Safeguarding ‘Root' and ‘Soul' of Ancient Architecture - Interview with Su Min’an II

(b.f. "Safeguarding ‘Root' and ‘Soul' of Ancient Architecture - Interview with Su Min’an I")

Expanding Shootings Abroad

Shooting of ancient architectures in China is only part of Su Min'an's plan. In his mind, an ambitious idea to cover all the characteristic ancient architectures all over the world never fades away. Therefore he decides to expand his shootings abroad.

It was in 1995 that Su Min'an made his first overseas trip as a visiting scholar sent by the Chinese government to Russia for further research and exchange. Prior to his trip, Su made a detailed plan for shooting ancient architectures in Russia.

Within one year and three months of his stay in Russia, he traveled through a majority of regions in the European part of Russia and left his footprints in the ancient city compounds such as the golden circles of Moscow, St. Petersburg and its neighboring region as well as ancient cities along Volga River, Black Sea and Don River. To cover so many contents in such a long time, over 100 films scrolls he had taken with him were all used up.

After he returned home, Su presented a photography exhibition titled 'Return from Russia' at CACA. In his professional works Ancient Architectures in Russia published by Heilongjiang Art Publishing House in 1998, more than 170 pictures of Russian architectures were showcased with a detailed illustration of over forty thousand characters, both of which were fruits from Su's one-time most systematic and comprehensive shooting of overseas ancient architectures.

Travel in Russia

Travel in Russia

Afterwards, he visited some European countries such as Germany, France, UK, Italy, Greece and Turkey, some Asian countries such as Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia and Nepal as well as Egypt, all of which are mostly blessed with many historical and cultural relics. In recent years, he has been to USA, Iran, Israel, India, Sri Lanka, and Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria and Balkan countries including Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia. So far, the total number of countries he visited has amounted to about 40. Su has even held personal exhibitions in Russia, Germany and Mongolia and provided an introduction of traditional Chinese civilian residences along with his photography in some Russian photographic magazine.

Painstaking Experiences in Shooting Ancient Architecture

Shooting ancient architecture is a highly demanding job, but Su Min’an regarded the whole course of creation as a way to learn knowledge about ancient architectures and the world civilization. Besides picture composition and light utilization, as he explained, a large quantity of preparations needs to be made before shooting, such as reading related reference of local ancient architectures. During the course, he tried his best to explore as much as possible, so as to get a clear idea of the history and some anecdotes behind the architectures, even though some might never be found in written documents. As for those key architectures, his shooting would be arranged from as varied levels and perspectives as possible, to cover external and internal appearances as well as specific parts and the overall vision. Moreover, all the pictures would be sorted out in a detailed way soon after every shooting.

The beauty of ancient architectures in style and structure has always been stimulating Su's creative passion, but sophisticated skills in photography come as the prerequisite. Su's professional teaching of photography just supports his talent for capturing architectures. As he introduced, with a high requirement for extremely fine composition and subtle technique, architecture photography is a job for both mind and legs. While shooting, he would always walk in different directions around the object so as to find the best position, and sometimes he had to move up and down or crouch. He has made double efforts, undergone double hardships in comparison of an ordinary person in daily life, and he has spent more time in patient waiting for the best light conditions.

Ancient and Cutural Building in Southern Anhui


Ancient and Cutural Building in Southern Anhui

His painstaking efforts could be seen in his busy trips. The following story he told us is an example. When he traveled in Russia as a visiting scholar, he once went to Zaleski, a remote town in the Golden Circle of Moscow, to shoot a famous convent. Against the terrible condition of transportation, he had to set out at 5 a.m. and take various transport means in combination, such as metro, train and bus, to reach the town at noon. As he planned, after three hours' non-stop shooting, he would take a bus scheduled to leave at 3 p.m. and transfer to a train heading back to Moscow. However, that scheduled bus was canceled and there was no taxi or hotel in that town. In that case, Su was obliged to try his luck for a lift on the road. After several setbacks, he finally managed to get on a car of two youngsters who helped him to arrive at the railway station two minutes before the last train for Moscow departed. Nevertheless, approximately half an hour after he got on the train, a Russian granny made him realize that he had caught a wrong train. As a matter of fact, two trains heading for different directions were scheduled to leave at the same time.

The granny counseled him that it was still possible to catch the last metro in Moscow that departed at 1 a.m., so long as Su immediately changed onto another train heading for Moscow after the wrong train reached its destination. As soon as the right train stopped at Moscow station, Su dashed as if a shooting arrow to the metro station and managed to get on the last metro at the very last minute. Finally arriving at his dorm, he was so exhausted as to fall directly onto his bed paralyzed. He saw the clock on the wall and it was already 2 a.m.

Revealing and Criticizing the Failure Phenomena of Cultural Relics

Ancient architectures, with their significant merits as relics, embody abundant and profound information of history and culture, and therefore become the 'root' and 'soul of a city, an ethnic group and a country. It is necessary for photographers to ponder how to showcase the ancient architectures' relic merits through photography.

As for Su, this issue is quite important, and the shooting of any relics is supposed to follow the principle of 'Academic Outline and Artistic Formality'. For example, in relic shooting, the position of a relic must be in accordance with its functions and historical circumstances. The perspective and scope of vision must be selected so as to form a stable framework around the boundless and changing scenery. The geometric structure, outline and presentation of the object (shape, 3D effect and space structure) must be clear as well. It is a must to illustrate the feature (specific indication of a certain age) of the object and highlight the aesthetics in shape to the utmost.

Life on the Taihang Mountain

Life on the Taihang Mountain

In the design of light for the photography, the photographer must pay attention to the 'expression' as well as the senses of depth, weight and texture so that the vivid shape in the 3D space produces a pleasant aesthetic effect in harmony with its viewers. Following the basic principles of relic photography, the architecture photography must pay attention to the interrelationship between academic research and artistic creation, and avoid arbitrary actions. As Su expressed, there exists an unhealthy tendency in architecture photography to merely create a special visual effect in color, light and shadow while ignoring the presentation of the shape and texture of the architecture itself. Of course, the photographer may have a reasonable preference in accordance with the corresponding requirement of academic research or artistic creation.

With a time-honored bond with ancient architectures, Su Min'anadmitted that he often feels deeply grieved during his shooting, because, as he told us, apart from the terrible damages happening during the Cultural Revolution, many ancient architectures have been ruined by so-called 'exploration' in recent decades. As far as he is concerned, as an individual person, a photographer has such little power, but as a whole, their photography is very powerful, for they are recorders of time. Every picture of those vanishing ancient architectures that we can view comes as their contribution. Whenever we see their works, we will be greatly touched for their efforts in safeguarding our history and culture.

Ancient and Cutural Building in Southern Anhui

"Such safeguarding acts will definitely continue!" Su Min'an said. With their photographic works in creation, photographers have deeply touched our hearts, raised the social awareness in our mind to protect cultural heritages and natural ecologies, and then influenced the progressive formation of social culture and civilization in a gradual and subtle way. As practitioners of photography, we are supposed to create social pressure in the media with our pictures, to expose and condemn those relic and ecology damaging acts, which is just a manifestation of powerful influence of the photography.

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