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photo-eye Book Reviews: Box -- Pass It On

Box - Pass It On. By Peng Yangjun & Chen Jiaojiao.
Published by Shang-Xia Ltd, 2012.
Box - Pass It On
Reviewed by Sarah Bradley
Peng Yangjun & Chen Jiaojiao Box - Pass It On
Shang-Xia Ltd, 2012. Hardbound. 332 pp., illustrated throughout, 7-3/4x10-1/2".

In several years of working at used book shops, I amassed an intriguing collection of things that fell from the pages of discarded books – photographs, ticket stubs, letters, newspaper clippings, receipts, pressed flowers, among other oddities. Tucked away for safe keeping, these items are forgotten treasures, the discovery of which was always a special moment, an intimate view of the previous owner. My initial impulse was to discuss Box - Pass It On in the context of vernacular photography, for which I have a deep love, but this book hit on a different level. Filled with treasures like the kind I'd find in old books, Box - Pass It On is something very special, something different from the reproduced photo albums and collections of found photographs I've previously encountered.

Published by Shang Xia, which produces high-end design furniture, housewares, clothing and jewelry that seek to discover and incorporate traditional Chinese craft into modern life, Pass It On is the first in their line of “Cultural Objects,” annual limited editions infused with themes, this one being “Heritage and Emotion.” Both have been impeccably rendered through the careful presentation of this object. Contained within a box, itself adorned with a reproduction photograph of two young boys in communist dress, is a thick book of photographs accompanied by two slim paperback volumes of translated text, one in English, the other French. Upon lifting the books from the box, one encounters a bottom flap with the word ”secrets” printed on it in English and Chinese, which when opened reveals six small compartments containing objects – a collection of marbles, a letter, several photographs, a toy metal plane. The book of photographs opens with text from photographer and editor Chen Jiaojiao detailing the personal discovery of long-unseen family images, a box that contained a secret history. The essay concludes with the remark that “It is about memory, also the beginning of a story.” The following page reads “Everyone has a box;” indeed, many were invited to share their images and stories.

Box - Pass It On, by Peng Yangjun & Chen Jiaojiao. Published by Shang-Xia Ltd, 2012.
Box - Pass It On, by Peng Yangjun & Chen Jiaojiao. Published by Shang-Xia Ltd, 2012.
The images are arranged in loose chronological order, though decades blend together with few distinguishing characteristics; many of the images are hand-tinted, at times making them feel a good deal older than they actually are. We encounter brides and men in uniform, family portraits and images of smiling children. The occasional gatefold reveals an extended group portrait or series of images of rosy-cheeked young women; several sequences show the growth of a child over a number of years. The details and the sequencing are perfect. I've seen a number of books that replicate or borrow pages from a family album, but I don't recall one that utilizes the idiosyncratic way that individuals actually store keepsakes. Tucked into the pages of this book are a number of small finds, but also images that are only attached at the gutter. The result of this astounding attention to detail is a book that is able to assemble images from a large number of individuals, yet as a unit it feels personal and intimate, as if one is looking at the private album of an impossibly massive family.

Box - Pass It On, by Peng Yangjun & Chen Jiaojiao. Published by Shang-Xia Ltd, 2012.
Box - Pass It On, by Peng Yangjun & Chen Jiaojiao. Published by Shang-Xia Ltd, 2012.
I expected to be taken with the images in this book, but what caught me off guard was the emotional power of the text that accompanies the photographs. Many books of similar photographic focus either revel in the anonymous nature of the images or provide little background – this is not the case for the majority of the images in this book. Not only are we given names and contexts but also stories, tales of heartbreak, family, marriages, divorces, children and regrets. We see and read text written on the backs of photographs, as well as several letters, including one from a 17 year old girl to her future-self, her reply four years later perfectly reproduced, note paper and all, bound into the book as if simply slipped in. The texts are at times funny – we are given a thorough run-down of the important members of one person's elementary school class, and another tells the story of how he acquired a photograph of a beautiful actress by cutting a frame from the film print – but the overwhelming tone is one of somber reflection. Stories from the first portion of the book are particularly memorable for the interference of the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, whose far-reaching effects disrupted and destroyed lives, careers, and families; it can even been seen in some of the images, confiscated and defaced by the government and returned years later. Much was lost during this era, and one is left with the sense of a collective effort to reassemble a cultural history through personal stories. So much is contained within this box, and its presentation allows for an experience of personal discovery, making the reading of it all the more profound. It is a beautiful document, and I will surely pass on. It is something to be shared.—SARAH BRADLEY

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by Martin Parr

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SARAH BRADLEY is a writer, sculptor, costumer and general maker of things currently living in Santa Fe, NM. Some of her work can be seen on her occasionally updated blog. She has been employed by photo-eye since 2008.