There are no stupid questions, teachers always tell you. While Lois Conner was studying photography at Yale in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she took an elective course on Chinese paintings from the Ming dynasty. One day, she asked her professor a question whose answer would resonate in her work for years to come: Why is it that, in Chinese traditional paintings, mountains look like they’re coming out of a fantasy world? ‘They don’t,’ replied her teacher. ‘In some parts of China, mountains actually look like the ones you see in the paintings.’
Kunming, Yunnan by Lois Conner
Conner saw those mountains for herself in 1984, three years after graduation, when she travelled to China for the first time on a Guggenheim Fellowship. ‘I stayed in Yangshuo for three months, in Guangxi province,’ she says over the phone. ‘I was absolutely thrilled by the landscape, then. It was so magical.’ Her first panoramic photographs of China date back to that trip. This established Conner’s trademark: a sweeping, elongated format. Always black and white.
Lois Conner portrait by Lee Friedlander
The 7x17-inch large-format banquet camera, like an accordion perched on a tripod, is another of Conner’s trademarks – and not the most convenient for countryside travel. ‘I had to constantly repair it in the field, and always travelled with glue, wood, clamps, and squares.’ She still uses similar equipment today. ‘It gives me an excuse to pause,’ she explains.
This type of camera produces photographs of particularly long dimensions. ‘I was already fascinated by panorama before China,’ she recalls. ‘Then I remembered my art history class about the Ming dynasty. I thought I could describe a landscape as a narrative, like in the Chinese paintings.’ Conner continues, ‘Panorama actually originated from China.’
Hangzhou by Lois Conner
Ganden Monastery, Tibet by Lois Conner
Since 1984, she’s been coming back every year for three or four months a year. ‘It’s the unknowable,’ Conner explains as she describes her frequent returns. Even after all this time, she feels as though she’s only just beginning to understand the country she’s visited for over 30 years. ‘It’s hard to describe it. It’s a physical, emotional, historical kind of understanding.’
For nearly the past four decades, Conner has worked on different themes, not only landscapes, but also cities and their many facets; and she’s won acclaim for her very elegant pictures of lotus, where she portrays the plants in a way that confines them to abstraction. ‘There’ll be a bit of everything,’ she says of her upcoming exhibition, A Long View, at the Shanghai Center of Photography. ‘In the first room, there’ll be landscapes. In the second room, there’ll be cities, and in the third, the lotus.’
Puxi Construction by Lois Conner
Towards the end of our conversation, she describes a scene she was trying to photograph, back in the 1980s: a bamboo ladder leaning on a tree, in front of a lake. A very peaceful scene, not a soul in sight. ‘Well, there were three or four hundred people behind, staring at me, when I was taking that photo.’ You can hear her smile over the phone. ‘Sometimes, photography is a performance.’
Ladder in Hangzhou by Lois Conner
Imagine hundreds of bystanders looking at Conner – a blonde American woman travelling around China in the 1980s, with a 19th-century-style camera, taking pictures of ladders. Who’s coming out of a fantasy world now?
By Alex Gobin