Book review: ‘Yangtze – The long river’ by Nadav Kander

Front cover

I thought I’d kick off a new strand in my Web Journal: an occasional series of reviews of photography books that I have collected. To kick things off, a look at one of my favourites: ‘Yangtze – The long river’ by Nadav Kander.

Kander, an Israeli-born South African living in England, made several trips to China in 2006-2007, travelling the length of the World’s third longest river and documenting what he saw with his camera. This is landscape photography in its broadest sense, more documentary in intent and style, but the breathtaking quality of Kander’s work and the scope and vision of the project speak for themselves. Quality that was recognised with the award of the prestigious Prix Pictet in 2009.

Changxing Island II, Shanghai, 2006

On the face of it, it’s the story of a river from mouth to source but, more than this, it is a document of a unique moment in China‘s history. The country is undergoing rapid industrialisation on an unprecendented scale and most of the scenes Kander photographed will be unrecognisable in a few years – let alone a few decades. But it is the people who are affected by this time of change who are often the real subjects. Small in the frame and dominated by the manic orgy of construction happening all around, they nevertheless carry on with their lives. An al-fresco lunch in the shadow of a massive flyover, people bathing in the river, hanging out washing, just passing the time of day. It is these vignettes of daily life which give Kander’s photographs warmth and humanity.

Yibin V, Sichan Province, 2007

Yet this is no celebration of beauty. Vibrant colours, dramatic skies, strong perspective, all the elements so beloved of landscape photographers everywhere are wholly absent. Overcast conditions dominate and a yellow pallor gives many of the images an oppressive, humid, almost toxic atmosphere. Unfinished building projects occupy many pages: ghostly, empty, fading into the mist as if in a dream. There is a sense of a dystopia being born, dwarfing and suffocating the very people who are the supposed beneficiaries.

It is a book of stark images which don’t always make for easy viewing but it is the sensitivity and precision of Kander’s compositions that I find so compelling. There is beauty here, even in the face of encroaching urban ugliness, brought to the fore by a formal approach to composition. Kander emphasises the monumental and juxtaposes massive concrete structures with the mundane lives of a people trying to come to terms with change on an inhuman scale. And it is the people who provide the images with the occasional splash of vibrant colour – almost as if they refuse to be cowed by what is happening around them.

Shanghai I, 2006

The book is divided into four sections, each illustrating a different and distinct part of the river. ‘The Mouth’, ‘The Upstream’, ‘The Flooding’ (relating to the highly controversial ‘Three Gorges Dam’ project) and ‘The Upper Reaches’. The first two are concerned with scenes of ‘urban regeneration’ with the odd, and I mean ‘odd’, diversion into Las Vegas kitsch – in one image a steel ‘palm tree’ lies broken in a hotel swimming pool. In another, two new apartment buildings compete for height, their architecture distinctly western with only a slight and rather unconvincing nod to the traditional Chinese aesthetic.

Wu Gorge, Hubei Province, 2007

As we move upriver the images take on a more human scale but here there are only occasional photographs that could conventionally be called ‘beautiful’. These are to be found mostly in the section entitled ‘The Flooding’, where a sense of what has been lost pervades. A classical landscape of the river flowing through the Wu Gorge (the now sedate river at one time a rushing torrent) is ‘tainted’ by the presence of two barges, presumably carrying materials destined for the never-ending construction work. Even close to the source, where one might reasonably expect wild, rugged scenery, there is a sense of unease. A broken bridge crosses a river shot through with the blood-red of natural iron ore deposits (a rather-too-obvious metaphor for what’s happening to China itself?) A misty view of the plain near where the river rises is starkly beautiful in its barren simplicity – yet here, too, there is industry.

Qinghai Province II, 2007

Qinghai Province I, 2007

Quality-wise, the book is first rate and given the pedigree of its publisher, German fine-art house, Hantje-Cantz, I would expect nothing less. With very few exceptions, the images are presented on a single page with just a simple caption facing – a commendable layout which gives each image plenty of room to breathe. Only the most basic of location information is supplied in the captions as it is Kander’s stated intention that the photographs speak for themselves, which they do with magnificent eloquence.

A nice touch, often absent from books of ‘art’ photography, is a section at the end devoted to further information about each image, including anecdotes from the photographer. An introduction by Kofi Anaan, who presented Kander with the Pictet prize, and a foreword by noted economist, Jean-Paul Tchang, round out this impressive and thought-provoking volume. Without a doubt, it is a book which deserves a place on the shelf of every serious photographer.

Chongqing IV (Sunday Picnic), Chongqing Municipality, 2006

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