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photo-eye Book Reviews: Traces

Traces, Photographs by Ian Teh.
Published by Deep Sleep Editions, 2011.
Reviewed by Adam Bell
Ian Teh Traces
Photographs by Ian Teh
Deep Sleep Editions, 2011. Softcover. 64 pp., 34 color illustrations, 12x9-1/2".

Over the past twenty years, large swaths of China's landscape have been transformed and denuded of their natural resources in an effort to propel the country into the 21st century. The skyscrapers of Shanghai or Beijing superficially display progress, but powerful political forces and willful ignorance often hide the environmental cost of such rapid development. This is not unique to China. All countries and their citizens prefer to remain ignorant of, or resigned to, the demands and toll we place on the earth in order to live the lives we live. Ian Teh's Traces (Dark Clouds) is really two bodies of overlapping work that examine the rapidly industrialized landscapes of China's remote provinces, as well as their human costs. Teh's unique approach to the subject not only elevates the work above much recent work on China, but also offers a disturbing and powerful vision of China's ongoing transformation.

Traces, by Ian Teh. Published by Deep Sleep Editions, 2011.
Teh has spent the last ten-plus years exploring the industrialization of China. One of his first projects in the country documented the Three Gorges Dam and its large-scale displacement and transformation of the countryside. Over the years, Teh frequently returned to China and worked on a series of projects that all dealt with energy production and its cost. Traces, which dominates the book, is a series of panoramic landscapes of China's industrialized provinces. Like the work of Emmet Gowin, his student, David Maisel and many others, Teh's work exploits the abstraction of the elevated view and the horrific beauty of large-scale environmental degradation to great effect. Vacant and forlorn, the panoramas are as seductive as they are terrifying. Fortunately, Teh does not rely solely on the aerial abstractions and mixes in ground-level landscapes of the vacant cities and bleak countryside.

Traces, by Ian Teh. Published by Deep Sleep Editions, 2011.
Shooting far from the tourist areas, Teh relied on locals, workers, and even a retired truck driver, who took him to some of the more remote locations, for access. Working outside official channels, and without permission, Teh had the freedom to explore areas the government may not want foreigners to visit or photograph. That same trucker driver is quoted as saying, "nowadays we have a better standard of living even if our life spans are shorter. Nothing made here stays here; our government has exported our blue skies to the west." Teh's landscapes are a rebuke to our convenient amnesia about the price of progress and a reminder that the true costs are always paid somewhere.

Traces, by Ian Teh. Published by Deep Sleep Editions, 2011.
Incorporated into the book is another series, Dark Cloud. In this work, we get a closer look at the workers and people who toil in the coalmines, factories and power plants of industrial China - a micro view to the macro view of Traces. Arranged as short narrative sequences, the images serve as a counter balance to the somber landscapes and show the collateral human consequences. Under the glare of factory torchlights, the nighttime images are shrouded under a blanket of soot and coal dust. Glimpses of humans and machinery are veiled in chiaroscuro and smoke. Several traditional portraits also capture the workers in underground tunnels, outside coalmines or inside dank factory warehouses. Alternately resigned and haughty, the portraits reveal both a sadness and resilience in the face of their inescapable circumstances.

Traces, by Ian Teh. Published by Deep Sleep Editions, 2011.
Creating work that adequately deals with the complexities of environmental degradation and transcends its sensational subject matter is a real challenge. Like war photography, it is something people often choose to ignore. Confronting it on any level forces us to challenge our own politics and lifestyle choices in profound ways. Teh has created two overlapping bodies of work that are both universal and poetic in their scope, yet grounded in the complexities of modern China. Blending traditional documentary work with fine art imagery, Teh has created a jarring mix that unsettles us from our complacent assumptions and forces us to look again.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department.