Wed, May 18, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Signs of the times

Though it inexcusably leaves out some formative events, TFAM’s Eye of the Times exhibition presents a superb photographic portrayal of Taiwan’s recent history

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff Reporter

Black-and-white photos of women sewing inside a factory, raucous street scenes and building projects reveal how Taiwan was emerging from its rural and feudal past. A section on the powerful Lin family symbolizes how Taiwan’s gentry “Westernized” along Japanese lines, while still retaining vestiges of its Chinese heritage. In one photo, a young scholar poses in a Western-style suit; another shows a hunting party, and a third depicts the elder Lin receiving artists in the front yard of his large compound of Chinese-style buildings, his servants still wearing queues.

Related to Japan’s efforts to mold its Taiwanese subjects into proper citizens is the Victorian-inspired curiosity of “the other” as documented by Japanese photographer and ethnographer Torii Ryuzo. Ryuzo traveled the country between 1896 and 1900, conducted ethnographic studies and left a fascinating visual record of Taiwan’s Aboriginal tribes, including the Amis, Tao, Puyuma, Pingpu, Rukai, Atayal, Bunun, Tsou, Paiwan and Kavalan.

The photos selected for this section present a sympathetic portrait of Taiwan’s disparate tribes. Each image is partnered with detailed explanations, presumably based on Ryuzo’s own ethnological data.

The vicious, even sadistic, dimension of Japan’s rule is laid bare in a photo by Fang Ching-mian (方慶綿). It shows a group of Sediq Aboriginals lined up in front of a police station following the 1930 Wushe Incident (霧社事件), a violently suppressed uprising against Japanese colonial rule. A row of decapitated heads are lined up in front of each of the Sediq, and the Japanese expeditionary police force that “subdued” them stand behind.

Though the curators don’t shy away from showing the brutality of the Japanese, they are more circumspect when it comes to the KMT after it took control of Taiwan following World War II. Indeed, looking at the images it would seem that a veritable renaissance — both economic and cultural — was in full swing under the party’s rule.

One photo shows a man eagerly making ROC flags. Another depicts children holding large portraits of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) while riding bicycles — a parade for the dictator’s birthday celebrations.

The bulky cameras used by the likes of Thomson and Ryuzo placed restrictions on the movement of photographers and thus limited their human subjects to rigid poses, but the increased availability of smaller, handheld single-lens reflex cameras in the 1950s freed photographers to work wherever they wanted, resulting in more action-oriented pictures.

Several well-wrought images illustrate Taiwan’s transition from an agricultural to an industrial society — sometimes within the same frame. One shows children frolicking in a pond with water buffalo. A woman in another somehow manages to fit four children on a bicycle for a ride through a field of rice patties. A peasant carrying baskets suspended from a long stick walks away from four stationary steam locomotives.

Urbanization is also in full swing: One 1960 photo shows a man delivering lunch boxes, while another features a group of office workers on small stools at a roadside eatery, slurping back noodles.

The gradual shift from black-and-white film to color in the 1980s and the early stirrings of digital photography beginning in the 1990s broadened the number of photographers, the subject matter and styles. No longer were photographers interested in simply documenting their society. They turned inward, as demonstrated by the large section on art photography, with its installation, avant-garde assemblages and abstract forms.

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