Beijing moon trek
Updated: 2012-02-05 09:08
By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)
French photographer finds the capital's spirit through traditional doors, Chen Yingqun discovers.
Pierre-Jean de San Bartolome is a man with a very keen eye, a great deal of patience and a knack for turning the mundane into wonders for the eye to behold. His tools: a camera, doors and people who were once strangers to him.
San Bartolome is keen on capturing images of the traditional and the modern in China. Wang Jing / China Daily
As the world's top photographers swarmed into Beijing to capture pictures of the Olympic Games in 2008, San Bartolome was beavering away behind the scenes, photographing a group of small-trades people in a suburb of the city.
He was in Beijing recently for an exhibition of those works, titled Moon Door Dreamers. The entrance of the title refers to the delicate Chinese traditional door, which looks like an old key hole, used as a pictorial backdrop or frame, and the dreams refer to the emotions of those living behind the doors in Shibalidian, Chaoyang district, near the South Fourth Ring Road.
"He has good insight," says Chinese photographer Liu Rongrong, 24. "He has captured people and images that would never occur to us."
Two strands of the artist's French, Spanish, Italian and German ancestry are reflected in his name. Now 62, his passion for art has roots that go back to his interest in drawing when he was 4.
When he came to China for the first time in 1993, he was struck by what the French call "un coup de foudre" - love at first sight. "Chinese culture is diversified and comprehensive. It is different and appealing to me."
But beyond culture, what transported him was his love for the country's people. For the past 18 years he has visited China frequently and made many friends.
In 2008 he decided to shoot a series of portraits. "Chinese people are friendly and hospitable. I (wanted) to photograph their states of waiting, thinking and acting." He wanted to show their ups and downs and to show them just as they are, he says.
But for all the premeditation, San Bartolome's stories with residents in Shibalidian came about by accident, or perhaps destiny.
One day in April 2008 he was on his way to a junk merchant's warehouse and got caught in a traffic jam. He spotted two long gray walls relieved only by archways, like moon doors.
The long wait, during which he observed the comings and goings of locals, got him thinking, and he decided to go back one evening to find out more about the people who lived there.
Traditional moon doors usually provide an entree to ornate, opulent houses and lush gardens, but through these doors was a world of shops plying cigarettes and wine, grocers and small half-star, family-run restaurants.
For San Bartolome such small-business people represent traditional aspects of life, and he was soon eager to portray the folk of Shibalidian in his pictures.
"Small-trades people are the dynamism of this world. They are easygoing and can communicate with strangers without restraint."
Deeply touched, San Bartolome spent two months befriending them. He observed their personalities, everyday actions and emotions. "I don't like taking candid photographs, which (can make) the subject uncomfortable. I can only start when we become friends and can understand each other."
San Bartolome made the moon doors a backdrop and used artificial lighting to highlight the subjects' faces in his evening photos. "Everyone's face is unique and tells different stories, such as dreams, sullenness and a relationship," he says.
He also shot pictures during the day to capture the country's modernization.
The delicate use of light and shadows is a prominent characteristic of his photos. "Light is like breath. Wherever there is light, there is life. Shadow helps show the stereo structure of subjects."
San Bartolome has a passion for photographing construction sites. For that appreciation he thanks his father, an architect. The day his father ignited his senses regarding the construction of walls is engraved in his mind.
"We were shoulder to shoulder by the river. He stirred the pebbles and lime with water, and put the mortar in my hands, telling me how to choose the shapes of building stones."
That legacy means that when he sees a building being demolished it brings a tinge of sadness. But the thought that a new building will go up in its place brings a frisson of excitement.
Apart from being a photographer, San Bartolome is a stage director, artistic manager and writer. From 2003 to 2008 he was the cultural attache at the French embassy in Beijing.
"There are many arts that China hasn't showed to the world, which I think will definitely attract European audiences China should tell more about its modern arts and certain art forms that are not popularized but are unique."
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