Cheng Xinhao: The Naming of a River

When you talk of a river how often do you talk of the river? This linguistic quirk emphasises the significance and permanence that is ascribed to those rivers which within our lifetimes we become familiar with. Yet, rivers are not static, but are both subjects and objects of change. Though, this is typically across geological timescales and distances incomprehensible to individuals, instead known only through collective memory. One river may be known by many names.

Cheng Xinhao’s The Naming of a River was inspired by his chance finding of Pictures of Six Rivers in Yunnan’s Provincial Capital, a series of handdrawn maps of his hometown of Kunming. He notes in the epilogue to his book that he found great discrepancies between these maps made by Huang Shijie, a Qing Dynasty official, and his own memory of the city, which even in his own lifetime had doubled in size. In 2014, he returned to Kunming to photograph the Panlong River, the largest of Huang’s six rivers and one of the few remaining natural watercourses in the landscape. This project came about during a time of significant development in Cheng’s life, the previous year he had received his PhD in chemical and molecular engineering at Peking University, and two years before that had just started practicing photography. In recent years his work has begun to be recognised, with Cheng being named as a finalist of the prestigious 2015 Three Shadows Photography Award, and winning that year’s Shiseido Photographer Prize. The Naming of a River, Cheng’s inaugural photobook published by Ningbo-based Jiazazhi Press, has now been shortlisted for the Aperture First Photobook Award 2016.

This latest project continues Cheng’s exploration of the relationship between the landscape and its representation, between what is known to be there, and what is expected. His earlier project On Painting saw him photographing and photoshopping amateur painters and their works within landscapes, in his Smaller World he uses the distorted perspective of found tourist snapshots to render world landmarks unfamiliar. Though, recent landscape photography, and contemporary photography more generally, has turned from a series of scenes to be captured, to a series of journeys to made and photographs to be created: The story is familiar and has been replayed many times; the photographer travels, typically somewhere distant or not visited for years, produces only a few photographs and perhaps a book after months of work. But rarely do these publications reflect the process itself, they feel more like an afterthought, the pages are opened and turned in a way that separates the photographs from their place in the journey and the viewer from the artists’ slow method.

The Naming of a River has been constructed with Cheng’s journey in mind. Beautifully designed, bound in cardboard and tied with an elastic thread, it feels like a geographer’s notebook. Inside, drawing on associations with historical scroll illustrations, Cheng’s work is presented on an ambitious double-sided concertina, roughly 5 metres long. On one side, panoramic photos taken on a trip up the Panlong from its source. Though ostensibly following the Panlong, these photos are all turned away from the river itself directing attention from the specific, iconic, and decisive sights to focus on the indistinct and the peripheral. Shot on a panoramic camera each of the exposures stretches over several folds. The mud, scrub, and floodplains of the first few exposures turn to suburban settings. The natural incoherence meets the first fleeting moments of human architecture, typical post-revolutionary concrete buildings and more modern suburban flats. The river, now constrained from its course by brick and concrete runs wide and shallow. As it progresses, vegetation returns, albeit managed, far from an idyll. Laconic titles suggest that little joy or imagination could be found in each vignette, ‘Riverside of Eucalypti’, ‘Riverside in the Downtown Area’, ‘The Estuary’.

Cheng writes that he approached this project with an analytical mind, seeking out objective facts on the river to record and catalogue, but notes that he found it difficult to maintain a clear distinction between the objective and the subjective, which dissolved as he followed the water. Coming to the end of the concertina, flipping the pages, Cheng’s scientific background is made apparent. The photographs and writing on the verso resemble a more archaeological approach, an attempt to condense the knowledge of generations and disparate groups and fields into a single consumable sheet of typologies and evidence. The scope of which takes in ecology, sociology, and architectural study: Fossil specimens ordered from largest to smallest, leaves arranged in rows; rocky outcrops ordered according to Cheng’s inner logic; a series of portraits show individuals by professional or activity, ‘a gardener’, ‘a farmer’, ‘a retired TV show maker’; a thumbnail image of each of the 126 bridges that cross the Panlong. Besides these, there are a few photos of the river itself, but these are far from inspiring. Taken in the rainy season and dry season, they highlight the slowness to the point of utter stillness, pooled and silted, merging seamlessly with the permanently overcast sky.

There is the sense that this book reflects a photographer finding his way in the world, returning to hometown after years studying in Beijing, defining himself and his work through his first photobook. Cheng is internationalist in his sources and themes, selecting quotations on time and impermanence from the Bible and TS Eliot, and drawing stylistic allusions to August Sander and Bernd & Hilla Becher into relation with the aesthetics of contemporary Kunming. With The Naming of a River Cheng is finding his footing in a mode of photography that compliments his analytical approach; one which emphasises reflection and contemplation over immediate action, and one that desires to put names and faces to the lines on a map.