Two photography exhibitions at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum open a wide vista on Taiwan's history and traditional cultural practices, some of which have gone forever.
Rich in retelling the story of Taiwan's past, the museum's collection of mainly black-and-white photographs adds to the historical knowledge of the country as it encompasses pastoral images, the documentation of vernacular folk culture and shows the influx of outside influence on city life.
In the taupe-hued rooms of Portraits in the Collection, Lin Shou-yi's (林守義) work conveys the genre of studio portrait photography that was popular in the late 1930s. In Lady Smoking, a woman jauntily sports a man's hat while proudly puffing away. In Accordian Player and Woman in a Qipao, we also get the sense of another time and place. Lin's use of Japanese glass negatives on bromide paper creates a dramatic effect with crisp lights and darks that make skin glow and eyes sparkle.
Heroic portraits taken by master photographer Lang Ching-shan (郎靜山), who lived to the age of 103, are striking. In Portrait of Qi Baishi, the famous painter in his round spectacles with wispy long flowing beard holding a carved wooden staff appears as a throwback to another dynasty.
Portraits are grouped according to gender, age and ethnicity. With elders, one sees close-ups of old men with rotting teeth and furrowed skins, often wearing thread-bare clothes yet still retaining facial expressions of great optimism. Youth is represented by energetic children.
Hsieh San-tai's (謝三泰) Dignified Workers shows individuals at work. In one piece a fat fruit vendor stands among his watermelons; he is as round as they are. Well-known photographer Chang Tsai (張才) is represented here by his 1940s portraits of Aborigines where his subjects pose proudly wearing their traditional clothing. Wu Chung-wei's (吳忠維) series of physically disabled people graphi-cally show their deformities, giving us a glimpse of another type of life.
The museum's collection also includes the work of non-Taiwanese artists. European Martin Franck's series of famous artists includes French painter Marc Chagall, Henri Cartier Bresson sketching amidst a room of dinosaur bones, Paul Strand setting up his camera, and Zao Wou Ki holding his abstract canvas.
Some of the same photographers' works are also seen in the exhibition titled Writing with Light. The silvery gray walls evoke an aura of studiousness, allowing the viewer to focus on the pure qualities of photography in all its rich black-and-white tones. Themat-ically divided into subjects such as the countryside, workers, festivals and Aboriginal life helps to give insight into Taiwan's diverse culture and people.
There is a sense of romantic longing in the countryside series. Water buffalo plow fields in the glittering rays of the sun. However, farming is not the only activity that takes place in the countryside. Wong Ting-hua (翁庭華) vividly captures the traditional marriage customs. A March of Wedding Song shows a bridal couple with their entourage making their way through a bamboo grove while a gaggle of geese precedes them. In To Receive the Dowry by the Bridegroom's Family and Friends sixteen men carry carts filled with gifts through the rice paddies.
Several photos of the Matsu Festival capture the spirit and excitement of the costumed gods, the ornate processions and the intensity of the spectacle.