A panoramic portrait of 20th century China as seen by Magnum photographers

A panoramic portrait of 20th century China as seen by Magnum photographers

Photobook and social history sit page-by-page in Thames & Hudson’s new tome, Magnum China. Through the lens of 40 photographers represented by the global photography agency, China’s modern history unfurls chronologically, revealing its people, places and political pivots in edifying detail.

First covered by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson in the 1930s and 1940s, China has long-held the fascination of Magnum and its photographers. No less than 365 photographs made the cut for this weighty book, from Werner Bischof’s distressing portraits of refugees in 1950s Hong Kong to Patrick Zachmann’s collages of contemporary urban development, via Chien-Chi Chang’s graphic snapshots of mental patients in Taiwan in the 1990s (that look like they could have been shot in the 1930s).

Adding context to the visual signposts that direct us through the vast country and time frame, commentator and writer Jonathan Fenby maps the socio-political landscape with exactitude and colour. ‘China’s 20th century began with the fall of the imperial system that had ruled the populous nation on earth for more than two millenia,’ he writes in the introduction. ‘It ended with an economic explosion that changed the world. Between the two came turbulence on an enormous scale as autocracies of right and left succeeded one another among civil violence that, at times, threatened to tear the country apart and took the lives of millions of civilians as well as combatants.’

 Mao portrait and slogans ‘Long live the People’s Republic of China. Long live the Union of the people of the world.’ fromMagnum China

Schoolgirls prepare for the reception of French president Georges Pompidou. In the background, a portrait of Mao and slogans ‘Long live the People’s Republic of China. Long live the Union of the people of the world’. Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1973. © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

Caught between the harrowing and the political, of particular visual majesty is a photograph by René Burri – Dead Lotus flowers on the Kunming Lake at the former Summer Palace, Beijing, 1964 – a moment of eerie calm, bounded by lively vignettes of protest, celebration, armies, and factory employees at work. The dead stems, twisted into geometries like silhouetted Calder sculptures, are a poignant metaphor for the millions of lives lost in this particularly volatile period.

Alongside these lesser known angles, you can’t help but feel eviscerated when confronted with Stuart Franklin’s familiar 1989 photograph of the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square. Alongside its ubiquity as an image of protest, its inclusion serves to highlight the vast impact Magnum photographers like Franklin have had on delivering insight on China’s development to the rest of the world. This book salutes their photojournalistic achievement, as well as providing a valuable record of the country’s endlessly fascinating, often heartbreaking, 20th-century story. §

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