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Dialogue | Beihua Guo

Feb 19, 2022

Text: Yaozhi Liu

Editor: Yanchi Huang

Proofread: Mona Leau

Typography: Peirou He

Translate: Chenming Zhong Born in Shanghai, China in 1998, and graduated from Pitzer College in the United States. Beihua is currently working and living in Los Angeles and Shanghai. His landscape photography and installations explore the fragile relationship between man and nature, and the blurring of boundaries between the natural and built environments. Awards he has been nominated for include the "Three Shadows Photography Award", "BarTur Photography Award", and "PDN Student Photography Award". His recent major exhibitions include the solo exhibition "Funeral March" (Space Place 2022) , the group exhibition "Resonance of the 12th Three Shadows Photography Award Exhibition" (Three Shadows Photography Art Center 2020) , "Photo Open Up International Photography Festival" (Padua, Italy 2020). Guo used to be an artist-in-residence in Caldera National Park, Lassen National Park, and Stone Forest National Park in the United States. Guest: Guo Beihua

Hosts: Wang Zheng, Cui Yujian, and Liu Yaozhi


Wang: Your work reminded me of the classical aesthetic, but recently it is often been used to summarize the three categories of landscape painting: the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque, which translates into Chinese as "exquisite (pleasing to the eye), magnificent (sublime) and beautiful (picturesque)", but perhaps their English definitions are more accurate: “The beautiful is a widely employed term, referring typically to aesthetic experiences that are pleasing, while to some extent transcending preferences and needs that are specific to an individual, The sublime, on the other hand, is a transformative experience typically associated with some negative pleasure and elicited by the encounter of an object or situation whose quantity transcends the limits of our actual grasp, To make room for a sui generis aesthetic experience of natural objects or phenomena, the category of picturesque was introduced. The picturesque is not indefinite, and yet it allows for some vagueness as to that which elicits the aesthetic response

Based on these three concepts, your photographs, especially those about landscapes, often have a contrast between "sublime" and "picturesque", not only between two works but sometimes even in the same work, creating tension. For example, in your works of the ruins in nature, the ripples, flow, and light of the "water" is often sensitive and full of harmony and can be largely typical of "picturesque" as a foreground, while the sky in the background is often soft and beautiful ("beauty"). In contrast, your understanding of night scenes is closer to the definition of "sublime". Do you have any preferences for these three definitions? And is this bias related to your relationship with nature or society? I learned that you had three experiences in different national park residencies, so can you describe for our audiences in general terms the reasons, experiences, and feelings (photography related or not) of your successive residency programs in nature parks?

Guo: These are two interesting questions. Before the establishment of the United States National Parks and in their early days, many painters contributed, in addition to photography, such as the Hudson River School. Members of Congress in the East at that time, it was difficult for them to go to the West to enjoy this magnificent scenery in person, so they could only rely on photography and paintings to feel. The main form of that group of Romantic painters depicting the scenery was to emphasize the "Sublime". Their colors and contrasts are very intense, highlighting the sense of the power of nature and the insignificance of human beings. I first came to the United States in 2011, when I stood on the edge of the cliffs of the Colorado Gorge for the first time, and it was extremely striking to see the same view of the tunnel as in Ansel Adams' photos in Yosemite for the first time. I even felt similar to the early painters or congressmen who initially came here and saw these sights for the first time. Until our interview, I am failing to describe how I felt at that time. It was also the first time I felt "The Sublime".

And my national park residency is truly unforgettable. Staying and photographing in the national park cost me no dimes, and there are even government subsidies, except for the last time I was in Yellowstone, it was a non-profit program, you only need to pay ten dollars per night for staying in the riverside apartment. My three residency experiences have witnessed a change in my style. In the beginning, my works were old-school, but after I started studying environmental history, I grow to see things behind these beautiful landscapes, such as the problems in the early days of the national parks, the inequality, the expulsion of the North American aborigines, the rich people's waste of natural resources in the parks, and the poor people's lack of opportunity to live it up, and finally, they become what they are today allowing everyone to visit and enjoy.

Thomas Moran. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1893–1901. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Liu: I had an experience likewise. On my first national park visit, I was surprised by its non-profit nature in addition to the stunning landscape. When you pay $80 for an annual pass, which allows you to enter all the national parks in the United States, or by car. In fact, in the history of national parks, especially in the 1950s and 1960s after Roosevelt's New Deal, there was a long debate about the original purpose of national parks, whether it should be for public recreation or nature conservation. This point has been discussed since the late 19th century when the park was first established, I remember it was during the old Roosevelt era, 1902, you should remember if you were in Yellowstone, he made a very famous statement there.

Guo: Yes, the North Gate of Yellowstone is called Roosevelt Arch, and it's engraved with For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.

Liu: So national parks in the United States have been a very well-developed system, constantly trying to find a delicate balance between nature conservation and public tourism.

Cui: I find that many people who shoot landscapes were entangled with the old-school style as you mentioned. Was there a turning point or a process that shifted you from shooting landscapes to shooting with a purpose?

Guo: The turning point would be when I entered college. The education system of art and environment in the College of Arts and Sciences helped me to see deeper into the essence. If my earliest work was centered around the concept of "The Sublime", then I started to focus more on "picturesque" and "beautiful", because my focus is no longer on the grand scenery, but on the stories behind the vivid photos. Besides photography itself, I prefer to dig into the hidden history of a place. You can also say that I am an archaeologist, both in internet archaeology and in real life.

A Salted Land: 33.3450, -115.7303, 2019. Archival pigment print

Wang: In 32.8782, -115.5497 and its related works, the use of media transcends traditional photographic methods, including Save Salton Sea, there are few explicit textual symbols, like Picasso's reuse of newspapers in 1920s Cubism, and reminiscent of earlier Dadaism. However, the aforementioned trends are often critical of and flirtatious with industrial text, especially Duchamp's concept of "readymade," which pushed this attitude to the masses. Can you tell us about your idea of naming the work with a number (a common form of coding for industrial products) and using these words?

Guo: It is a GPS coordinate, which is similar to a product code because it is unique and never changes. I once went back and forth to the same location on Lake Solitaire to shoot and found that the original shoreline was tens of meters away from me. In those two months, the water had faded by a few dozen meters. So I wanted to use a timeless way to mark this spot and track the changes. The first thing that needs to be made clear is that, like an industrial product, Lake Salton is an artifact. The Colorado River's artificial irrigation canal broke more than a century ago, and the water flowed for two years before it finally formed Lake Salton. In a sense, the lake, the mud flats and the buildings recorded today are a kind of artificial work, a kind of readymade.

Cui: One concept that comes to my mind here is the limitation. For example, if you look at the landscape images alone, it is visually beautiful, but if you want to convey to the audience what is behind these images, you may have to use symbols such as words and GPS coordinates. So I thought of another question, that is, do you think the image itself is enough for photography, or do you need to add words and other explanatory content to convey to the audience?

Liu: For me, photography is a rather restricted medium. In my creation, I think it is necessary to add other elements to it, not necessarily words, but definitely, some complementary materials to corroborate with photos. Images can sometimes be very one-sided, and many people think that photographs are a true copy of the world, but in fact, they can also contain many subjective choices or misunderstandings.

Guo: Indeed, a lot of your work is also based on research, which I think is very necessary. After I showed some of my work to my professor, I did find that without the words and the research behind them, the photos were very pale, like some tourist went to a highway or a lake and took some snapshots, very powerless.

Wang: The softer colors are more prominent in your landscape subjects, such as "grass green" and "pink", which are associated with certain themes in the public domain. Can you tell us about your color preference?

Guo: Actually, I rarely took colorful shots after college, and my Lake Solitaire series was the first time I tried 120-color film. I was after pop art at the beginning, because Lake Solton is surrounded by brightly colored red grid sites and public art installations, such as Redemption Hill. From the perspective of my photographs, it is a ruin, evidence of human destruction of the environment, but it has been packaged as an online tourist attraction. The biggest challenge with such a landscape is that if I am not careful, the series will become a "Ruin Porn" style - vulgar and uniform. I chose a warmer, softer color because it was the color I thought would best match the warm California sunset. There was some post-processing involved, as the film came out cooler in color.

Beihua Guo. Salvation Mountain, 2018.

Wang: Repetitive motifs often seen in your natural subjects. This often reminds me of the aforementioned "picturesque", and also Susan Sontag's Talking About Photography, in which she talks about the identity of the photographer: either as the sovereign eye of the future that mediates the observation or as the subjective eye that cannot be objective that participates in the documentation of the subject. Both show the impact of photography as an emerging art form and medium at the beginning of the 21st century on the human eye's view of the world. Are these graphic elements in the so-called "wild" nature a game for you as a photographer and nature, and if so, what would you like the rules to be?

Guo: Sontag also said, "He who interferes cannot record, he who records cannot interfere." But I don't think there's a real sense of "can't interfere. I may not have changed the visual elements of the work, but the message is one of indirect intervention, an Activist type of photography. In addition to documentary photography, the series also uses satellite maps and aerial photography, so it includes this "top-down view". I like to compare my vision to that of a pelican that lives far away but has just migrated to Lake Salton. I am flexible, coming here repeatedly, but only as a visitor exploring the land.


Wang: Would you share something about your preference and thoughts on the image of "water" as a Chinese photographer (if we want to impose such a persona)? Especially in the highly developed industrial society, like the United States, we often hear the word "water" used: natural or from high peaks. In your expression of "water", you have a lot of terms. In your expression, the colors are often unnatural but also natural, such as the pink water or the sudden appearance of mythical creatures in the water, but it is always in a very calm way. All these things are always transitioned to each other in a very calm atmosphere and set up the overall picture.

Guo: That is a good question. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Taihu stones and rockeries in Chinese gardens, and this Taihu stone is carved out by the lake. First of all, in the garden, the stone and the water are like yin and yang, the water is more feminine and soft than the stone and the rockery represents masculinity, and some foreign scholars even compare it to the male genitalia. This relationship interested me. After doing a lot of research on Chinese gardens, I found that the water in the Salton Sea* is an image of both masculine and feminine. Like what I captured in my photos, the water is mostly warm, the kind of color and texture that is very warm, like the warm California sun, but if you think carefully about the formation process of the Salton Sea, you will find that the water is very powerful. This lake was formed 100 years ago when an aqueduct broke its banks and flooded the entire basin, so it is essentially a man-made product. From my point, the power of water is intense. I remember seeing an old photo of a railroad track disappearing at the end of a railroad, half of it completely collapsed and was washed away by the flood.

Liu: When it comes to the subject of water in photography, do you feel that in these works most of us have a linear process of viewing, for example, from one end of a gallery to the other, from the first page of a photography book to the last page, and in reality, our observation of water fits very well with this, a river will have upstream and downstream, and water will flow from high to low. So in recent years, we can see that many photography projects use water as a lead, and then string the whole work together.

Cui: In fact, the concept of water has a very deep influence on traditional Chinese culture. Many thinkers and philosophers have a special affection for water, and they would use water to reach a kind of inspiration for thinking. For example, Taoism, you see Taoism they also have a special feeling for water. Look at many ancient thinkers, when they write literature, they will write rigid and flexible water into their writings, and Tai Chi can express the soft but also tough water. So, did you think about your understanding of water as a Chinese when you were shooting, and what inspired you?

Guo: At first, my understanding of water was still like the idea of the national park that I mentioned earlier. I like to see the kind of waterfall that fits the definition of sublime (spectacular and inspiring). The waterfall itself is a forceful presence, but many people use long exposures to capture waterfalls, so it is a very soft image again. If there is any influence on my work, I can say that it was the study of garden rockeries and Taihu rocks that really made me think about the concept of water and then express this linearly. The diversion channel project that we shot was also in this form, including the shooting of Lake Solton, which ended up going around the lake, and it was also in a similar form.

Beihua Guo. A Salted Land: 33.3986, -116.0337, 2020. Archival Pigment Print

Wang: I noticed that you graduated with a double major in art and environmental analysis as an undergraduate. Although the university education does not fully define an artist's work and theirs influences, viewers may wonder: is your photography affected by environmentalism, environmental science, or western contemporary discourse on the environment? Can your photography be seen as an irrational analysis of the environment?

Guo: There are a lot of courses in the environmental analysis program that deal with environmental history, and a very important part is Environmental Justice*, which is a concept that I was not aware of when I was working. There were a lot of environmental justice issues at the beginning of the creation of national parks in the United States, and there are still a lot of environmental inequities to this day. For example, the Inland Empire (a district in Southern California) near my school has a lot of industrial areas and factories, causing serious air pollution. If we look at the demographics of the area, it is clear that the percentage of Latinos and African Americans is the highest. This is not only an environmental issue but should also be interpreted in racial and economic terms.

Pitzer College in Southern California has five core values, three of which can answer this question. First, Social Responsibility is one of the principles of being an artist for me, while Environmental Sustainability makes me think about how the natural environment we live in relates to art, and finally, Interdisciplinary Learning encourages me to use cross-media and cross-disciplinary creative processes. Many students in the College of Arts and Sciences have a very idealistic sensibility, reflecting on what their work can represent and what they can change, a very activist mindset. There are many examples of this in the early days of photography. The work of Lewis Hine, who photographed child labor in factories, is a precedent for how photography can be used to bring about social change. After studying environmental history, I had this same sentiment. Later I realized that sometimes photography alone is very powerless, so I didn't expect to bring about any real change, but I still had to at least try. That's why one of Salton Sea's works was printed with salt and used a lot of newspaper headlines, just like the slogan of the activist.

Liu: Yes, this point I think you as a photographer or artist, if you have a relatively large span of another professional background, will be very helpful to the creation and selection of materials.

Cui: Yes, I had an art teacher in high school, and he said at that time that even if you want to go to the art major now, you must involve yourself in other areas as well, you can't just go to study art without other classes, which is very limited to do art in the future.

Lewis Hine’s ‘Sadie, a Cotton Mill Spinner, Lancaster, South Carolina’ (1908)

Wang: Can you share three of your favorite artists? How does your social identity, such as being a Chinese person, or a student? (not in such order), influence your works? This influence can be your reflection and summary as a kind of retrospective, or your recollection of the creative process.

Guo: It's hard to give examples because there are so many. If I had to choose, I'd say, Mitch Epstein, Richard Misrach, and Robert Adams, who have had a profound influence on my style of photography. I am still very old school, and my favorite photography works and my creative style are all old-fashioned. New Topographic has been trendy for decades, but I still like the style of black and white and the color of the large frame in those days. Nowadays, the art world may not be so different. I have some people around me who look down on their work.

Mitch Epstein, Rockaway, Queens , 2014. Courtesy of Galerie Les filles du calvaire

Cui: Maybe many people think that these things have become particularly old-fashioned, like many photographers in the U.S. now go for identity or something like that, which is hotter these days.

Liu: The trends in art are actually in sync with the current society, just like in the U.S. now, in the age of Political Correctness, the popular topics are all the familiar ones. Maybe each era has its characteristics.

Guo: So the following is about the identity of the Chinese or an international student. My identity does not essentially differ from those of the white tragedy photographers, in that I am a visitor to the land that belongs to the indigenous people of North America. Very often photography is a violent act, and we even use the word "shoot". In a sense, we are all invaders. When I showed my professor the photos of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, she said that she wanted me to think about the connection between the land and identity. There is a connection between the Chinese laborers in the 19th century and the Japanese people who were imprisoned there during World War II, which is more or less related to water resources. Maybe the Chinese identity influences the creation, but it is not the key.

Playboy #38 (Warhol), 1990 © Richard Misrach.

Liu: Leaving aside the identity, for outsiders, especially Chinese people doing photography in the U.S., the identity will be reflected in the perspective of your photos themselves without having to say it. I used to have a project about the suburbs, and when I talked to my local teachers and students, they would find a lot of novelty in my perspective. As a photographer myself, I may not be aware of it, but as a local, they have been living in this environment forever and they don't pay attention to many things, but your vision as an outsider is different.

Cui: This reminds me of Robert Frank's The Americans.

Liu: It's the Swiss who can observe America precisely. (laughter)

Robert Frank, U.S. 30 Between Ogallala and North Platte, Vintage gelatin silver print, Nebraska, 1956

Wang: A hundred years ago, when photography first appeared as a new technology, there were always people who exclaimed that oil painting was dead, or that classical art (painting, sculpture, architecture) was dead, but it turns out that photography and most of the other media that have emerged since then have provided more possibilities and reflections for modern and contemporary art. But in the second decade of the 21st century, we see that with the popularity of selfie technology and the sharing of images, there are also people who exclaim that photography is dying. We have also seen the impact of electronic visualization on traditional photography and the disintegration of the "pioneer" nature of photography. What do you think about these phenomena?

Guo: First of all, I think that the traditional darkroom and film cannot be replaced. Now I like the fusion of digital and film processing*because it is often impossible to do the full traditional process anymore. My salt print work has involved multiple conversions between film and digital processing - scans of newspaper headlines collected online have gone through the conversion once. Then I went to the Salton Sea to bring home the salt water, purify the salt, and wash out the image with salt and silver nitrate. The whole process involved many conversions between film and digital processing - first the scans, then the digital intermediate film, then washing it out with the saline, and finally going through the scans again for the exhibition. The distortion and translation of the intervening infinitesimals are worth thinking about and are unique to today's electronic age.

Beihua Guo. A Salted Land: 33.3172, -115.9367, 2020. Archival Pigment Print

Cui: I always feel that there are many possibilities to use traditional techniques to create, including Van Dyke, silver salt print, blue tan, and platinum print. There are many ways to do so. Many artists are using this classical technique to work. There are not only possibilities but also a lot of fun.

Liu: Technically, digital micro-jet can guarantee the best quality, it is the most durable, and the most definitive way.

Cui: But dull. (laugher)

Guo: I read an article at the time which said that in the darkroom, there is a very tangible, palpable process, you need to touch the negative and paper, and you are going to use the potion, so it is an ongoing process. But the digital process is relatively fragmented, with all the zeros and ones behind it, and if you use a scan or a digital camera, there's less of a sense of contact.

Beihua Guo. Save Salton Sea. 2018.


*Salton Sea: Lake Salton, located in the U.S. state of California, was once a tourist resort and a haven for migratory birds, but has since become uninhabitable and untreatable due to human intervention and natural disasters.

*Environmental Justice: A social movement that emerged in the U.S. in the 1980s that emphasized the right of all people, regardless of color, race, nationality, or income, to be treated fairly in the face of positive or negative environmental benefits and impacts, and to enjoy the right to positively influence and participate in environmental protection.

* The digital processing process is the process of digitally encoding and decoding the image record in the computer language of 0s and 1s. The film processing process is the process of resonating, chemically influencing, and amplifying the image record through waves. The former is dependent on computer technology and cannot operate without information software. The latter is relatively just material transformation, where what is shot is what is obtained.

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