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A Closer Look -- From the Bottom of a Well

Cover of From the Bottom of a Well -- Shawn Records
I know I’m not alone in noticing a trend in photobooks and projects depicting China. Many photographers have been drawn to the photographically seductive boom of industry and urban growth, and resulting environmental disaster, while others like Chinese born Shen Wei have looked towards the human aspect, subtly investigating the Chinese psyche. Whether in response to this attention or spurred on by it, the Chinese government appears to be making an effort to continue photographic interest in the country, though perhaps in a more controlled manner. Chinese photo festivals seem to be inviting an increasing number of American photographers and photoworld professionals to speak and show work, and government-sponsored tours have been hand-picking photographers to document the country. It’s hard to say what the end goal of all this government-sponsored photographic energy is or if it’s meeting the mark. Shawn Records was invited on one of these photographic tours, which resulted in his book From the Bottom of a Well.

Interior spread, From the Bottom of a Well

Interior spread, From the Bottom of a Well
For two weeks Records, along with five other American fine-art photographers, was packed onto buses with 100 Chinese commercial photographers to photograph, as Record states on his website “BEAUTIFUL LANDSCAPE, LANDMARK BUILDING, MAIN INDUSTRY, URBAN CONSTRUCTION, ETC.” in an effort to promote tourism. Over the course of his visit, Records recognized the futility in attempting to fully describe China. Escorted by a government employee to predetermined locations, including wetlands, oil fields and museums, these places are only partially distinguishable in the images. The title references a Chinese saying, “like looking at the sky from the bottom of a well,” which became a metaphor through which Records perceived his experience. With his limited ability to truly understand and get to know his subject, Records seems to have veered to the edges, creating a journal that is both touching in its small details and funny in its juxtapositions.

Interior spread, From the Bottom of a Well
It would seem that a fine-art photographer would naturally resist what is presented to him to photograph, and indeed, when looking at the images one could assume that Records spent a good deal of time not looking where his attention was supposed to be directed. This has served him well, resulting in a document that is idiosyncratic, yet also speaks to China’s desire to create a controlled public image. Many of the images have an eye to detail – two pairs of images featuring insects, dragonflies and moths, are striking in their subtly and scale. The environmental aspect can’t help but creep in here and there, whether it be in the heavy haze in the skies or open ended pipes spewing unappealingly colored liquid – the second image of which seems particularly funny in the book’s fine sequencing. Humor is a steady presence; a faded rainbow archway opens a path to the sea, the sky just as faded and colorless. The hyper blue sky of seemingly omnipresent posters, perhaps intended to provide a hopeful vision of tomorrow, stand instead to put the dull reality of today in stark contrast. Records seems to have also occasionally captured one of his fellow touring photographers in some of these images, focused on their designated subject. But a beautiful view of China does emerge, that sliver of sky that Records could see. -- Sarah Bradley

The book is also available in a limited edition of 50 signed copies and includes an 11’x14’ archive pigment print. Purchase book or limited edition.
Limited Edition image, From the Bottom of a Well