Disappearing Shanghai – An Essay by Teju Cole


All photography is a record of a lost past. Photography does not share music’s ability to be fully remade each time it is presented, nor does it have film’s durational quality, in which the illusion of a present continuous tense is conjured. A photograph shows what was, and is no more. It registers in pixels or in print the quality and variety of light entering an aperture during a specific length of time. There are no instantaneous photographs: each must be exposed for a length of time, no matter how brief: in this sense, every photograph is a time-lapse image, and photography is necessarily an archival art.

There are certain oeuvres within the history of photography in which this archival pressure is felt more intensely than in others. Eugène Atget’s facades, architectural ornaments, and street corners depicted a Paris that was, even while his work was ongoing, already passing away from view. Atget’s images have a sense of speaking out from a buried visual subconscious, a sense aided by, but not wholly dependent on, the depopulated views he preferred and the melancholia of the sepia tone bestowed by time. The other part of the charge of the images comes from what we know about the places they depict: chiefly that those places are gone.

The same kind of embedded charge, that of evanescence caught on the wing, can be felt in all the photographs presented in Disappearing Shanghai, the new book by Howard French. French is a journalist of unusually broad expertise: he was Bureau Chief for the New York Times in several countries, and has had many years of experience reporting from Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, and Asia. His work as a photographer is less well-known: the selection in Disappearing Shanghai marks the first appearance of his photographs in book-form.

It might be assumed that French is one of those dilettantes who, unwilling to leave well enough alone, insist on dabbling in areas beyond their specialization: a writer of well-received books and articles turning his attention to something less taxing, something easy, like the occasional snapshot. But one hardly need look at more than three or four of his photographs to be disabused of this notion: there is much more going on in the images than hobbyism. The images, in fact, look like work. They indicate intent, thought, order. They provoke questioning, demanding from us what all good photographs do, which is that they be placed in some relation to the wider practice of photography and to the ethics and possibilities of the form.

Disappearing Shanghai is a visual account of five years worth of shooting in the rapidly changing backstreets, homes, and alleys of China’s largest city. The work originated during French’s time living there as a Times reporter, and developed side-by-side with that work. The instinct that brought these images to the surface (it seems natural to think of them as having been submerged) was that of a flâneur. Around the time that French began to learn Chinese, he also started to go on long walks in the less glitzy areas of the city: the older areas, the more traditional areas, precisely those parts of the city that were beginning to be effaced by the economic boom. He began to take photos of the people he met. Soon, he was invited into their homes.

The photos that resulted are notably different from what we might ordinarily think of as photojournalism: they are dynamic, but they are not the action-packed singles of the kind that win photojournalism prizes. There is something far more patient at work in them. We feel that the photographer has not so much captured a “decisive moment” as gained us admission into private moments of long duration. Many of the images project the longueurs that are, after all, a substantial part of regular life: unhurried, unharried, the part of life that isn’t caught up in working for pay, the part of life that is a simple, unfussy catalog of the passing minutes.

Please click here to read the entire essay, which includes a selection of images.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *