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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews


Book Of The Week White Night Photographs by Feng Li Reviewed by Blake Andrews This is photographer Feng Li's (generally known as “free pig” in China) first monograph, with a selection of his color works shot from 2005 to 2015. The title comes from a sentence in the Holy Bible, “By day they meet with darkness, and grope at noon as in the night.”
White Night. By Feng Li.
White Night
Photographs by Feng Li. 

Jiazazhi Press, Ningbo, China, 2017.
184 pp., 160 illustrations, 8¾x12½x½"

I have been traveling down Feng Li's deep, and deeply weird, Instagram rabbit hole for about eight months now. Normally, I consider myself fairly jaded about IG. By now I figure that I've seen just about everything on there. But Feng Li's stream spits out consistent WTF surprises: Pigs on a bedspread. Twins heading a yacht. Levitating bodies. Bizarre smoke rings. Bubble baths. Where does he find this stuff? In a recent YouTube video he explained, "My photographs are something you can only find by accident."

There's no telling what's next, a quality as beautiful as it is rare among photographers today. Not even Feng Li knows. "The element of surprise is what is most exciting about cosmopolitan street-life," he tells Elephant.art. "You can never prepare yourself for what is around the corner. I don’t stage photos because there is no need to. Reality itself is enough to amaze, terrify or even beguile us. I just capture these moments as evidence that they happened."

Instagram's fleeting pace lends itself perfectly to the chaotic musings of Feng Li. Adjusting that style to a book is a taller task. Nevertheless, Feng Li gave it a shot last year with White Night (白夜 Baiye), his debut monograph published by Jiazazhi Press out of China. The book became an instant underground hit. It was shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture First PhotoBook Award, earned a year-end nod from Martin Parr, and eventually sold out all 1000 copies.

The attention earned Feng Li (whose name translates roughly to "free pig" in China) a legion of new Instagram followers (myself included), a round of online interviews, a trip to Arles International Photo Festival, and a second printing of White Night. That’s very good news for those who missed out on the first edition, now selling for over $200. This collection of color photos, from roughly 2005 to 2015, offers a unique perspective on rapidly developing Chengdu, China, as well as a glimpse into the mind of an extremely original photographer.

"A good picture prevents you from understanding what happened," explains Feng Li, an outlook at odds with most of photojournalism, not to mention his day-job as propagandist for a Chinese news agency.

I've now thumbed through White Night several times, but am no closer to understanding what actually happened in these photos. The scenes appear dropped from space, or its near cousin, biblical verse. “By day they meet with darkness, and grope at noon as in the night.” (Job 5:14)

Feng Li primarily shoots verticals. He is mostly interested in people, whom he tends to capture at night with a full flash at close proximity. The book's form adapts itself to his methods.

Slotted into a sleek, heavy acetate binding, White Night has a shine to it. Within the book, Feng Li’s vertical format offers each photo the bulk of a page, with a few horizontal photos spiced throughout. These break up the pace with double spreads and a few stuffed verticals. Regardless of format, every page blasts the reader with a new photo. These seem to fall into no particular sequence beyond the occasionally awkward juxtaposition. There are no captions, no breaks, just a fire hose of photos. The effect is overwhelming, and White Night somehow feels weightier than its 184 pages.

Feng Li's visual style lends itself to excess. His deft palette mixes grey skies and rich colors in tonalities nearly as dense as oil paintings. Capturing his profligacy in book form is tough, but White Night does it as well as possible.

"Since I am constantly photographing," he says, "this quantity really matters. I don’t have to only select four or five great pictures that are meant to capture the essence of many years of work. What I’m doing reflects what is happening on a daily basis in my life, and a book mirrors this frequency much better."

It will be interesting to see if Feng Li slows down at some point, or how his work might translate into the next book. In the meantime, I'll be following on IG.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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