Fri, Jan 12, 2001 - Page 7 News List

Laying out the chain

World-renowned photographer Chien-chi Chang brings his haunting images to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in an exhibition titled 'The Chain'

By Claudia Glenn Dowling  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER , IN NEW YORK

Chang's highly personal series of photos of newlyweds takes a humorous, yet melancholy look at the institution of marriage.

PHOTO: CHIEN-CHI CHANG/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Chang Chien-chi (張乾琦) rings the buzzer on a storefront in New York's Chinatown and waits for the disembodied voice to tell him to come in. Upstairs is Charles Griffin's studio, one that prints enormous photographs for exhibitions. Chang can't wait to see the first nearly life-sized prints of a series of portraits he made halfway around the world, in Taiwan.

The master printer fastens one of the huge photographs to the wall and the paper unrolls, revealing two men holding hands, a chain locking them together at their waists. Griffin hangs another print. Three women with shaved heads, also chained, are captured in a triptych reminiscent of a grotesque ballet pose.

Forty portraits, which Chang collectively calls The Chain, make up the heart of an exhibition which opens tomorrow at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. They were taken at a mental care institution called Lungfatang (龍發堂) in southern Taiwan, which is a mixture of Buddhist temple, psychological care clinic and chicken farm. At the institute which is no stranger to controversy, pairs of inmates are yoked as they work, eat, shower, even go to the toilet.

"Why do they chain them together?" asks Griffin.

"Usually one is more stable," says Chang.

"That's radical therapy," says Griffin.

Griffin's assistant says that after printing the portraits, he was haunted by the faces, the sores on the feet. "The strange thing is the pictures are really beautiful, too," says Griffin.

A search for truth

Chang began visiting the institution in 1993. In 1998, the inmates were paraded through a warehouse, where they paused in the light from an open door as Chang took a few frames. "Seven years of going back over and over again for pictures that took just 1/25 of a second to capture," says Chang. Looking at the pictures later, Chang decided he had found truth. "Everything is there -- all the information, the emotion."

After majoring in English at Soochow University in Taiwan, Chang went to Indiana University in the US, where he took a course in photography and discovered his career. Photographer Eugene Richards had Chang as a workshop student during those early days. "He was a little bit crazed," recalls Richards. "We would find him asleep on the floor in the classroom -- obsessed with photography." One of the things that Richards pushes his students to do, he says, is to examine themselves and their own lives. "We're all afraid to look at ourselves. Most photographers don't," says Richards. "Ultimately, Chien-Chi did."

Not far from Griffin's Chinatown studio is a tenement apartment where some 50 illegal immigrants from Fujian sleep in shifts and wake to work 16-hour days in the garment factories and restaurants of Chinatown, sending what little money they make back to their families. Drawn to people who, like himself, were trying to make their way in a new place, Chang moved into the apartment. The photographs he made there earned him stories in National Geographic and Time magazines, the Missouri Magazine Photographer of the Year award, a first place World Press Photo award and the prestigious W Eugene Smith grant.

A Chinese crowd swirls in the street under an American flag. Men look at snapshots from home or talk on the phone, telephone cords linking them to their homes in China. Mel Rosenthal who teaches photography at Empire State College in New York City, believes it is Chang's own double vision that gives these pictures their richness. "Though he is to some extent an insider, he is looking as an outsider," he says. "His work is always social, cultural, rather than about a single event or individual."

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