They can look like a small parade of retirees, although a heavily armored and equipped one, with the latest technology. Piled up with SLRs and zoom lenses that cost more than your rent, invariably clad in well-pocketed khaki vests, Shanghai’s Photo Uncles travel in packs. Invasive, at times pervy, Photo Uncles are almost as iconic, and controversial, as the Square Dancing Aunties; and they are the embodiment of Shanghai’s widespread love of photography, a medium whose history in China is so intertwined with the city.
“Photography has a huge and diverse following and audience,” says Han Peipei, an independent curator working frequently with photography.
The Photo Uncles are also a quirky fixture of Photofairs Shanghai. Especially in its first few years, from 2014, the Shanghai Exhibition Center would be mobbed by the uncles, vigorously taking photographs of photographs. Hundreds once jostled to shoot a particularly cherubic Caucasian infant. Crowd control has improved as the fair grew, thankfully, and it returns November 3 to November 6 to again put an enthusiastic spotlight on the medium and Shanghai’s obsession with it.
“In recent years we’ve seen a growing number of photography centers and galleries, as well as photography events in cities across China,” says Fan Ni, the fair’s artistic director.
It “provides a platform for artists, institutions and professionals to come together and connect. Shanghai still remains the center of the photography market in China. This is exemplified in our line-up of exhibitors which this year includes 37 galleries from 20 cities as well as a program of satellite photography events and exhibitions.”
“Shanghai can be said as China’s photography center market-wise,” says Han.
She describes Photofairs, where she previously served as associate director, as “a catalyst for the development of the ecology of photography nationwide.”
This year, the fair’s special section “Shanghai Century: Shanghai Spirit”, curated by Liu Heung Shing and Karen Smith, respectively the founder and director and artistic director of the Shanghai Centre of Photography (SCoP); Smith also directs OCAT Xi'an. The show delves into Shanghai’s history of photography, and history in photography, through images by photographers including Zhou Haiying, Zheng Zhiyuan and Xu Xin taken from Smith and Liu’s 2010 book Shanghai: A History in Photographs, 1840 to Today.
Liu and Smith’s Shanghai Centre of Photography (SCoP) has since 2015 has been the city’s leading destination for viewing smartly curated, provocative photography; it holds four or five exhibitions a year, and regularly hosts talks and workshops.
“Shanghai Center of Photography which showcases the best of Chinese and international photography is a must-go,” says Fan.
This fall, the centre is showing “Good Vibrations” (5 November to 28 February), curated by Liu and actor Zhou Xun and showing photographs taken by Chinese movie stars like Jiang Wen and Shu Qi.
“Many of the city’s leading art galleries present photography exhibitions around the time of the Fair,” Fan continues.
“This includes Matthew Liu Fine Arts, an elegant gallery space with exhibition design of the highest quality,” currently showing Yang Yongliang’s photographs, “and M Art Center in M50 which represents some of the most interesting photographic artists working today and where you can currently see Shanghai-based photographer Fu Bailin’s Iceland series.”
Ofoto at M50 also is dedicated to the medium. Most contemporary art spaces in the city include photography in their line-ups, such as Vanguard, ShanghArt, Capsule and Bank.
Han also has curated a photography showcase in the Anfu Lu-facing picture windows of the Biblioteca Cervantes, and from November 9 (until January 9) her 15-artist show “Parallel Universes – Parafacts and Parafictions” runs at Design Republic x The Artling.
“As photography is so versatile, you can view it in so many places and occasions, not necessarily in exhibitions but daily encounters of its applications. Shanghai meanwhile has lost several of its foundational photography centers, like long-running photojournalism gallery Beaugeste and nonprofit space Rui Art Center.
Despite this, Han still feels that, “things are growing, in their organic ways. Maybe on one side once photography-oriented spaces have closed down, but on the other side, photography has been accepted in a much wider context. More galleries and museums have included photograph works in their exhibitions, and this is taking photography to a wider public and bringing it into discussion on a larger platform.”
While photography has traditionally skewed heavily male – as per the uncles – a younger generation has brought more diversity, and plenty of stunning female talent. At Photofairs, Fan highlights rising star Ma Hailun.
“Originally from Xinjiang, she studied and lived in New York for eight years and now lives and works in Shanghai. Her images explore the beauty of her hometown, using a very unique photographic language which she developed while working as a fashion photographer earlier in her career.”
PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai | 2021 runs from today until November 6 at it's original location, the Shanghai Exhibition Center.