on September 22, 1940, to a poor family in Dalian in the northeastern
province of Liaoninga part of China then under Japanese military
occupationthere was little in Li Zhensheng's background to
suggest that he would become the premier documenter of a crucial
moment in Chinese history. His mother died when he was three. His
older brother, a member of Mao's army, was killed during the civil
war. Li himself helped his father, a cook on a steamship who later
became a farmer, till the fields until the age of ten.
although he began his schooling late, Li quickly rose to the top
of his class, and through his single-minded drive succeeded in earning
a spot at the Changchun Film School. Yet obstacles would continually
dog Li's way. When his future in film was converted to the more
"socially useful" one of photojournalism, his complaints
led to his being sent to the far-flung province of Heilongjiang
to photography scientific documents. And when through persistence
he found on his own a better job photographing for the Heilongjiang
Daily in 1963, the Socialist Education Movement soon intervened
and he ended up back in the countryside for nearly two years, living
with peasants and studying the work of Chairman Mao.
returned to Harbin just months before the outbreak of the Great
Proletarian Cultural Revolution in the Spring of 1966. Then too
he would be severely tried. Lack of film, marauding Red Guards,
and a political dictate against photographing "negative"
scenes, all conspired to reduce him to the level of a propaganda
functionary. Li, however, proved resourceful. Realizing that only
those wearing the armband of the Red Guards could photograph without
harassment, he founded his own rebel group, which soon rose to power
at the newspaper.
for all his troubles, at the height of the Cultural Revolution,
Li would be plotted against by rivals, publicly denounced, and once
more sent back to the countryside in September 1969, this time to
the May 7th Cadre School in Liuhethe Chinese gulagwhere
he, as well his wife, Zu Yingxia, spent two years at hard labor.
Li had taken care to keep his meticulously documented "negative"
negatives hidden under the floorboards of his one-room apartment.
They remained safe as he returned to the newspaper and became the
head of the photography department in 1972. Even after Mao's death
in 1976, after Li became a professor at a university in Beijing
in 1982, and as he began to undertake in the 1990s the preliminary
work for Red-Color News Soldier his photographs remained
as fresh and vital on the heady days when they were taken.
Li Zhensheng is engaged in research, and lectures on the Cultural
Revolution, tirelessly pursuing his lifelong mission to enlighten
the world about this critical, cruel, and largely unknown period
in Chinese history.
© Jacques Menasche
Zhensheng's work is not just reportage it asserts a personal
point-of-view, a way of understanding events as they happen. Beyond
simply covering the unfolding Cultural Revolution, Li gives it an
epic dimension, beauty in its forms. What we first notice is the
compositional quality: the squareLi often used a 2 1/4 camerais
very "full"; the image occupies the entire frame. Li mastered
this notoriously difficult format, framing his shots with precision,
resting his composition on the edges of the image, giving it energy,
and creating tension between the different zones.
using a 2 1/4 or 35mm camera, Li plays with the entire range of
depths, de-centering the subject, sometimes subtly tilting the frame.
Thus he organizes into visual perspective the events he photographs,
generating stress between the subject and its surrounding context,
between the protagonist, or protagonists of the action, and the
bystanders. An approach that results from the political process
then engulfing the country. Li takes photography beyond the limitations
of the still image, expressing his intuitive narrative sense, but
also that of movement...
© Gabriel Bauret