The Luminous Ink: Photography and Modern Chinese Ink Paintings

Mia Liu, Bates College


Chinese ink painting tradition believes that ink, monochromatic it may appear, has its own colors, therefore, spectrum of light. Photography is to draw with light. What happens if artists explore these shared dimensions across the two mediums?

We think of photography in China in the early half of the Twentieth Century as influenced by international Pictorialism, a medium struggling to gain its footing in the realm of art by taking on the vestige of painting, by looking like a painting, and by imitating the painterly surface on the prints through dark room manipulation. This was by and large true among many Chinese art photographers at the time (even though other voices and ideas were also present.) Chinese art photographers like Lang Jingshan tried to recreate what they deemed to be art proper, in Lang’s case images that look like an ink painting, through photo prints. Therefore, we are tempted to believe in the notion that between photography and ink painting, this is a one-way street of admiration, an unrequited love affair.

However, artists in ink painting such as Wu Hufan, Zhang Daqian, and others formed a strong friendship with photographers, dabbled in photography themselves and even published photo works. Were they only mentors to their photographers-pupils? Or did their contact with the camera lens and the photographic image produce catalyst and change in their own practice of painting with ink and paper? With these questions, this paper examines first the relationship between painters and photographers in the first half of the Twentieth century, their collaborations, correspondences, and other writings. Second, I also examine their paintings especially the ones that are produced based on photography, after a photograph. Third, I also want to examine explore how much we can argue for the role of photography in the changes and transformations of modern ink painting, especially in terms of the construction of space, the dimension on the pictorial plane,  and understanding of the expressive nature of ink in the light of light. Through such triangulation, I hope to gain a better understanding whether, how much and in what way that photography, the apparatus of light, entered a productive conversation with the art of ink and paper.