Ours is a volatile and unpredictable era. Humanity of a later age will look upon this time as we look upon earlier ages — with chastened reflection.
For the past 40 years I have worked on many proj- ects photographing New York. Initially, I wanted to create a new project to photograph the Five Bor- oughs of New York City where I have lived and pho- tographed for the past 50 years. The year leading up to the 2020 presidential election has been a critical moment in the history of our country. The election has had a profound impact on the immediate fate of the American Republic, which will also reverberate for decades to come and touch on global affairs in similarly profound and long-lasting ways.
The unexpected turbulent times following the election, with doubts of the validity of the count, followed by the murder of George Floyd and sub- sequent riots were unprecedented. Then came the pandemic and a transformation that I couldn’t have imagined when I wrote my proposal to the Pollock- Krasner Foundation, who helped fund my under- taking, along with the Rosenkranz Foundation.
Throughout my photographic journey in New York — a world-city that embodies the best, as well as as- pects of the worst, of American realities and dreams — I attempted to investigate and reflect on who we are, who we’ve become, and how we reached this turbulent historical inflection point. These two pho- tographs on the streets of New York are part of this investigation. This project has become “Shooting Fifth Avenue” (which is taken from a quote from Trump suggesting that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and he wouldn’t lose voters.)
In 1984, a Guggenheim Foundation grant enabled me to photograph the dramatic karst limestone mountains of Guangxi province, southwest China, the initial phase of my lifelong work there. There- after, I explored the Silk Route in the northwest of the country, the course of the Yangtze River, as well as the urban landscapes and human industry of the country’s booming towns and cities. Parallel to my work in China, I have worked as intensely on proj- ects in the American West, on the Navajo Reser- vation, which encompasses parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Most of my other projects throughout the decades have been long-term and global. Landscape as it em- braces history is my subject. I am an obsessive col- lector and observer of landscapes. What I am trying to reveal through photography in a deliberate, yet subtle way, is a sense of time passing. I want my photographs to describe my relationship to both the visible and the imagined, to fact and fiction.
Q:How did pandemic change your life routine? Did it cause any difficulties for creating this project?
A:I believe the pandemic changed everyone’s lives. By mid-March I wasn’t sure how severe the virus was becoming in New York. I was teaching at Fordham University in the Bronx, near where the first cases started spreading. My brother suggested I travel to the family home in Pennsylvania immediately. So I left New York, unsure whether I was leaving for 2 weeks or 6 months. I stayed for 2 months.
At the beginning of the year, I had already begun a project about the time leading up to the 2020 elections. As I knew (given Trump’s history) that this era would be unpredictable and explosive..
The 2 months I spent in the Pennsylvania countryside allowed me to rethink the project and to begin working with the circle and oval shapes in conjunction with the panorama. These shapes, in particular the circle, have no beginning and no end, it felt like a description of the pandemic. So I began using these shapes in the landscape, with the idea that I would also use them on the street in New York.
When I returned to New York two months later I began photographing the nearly empty streets which seemed to me to be like a stage set.
Q: Geremie Barme’s essay in your Beijing:Contemporary and Imperial, it mentioned how the concept of the “China Dream” was revealed through your lens. How does the “Shooting Fifth Avenue” series reveal the “American Dream” ?
A:New York is like a microcosm of what is happening throughout our country, on a larger scale. The marches, protests, the frustrated and confused populous, that was us. The American Dream was already being twisted and crushed by the Trump Administration, with the meaning of America and what it stands for dramatically changed.
Q:In the past thirty years, you have recorded and witnessed the transformation of Chinese urban landscapes. You also revealed many details. On recording the urban landscape of China and U.S., are there any similarities? What’s the biggest difference?
A:The changes I witnessed in cities in China from 1984 through today have been surprisingly dramatic. Especially since 1988 when building throughout China was moving fast. In Beijing, for example, after 6 months, I often did not recognize the street where I was staying. Hutongs were transformed into large department stores or fancy hotels. Most of the Ganmien hutong, where I stayed in the 1990’s, no longer exists, the siheyuan of my friends was destroyed over 25 years ago. It was an incredible period of time to witness through this medium of photography.
Q:The pandemic is the only year you couldn’t travel internationally and didn’t visit China, what have you done? Did you rearrange your original plan, especially for photographing?
A:During this time period in America, none traveled, it was impossible. There is no possibility of traveling to China, even now. I was supposed to have an Artist in Residence in Hong Kong in February, and maybe go back to teach in Hangzhou. I always have many projects going on, many of them long term. I am writing from the southwest of America (Arizona, New Mexico and Utah) where I am continuing my project about the Navajo Nation.
Q:For the ongoing photography project in U.S., what’s your future plan for it?
A:I have been working on my ‘All Under Heaven’ portrait of the Navajo Nation since 1990, I’d like to put together a book, and try for a museum exhibition.