Venetian Red Notebook: Don Hong-Oai’s Arresting Photographs

By LIZ HAGER

Don Hong-Oai, Only Me Yellow Mountain, 14×11,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Gallery 71).

Though the landscape genre has long been appreciated in Western art, “nature art”—the depiction of nature and her species—has struggled to be taken seriously as a fine art form.  Not to be confused with domesticated animal portraiture, essentially a form of still life (i.e. animals as possessions), “nature art” is most often categorized as “illustration.” Perhaps that’s because, in the West, the depiction of the natural world has historically served science.  Even Audubon thought of himself as a scientist first; drawing and painting were just the means of documenting his findings.

John James Audubon, Belted Kingfisher, Havell plate no. 77, ca. 1812; 1822 (courtesy New York Public Library).

Asian masters seem to have been free from such constraints, no doubt because of the long tradition of purposeful reverence for nature there. Taoists believe that harmony with the Tao can only be achieved by living in accord with nature. Nature should be understood, befriended, not conquered or exploited. Additionally, Sung Dynasty (960-1979) Confucianists sought knowledge through “things,” reflecting their interest in observation and understanding of the world through nature.

Fan K’uan (990-1030), Sitting in Contemplation by a Stream, ink on silk.

Long before the Impressionists then, Chinese tradition dictated that a painter actually observe nature for long periods—notice how animals behaved, interacted with flora; record how the landscape changes with the seasons, distances, and times of the day—so that it would deeply resonate with him. In China’s tradition ofbird and flower painting,” which dates from the Tang Dynasty (8th/9th centuries), the birds and flowers are but one among many elements in an overall composition. The image isn’t meant to convey specifics, but the emotional impact of nature. Eventually two main trends evolved, one, Gong Bi, in which artists focused on small details, careful application of color and meticulous technique, giving their art a realistic and ornamental feeling; the other,  Xie Yi, looser and more expressionistic.

Don Hong-Oai, Winter Fog, 14×11,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Photo Eye Gallery).

With the rise of photography as a fine art medium at the dawn of the 20th century, it was only natural that photographers would at first imitate the motifs and techniques of painting. Stieglitz and his contemporaries did much to champion American “pictorialism, ” recognizable through its soft-focus, painterly style. (See Venetian Red’s The Birth of Photographic Pictorialism).

In the 1940s, possibly in Hong Kong, photographers popularized a style of composite image, which came to be known as “Asian Pictorialism.”  The images, based on the motifs of the “bird and flower” paintings, made extensive use of double negatives and montaged elements, all assembled in a vaguely realistic way.  Like the paintings, realism was not the goal; these photographic images were supposed to communicate the emotive power of nature.

Don Hong-Oai, Hoops, 11×14,”
sepia-toned gelatin-silver print (courtesy Photo Eye Gallery).

Don Hong-Oai (1929-2004) was one of the last photographers to work in this tradition.  Although the influences are recognizable (down to the “chop,” or calligraphic signature on the photographs), Hong-Oai’s images are truly unique. The photographer managed to create idealized scenes through hauntingly-specific details. He’s suggested whole worlds through the sparsest of details. His images are often atmospheric, although never overtly sentimental. However, the penultimate magic of these images lies in their alluding to the passage of time without being rooted in any specific time. Time passes; time is arrested.

Don Hong-Oai, Returning at Dusk, 11×14,”
sepia-tone gelatin-silver print.

Born in Canton, China, Hong-Oai was the youngest in a family of 25 children. His early life was dominated by poverty. As a young child, after the sudden death of his parents, he was sent to live in Saigon. Beginning as a seven-year old, Hong-Oai apprenticed to a photography studio, where he learned the basic techniques of photography. He nurtured an interest in photographing the landscape, which he did on his time off with the studio camera. (Who knows how long it must have taken him to save the $48 necessary to buy his first camera?) Later, he studied at the Vietnam University College of Art, eventually becoming a teacher there.

He studied with an earlier master of the Asian pictorial style, Long Chin-San. Chin-San had been trained in the techniques of “bird and flower painting,” and searched for ways to translate the overall effect into photography. He is reputed to have perfected the negative layering method around 1939.

Long Chin-San, Longevity, 1961, photograph.

Hong-Oai remained in Vietnam through the war. In 1979, however, because of disturbances between China and Vietnam, the photographer fled the country by boat, arriving at the age of 50 in San Francisco speaking no English. For years, he lived in Chinatown, where he had a small darkroom. He sold his prints at local street fairs.  Periodically, he returned to China to replenish his inventory of images.

Don Hong-Oai, Solitary Wooden Boat, 11×14,”
sepia-tone gelatin-silver print.

Only in the last decade of his life was Don Hong-Oai discovered by a wider public. These days, print of his work often start at $2,600 and a first edition of his book, Photographic Memories, now out of print, was recently offered on Amazon for $1,242.

Photographer Don Hong-Oai

Wider Connections

Utata—Don Hong-Oai biography

The Nonist—The World According to Chin-san Long

Birds: The Art of Ornithology

About these ads

2 Responses to “Venetian Red Notebook: Don Hong-Oai’s Arresting Photographs”

  1. Wonderful!

  2. thank you so very much for ur kindness on sharing the informations and images of this overwhelming artist, HOng-Oai.
    i’m deeply impressed!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 736 other followers

%d bloggers like this: