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China's Great Wall: The Forgotten Story

September 18, 2009

20090919.jpgThe initial feeling that hit me when I walked into the 3A Gallery in the South Park neighborhood of San Francisco, was how picture postcardy the first massive image I came across in Oakland photographer Jonathan Ball's Great Wall of China exhibition looked to my untrained eyes.

The panoramic photograph in question depicts a verdant, bumpy landscape of peaks and valleys with the famous wall snaking its way across the terrain. It's obviously a beautifully-composed picture, but there's nothing particularly unusual about it. I've never been to China but I feel like I've seen this image or one very like it hundreds of times before.

But then when one starts to read the backstory behind the image, it comes to life in a new way. All the photographs in the exhibition depict sites of historical significance, where important Manchu and Mongol raids occurred in the 15th - 17th centuries. The images capture the points of view of the defenders or raiders involved in the skirmishes and were taken on the anniversaries of the raids, as close as possible to the time of day when the battles took place.

The exhibition is a collaboration between Ball and Great Wall specialist David Spindler. Spindler is an American citizen and one of the world's leading Great Wall specialists. He lives in China and was the subject of a New Yorker profile a couple of years ago by Peter Hessler.

The stories of the raids can be read in an accompanying pamphlet. They provide a small but vivid insight into the raids which took place centuries ago. It's hard to imagine the horrors that occurred at the sites depicted in Ball's photographs. The images are so open, spacious and bright. In one picture, a shepherd herds a woolly blur of sheep; in another castle battlements tower benignly over a sun-lit courtyard. In a third, light snow sparkles on a rugged hillside. The fun of this exhibition is therefore very much in the contrast between the photographs and the unflinching-dry reportage of Spindler's text.

The significance of taking these photographs on the anniversary of the raids doesn't quite come across as you walk through the exhibition. It seems like a sense of chronology is important to Ball and Spindler. They even took care to bear witness to the actual time of day when the raids took place. as such, I would have liked to know more about the circumstances under which the photographs were taken -- perhaps a description of why each site was chosen, what the hike to the site was like, and what time of day the photograph was taken. In any case, I left the gallery feeling like I'd stepped into a different world for a couple of hours.

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