Zheng Yaohua has created a series and photo book in which landscapes and still lifes are juxtaposed with texts. These texts record average people’s memories that are attached to the photographed places or objects located in and around New York City.As Zheng has stated, this work was inspired by the book On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam by Joel Sternfeld, and imitates its form (even its title).
Sternfeld's project was about a series of places he could not forget because of tragedies that identify them. But most of these places were anonymous reminders of the events that took place. How can the photographer represent the tragic, if the site itself cannot? Sternfeld's series required the narrative story for each image to create a context for the viewer. Without the accompanying narrative, the meaning of Sternfeld's images could easily be misread. There is no sense of the tragic event without the narrative details. The work is about recalling and recording the tragic, as well as emphasizing significance and meaning in the landscape.
Zheng Yaohua uses random and mundane personal events and places in a beautiful ironic twist, trading this for their in the project title. The focus becomes very personal and introspective.The meaning barely extends beyond the individual. Zheng Yaohua writes...
I believe that some seemingly inconsequential personal memories stir people more frequently than significant historical events do. I also believe that most people’s lives appear completely uneventful to others. At the end of 2006, after reading for the second time Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site, a book juxtaposing landscape photographs with texts about a series of tragic events in American collective memory, I decided to make a book for another type of memories. I started photographing the sites where people's private memories were attached, recording memories that might be meaningful only to their owners.
Although “image-text” has not been a fantastic new idea, it naturally becomes a tool for a project that borrows a form of communication from tourism, — on the Lion's Mound, looking down at the lush plain, the battlefield Waterloo, where the topography has changed long ago, the guide counts the 47,000 dead or wounded and then the tourists sigh. The form helps to construct the project and to query the difference of reliability and significance to treat depictions of collective/public memory and individual/private memory as both of them are recorded in detail.
The ongoing project has also given me a chance to revisit this experience. One unconsciously seeks an awareness of being anchored. By attaching memories to places or objects where he/she settles or tarries, one builds the relationship of mutual recognition and confirmation with the world. An intersection, a mailbox or a tiny thorn therefore becomes his/her vessel of private memory or monument of personal history. I was amazed by some details while recording for this growing collection and was finally convinced that they had been or would be the irrefutable evidence of one's life in his/her memory.
To simulate the look of uneventful lives, I waited for sunny days to photograph on the sites where various intimate memories were interspersed, hoping to avoid painting the images with the likely mawkish photographic expressions of a know-it-all. 4”x5” film, as deep depth of field as possible, wide framing, nonhierarchical composition, by which I offered audience a chance to retrace the artist's searching and, thereby, his imagination. When brightening the upper midtones, lowering its contrast, the highly detailed realistic sun drenched images were washed down, which offered me a world of memory, of lucid dreams. However, I cannot tell to whom the dreams belong.
Beard Street, Staten Island, New York, 2008
On the evening of September 26, 2004 Gladys Ellison, a 43-year-old nurse, found a Metro, dated the 26th of the previous month, in the gap between the washing machine and the laundry sorter in the Ellisons' basement. Around the same time the paper was published, five months after their son, Sgt. Eric Ellison, 21, died in Gartan, Baghdad, her husband, Mart Ellison, a 49-year-old veteran, got a burn on his right shin by accident in their garage. A week after finding the newspaper Gladys Ellison moved in with her mother in Vermont where she stayed for 14 months.(Rachel Ellison, 16, the daughter of the Ellison's, mentioned the above circumstances in her schoolwork, by her parents' okay.)
Bedford Avenue and N 7th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, 2009
At around 10 p.m., December 29, 2006, Juan Vargas, 19, was talking on his cell phone with his mother in the Dominican Republic when the smoke began to reek from the garbage can where his cigarette stub smoldered. A police officer got out of the patrol car that was pulled over across the street, approached with a bottle of water in his hand and poured the water over the red ash. Vargas was about to worry about his immigration status as the officer was called back by his partner who stayed in the cruiser. “Saddam…” said the partner.They must have been listening to the radio or something. Vargas figured later, it was Saddam’s hanging that saved him.(Saddam Hussein was executed on December 29, 2006, 10:05 p.m. ET (December 20, 2006, 6:05 a.m. Baghdad Time). However, there was a one or two hour delay before the news was broadcast all over the world. Juan Vargas seemed to have been mistaken.)
Little Neck Parkway at Northern Boulevard, Little Neck, Queens, New York, 2007
Tony Brandon scraped his left knee on July 7, 1967, in a semi-serious fight with his classmate George Tenet, later a CIA director, on the sidewalk near the eatery that the Tenet’s used to own (“Scobee,” or the former “20th Century”). He remembers how badly it hurt and how George worried about his new shorts being torn, which were a gift for his birthday that day.(George J. Tenet served as the Deputy Director and the Director of the CIA from June 1995 to July 2004. He was born on January 5, 1953. It is likely that Tony Brandon’s memory of the date that had three 7’s is related to another event.)
East 41st Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, Manhattan, New York, 2008
It is the one with brickwork decoration beneath it. The window would be raised high at 11 a.m. in the morning and not periodically in the afternoon; a hand with a lit cigarette and wisps of smoke would loll out of the room. That started approximately six months before the New York City Smoke-Free Air Act became effective on March 30, 2003. The smoking lasted one or two months from the date, while the window opening did for a couple of further weeks.
About the Artist:
Zheng Yaohua was born in Shanghai, China in 1962. He studied Chinese language and literature at Shanghai Normal University where he received his Bachelor’s degree in 1985. He has been a video editor, motion graphic designer and a writer for more than a decade before starting to treat photography as a serious tool for his art creation. Zheng currently lives and works in New York City, U.S., where he has to be merely an on-my-way-to/from-office photographer, but as serious as he has been.
After spending a year in New York, 2004, four photographs from Zheng’s Under Manhattan Bridge were selected to be included in a publication 28mm: OFFLINE (Netherlands). In 2006, he was awarded first place in QMA Seven Train Photo Contest hosted by the Queens Museum of Art (New York City). His debut photo book Sleepwalk was published in 2010.
Zheng is an awardee of 2011 QCAF award, funded by the NYDCLA Greater New York Arts Development Fund, for his important project On Their Sitesstarted in early 2007. The work was sparked by his contemplation of mundane things and average individuals.
Zheng Yaohua's website