Beijing 66 by Solange Brand
Some of the source material that best documents history was never intended to be as significant as it has subsequently become. French photographer Solange Brand’s work from China in 1966 in the throes of the Cultural Revolution are just such an example.
Brand was then a 20 years old working as a typist at the French Embassy in Beijing. Like most enthusiastic recent graduates spending time in a new country she was very snap happy. Only instead of the usual beach parties and religious carnivals most eager backpackers return with on their cameras, she happened, unwittingly, to document the Cultural Revolution as it emerged in 1966 across China. They’re now some of the finest colour photographs in existence of the time.
See a selection of Brand's photographs
The fact that they were taken by an outsider who didn’t understand at the time what she was snapping, and knowing that China was on the brink of social and cultural upheaval that would change it forever, gives the collection a looming sense of foreboding and at the same time poignancy. And the fact they’re in colour and such good quality makes the events seem incredibly real and vivid and like they could have happened months, not decades ago.
The story of their rediscovery was equally accidental. Solange Brand went on to become the Art Director of Le Monde Diplomatique and in 2002 happened to meet Alain Jullien, co-founder of the Pingyao International Photography Festival. She mentioned in passing that she’d been in China between 1966 and 1968 but hadn’t been back since. He asked if she’d taken any photographs whilst she was there, prompting Brand to dig out a shoebox where she kept her prints.
The collection, now known as ‘Beijing 66: Portrait of a lost generation’, has been turned into a book and a travelling exhibition, which we caught whilst in Shanghai at Galerie Beaugeste.