It was from one of the illustrations in China's Brief History of Photography, compiled by Chen Shen and published in Taiwan, that I first saw Luo Bonian’s works. Restricted by insufficient information, I just had limited impression on this picture. After I knew Jin Youming, descendant of Mr. Luo, I was showed the original copy of this picture. It was quite small. And then, I found that some articles published on domestic websites actually mentioned it when discussing the body photography in early China, but the human body in this picture should be a small-sized sculpture instead of a real body. In fact, many photographers in the period of the Republic of China used sculpture as model to create photographic works of human body, such as Lu Shifu. After my repeated study on Mr. Luo’s remaining works and negative films in those years, I could say there are two trends co-existing in him: Chinese traditional aesthetics and western modernism.
At first, some of his remaining works are from the “Friendship” photo exhibition, with works inscribed by Yu Dafu, Chen Lu (also known as Chen Zhishi), Cao Xiyu (also known as Cao Jingtao) and Zhao Zongding. Most of these works focus on pictorial style, combining the implication of composite picture. The cause could be attributed to the limitation of photographic materials in earlier years, which were only applied to printing, resulting in loss of a lot of details and creating effect of soft focus while the picture was enlarged. However, when I checked the negative film, I found this group of works is sharp in focusing and rich in details. Of course it had become a mainstream trend to depend on photography as a means to express Chinese traditional aesthetics in China’s earlier history of photography, photographers including Lang Jingshan and Zhang Yinquan etc.
The second group of works is a lot of directly printed pictures, from which we could see the main theme of Mr. Luo’s photographic creation. Like many other photographers at that time, he also aimed his camera to the country’s great landscape, recording the lives of common people while capturing the beautiful scenery in regions south of the Yangtze River, but the most impressive part was that modernism began to exert its influence on China’s photographers.
In his still life works, except for those of pictorial styles in earlier time, there are some learning from German modernism style between 1920 and 1930: simple daily supplies arranged together to make up a brief picture, using light and shadow formed by objects to create abstract still life conveying the sense of pattern, such as cup, gear, folding fan and tableware etc. Such works easily reminds you of Laszlo Moholy Nagy’s picture of Baud Ryan’s glasses, tobacco pipe, fork and edge of disc, quite like the works of German photographers such as Hans Finsler, Florence Henry and Edward Hoyneges.
Most of Mr. Luo’s landscape works between 1920 and 1930 focus on natural scenery of regions south of the Yangtze River; he integrated Chinese traditional aesthetic and visual language of western modernism like many other photographers at that time, when they could only learn the latest photographic trend from foreign books and magazines, which contained abundant information that helped them find their personal preference and gradually form their own style. Luo’s landscape works were different from those of Jin Shisheng, one of his contemporary photographers. Luo focused more on trees in the whole scenery; they either served as a contrast, or as the principal part for the picture. He took picture of ships on water from the bank, adopting willow as the foreground, displaying the feeling for typical Chinese ancient landscape, with extremely abundant details already out of the hazy atmosphere belonging to pictorialism and composite picture, revealing the sign of formalistic photography. Besides, Luo also attempted to make production of different technologies on the same film, such as negative phase and emboss, trying to study the western technologies popular at that time.
Among his works, the most unforgettable was the collage, which was regarded as an important way of expression of western modernistic photography between 1920 and 1930. Many famous modernistic photographers had tried such technology, like Moholy Nag, but Luo adopted a kaleidoscopic way of collage. He used the front and back of a film to respectively print and enlarge four pictures, selected the key visual center in the pictures, cut them into eight equilateral triangles and arranged them in a one-to-one form. In this way he obtained a complete picture, and the final subject in the picture was a grotesque kaleidoscope. All representational subjects for shooting were broken down into unrecognizable fragments of light and shadow. Actually the graphic elements used in those collages are usually the mostly ignored objects in our life, such as leaf vein, iron fence and shadow under sunshine.
Luo was a typical amateur photographer in the profession of photography in early China; he worked in bank and pursued his hobby after work. Many features about earlier photographers in the period of the Republic of China could be found in him. They all drew western photographic technology and advanced idea and experience and made bold attempts. Their exploration and experiment facilitated the climax of China’s earlier photography. As Beaumont Newhall said, “There is another group of photographers whose focus on this kind of medium are far beyond just recording. They sincerely believe photography is a pure sort of art that deserves to be approved. With their own vigor and spirit of dedication, they explore the aesthetic potential of photography……..As amateurs, they are relieved of economic burdens, free of those professional photographers’ self-imposed restrictions; they conducted experiment in an unconstraint way, full of imagination, willing to break established rules……Their styles finally become universal principles.” (Photographic History: from 1893 to Now)