other hand, followed the lives of ordinary people. He shot innovative documentaries.

Many cutting-edge movie directors liked the way Chang had filmed those television programs, and during the 1970s and the 1980s they invited Chang to work as a cinematographer. His film credits include: Woman of Wrath, the Last Train to Tamsui, and A Tang Dynasty Man.

Whether shooting for television or film, he was accustomed to bringing a camera with him to take stills. Whether in the countryside or in a city’s back alleys, he was apt to forget about his assigned task and instead take photographs of what he stumbled upon: a couple of Taiwanese opera performers gazing upon each other backstage, a child eating a cookie on Mt. Ali, a group of men resting by the Sanhsia River… The images he caught of extras when they were not being filmed conveyed a kind of surrealism wherein things seemed both true to life and fake at the same time.

“I am drawn to contemplative photography, where I can be myself and be free, where I needn’t satisfy others or accomplish a mission but instead just relieve my own feelings of emptiness.” Says Chang Chao-tang. His approach towards photography has always been more creative than documentary.

Apart from its many books and photos, Chang’s home is also notable for his collection of music, for he regards, must as essential for life. He owns thousands of tapes and CDs, which range from folk and rock‘n’roll to jazz and classical. For Chang Chao-tang, who is not given to talking much about his work, music is a way to understand the images he captures.

In fine-arts circles, Chang is famous for
his knowledge of and sensitivity to music. He can always quickly come up with music to accompany a piece of dance or a TV program that no one else would consider. “He is like my artistic consultant. If I didn’t know Chao-tang, these performances wouldn’t exit,” said Lin Hwai-min, who often sends Chang SOS signals, Cloud Gate dance Theatre’s Portrait of the Families, My Nostalgia, My Songs, and Nine Songs all included pieces of music suggested by Chang Chao-tang.

As a photographer, Chang has always been a dabbler and has never thrown himself into a single kind of subject matter. Taking photos is often something that he does while doing other work. “I’ve never had a plan for my life, and the same goes for my photography.” Says Chang, who describes himself as very lazy. “Everything that I do just comes naturally. I go for whatever is there right in front of me and follow the whims of my heart.”

He takes photographs when he feels like it and without preconceived themes. “If I maintain some kind of inner attitude, after a while it will come out in my photographs.” Says Chang, who has selected the works for his several photo exhibitions just by sorting through his photographs and letting the themes emerge naturally. “If I always followed the same set of preconceived concepts with the ideas preceding the images the energy and excitement will be diminished” he says. “The best stuff is usually the result of inspiration or sudden coincidence Of course, you should still try to challenge yourself in your daily life.”

“The way he treats images looks spontaneous but not at all careless,” says photographer Kuan Hsiao-jung, whose photographic style is totally different from Chang’s. “I think that coming from a well- off family has made him extremely secure and carefree. It’s a characteristic both of his personality and his work.”

Going back to the basics, these days Chang mostly uses a standard lens. Not impressed
by today’s computerized imaging processes, which are becoming more advanced all the time and can do almost anything, Chang insists that “natural is still best.” No matter the lighting situation, Chang always refuse to use flashes, because he believe that flashes not only disturb the object being photographed but also changed the atmosphere.

In his faculty apartment at Tainan National College of the Arts, there hangs a picture he took of a little girl in a military dependents’ village. The girl is wearing a simple white dress and her eyes are starting at the camera. It is Chang’s favorite photo. One day, he discovered that its negative was a bit wet, and he ended up scratching it when he attempted to dry it. At first this frustrated him, but later he discovered that the scratches gave the photo a sense of history. After making this “accidental masterpiece”, most people who work with images might have excitedly continued to experiment and create a series of works based on this accidental discovery. But Chang thought: “an accident is an accident, but when you intentionally damage a photo it becomes unnatural. By attempting to be clever, you’d end up blundering.”

At the end of the 1980s, Chang began traveling around the island to visit long- forgotten photographers of earlier eras or their offspring. He also began compiling photographs for books about contemporary photographers and the history of photography in Taiwan. “I think that there’re few Taiwanese photographers who haven’t been influenced by him. And he’s written a lot that will continue to influence later generations,” says Ho Ching-tai, a middle aged photographer.

In Tainan, Chang starts his morning exercise a little after 5 a.m. by walking around the Wushantou dam near the school. He often stops to sit and chat with old people fishing by the dam. Considered a man of few words by people in the arts and literary communities, Chang can easily talk to regular folks about anything, “I learned how to do that by taking picture,” he explains.

People have always been the only subject of Chang’s work. He believes that if he fist chats with his subject so that they get to know each other, he can create a good atmosphere for taking a photo so that it serves to record a segment of the subjects’ life and becomes a kind of “salute.” On the contrary, if a photographer did not inform the subject but instead took and published a photo without the subject’s consent, then that would be a kind of “plunder.”

The photographer and the subject must have a kind of mutual understanding, some sort of meaningful sense of connection that will attract people,” says Chang, who has been taking fewer photos in recent years. He reckons that modern life, so busy and crowded, has drained people of their individual original characters. People’s faces do not seem as expressive as they used to.

A callow and frivolous youth got close to the life of the life of the common people through his camera, quietly gaining character as he clicked away. In the faces of those old people who were confident and not at all camera shy, we see tolerance and substance. Today, even when not taking photos, Chang enjoys chatting with old people. “When we talk a bit, get to understand each other, and exchange parts of our lives, I feel good all day!” Chang chao-tang has allowed us to see not only many moving moments, but also his own sincerity and warmth.

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