“On the attempt to cover-up and induce amnesia on an historic event, negatives have more direct impact as evidence than normal photographs or digital media. However, perhaps using this form to immunize against amnesia is not that important. What should be carefully considered are the social conditions that have resulted in the prolonged process of completing these works.”

— Photographer Xu Yong

These photographic negatives were taken 25 years ago, during the much-censored Tiananmen Square Protests in Beijing, China, June 4, 1989. They are presented as “negatives” in the book, “Negatives”, published in 2015 by New Century Press, Hong Kong.

Instructions for viewing the negatives as positive images:

To interact with the works in Negatives with your iPhone or iPad, go to “Settings” “General” “Accessibility” and turn on “Invert Colors”. Then use the camera to reveal the positive images of the negative works. Other devices have similar functions, such as camera setting “Color Effect - Negative”.

Negatives — An Introduction by Shu Yang

In traditional photography, the negative image is the most direct way of capturing an analogue image through photochemistry; it is the basis of a traditional photograph. At the moment the negative image is being formed, it cannot be immediately viewed by the photographer. To really understand the photograph’s entire message, the image must be completed through the powerful development process of the darkroom.

Thus an important part of the traditional photographer’s work is precisely anticipating the traditional negative image’s visual effect. This indirect imaging skill often determined a photographer’s expertise, and to other people it could feel unfamiliar and mysterious. With this indirect imaging skill, the traditional photographer takes mastery over problems, and at the same time acquires a kind of professionalism and authority that gave traditional photography a monopoly over the world of visual imagery.

Before the invention of photography, this monopoly was controlled by painting, and today, this monopoly has once again been broken and seized from traditional photography by digital technology. Digital photography, through the direct use of the camera lens, obtains the image in complete accordance with the real visual image, and does not need to go through any kind of negative of the filming scene to obtain its image. The traditional photographer has lost his monopolistic authority over visual authenticity, and through the supplanting of analogue technology by digital technology, everyone can effortlessly capture the external world’s true image.

Photographers are capable of examining the quality of a traditional photograph, and at the same time using the negative image to see the real world’s image. Traditional photography’s truthfulness was first established on the negative. As direct evidence of the real world’s image, the negative was even more real than the reproduced photographs that came from it. To ordinary viewers, the photographic plate’s negative image is the complete antithesis of the real world’s visual authenticity. Thus, traditional photography’s authenticity relies upon photographic experience in order to be constructed, and does not genuinely exist in the image itself. Photography’s original purpose to both preserve the real world’s living image and to create seems today, by the very nature of the media itself, to pose a challenge to objectivity. As proof of the world, traditional photography can only obtain a kind of suggestion, which is not self evident. This characteristic of photography has been even more thoroughly interpreted by digital imagery. The visual reality of digital imagery makes it so anyone can effortlessly capture a scene and effortlessly select and falsify. Digital technology has strengthened the fictitious aspect of photography’s authenticity. Digital technology has added more thoroughly to photographic transformation so that it has become possible to arbitrarily write and transform visual versions, to make it possible to satisfy even more fully the desire for a world of pictorial brilliance.

Today, in the environment of digital technology, the decline of the traditional photographic plate negative’s capacity to function as the expression of truthful imagery is much like the yellowed book-binding threads of old historical books, its function as visual evidence stronger even than the words of recorded history themselves. After a quarter of a century, Xu Yong digitally scanned his negatives, shot in 1989 of the June Fourth Tiananmen incident, and presents them directly here as negative images. The purpose is to revisit this important historic event and to reflect on its continued impact.

As he expressed himself:

“On the attempt to cover-up and induce amnesia on an historic event, negatives have more direct impact as evidence than normal photographs or digital media. However, perhaps using this form to immunize against amnesia is not that important. What should be carefully considered are the social conditions that have resulted in the prolonged process of completing these works.”

Xu Yong borrows the negative image photographic plates to remind us that the Tiananmen massacre is still forbidden from public discourse by the Chinese government, and the commemoration of this unbearable reality is even further proscribed. But even more than that, they raise questions about people’s collective memories of the events of June 4, 1989. In the works, the real description of history seems constrained by the dark imagery of the negatives, yet it achieves unfamiliar sensations as the eyes of the spectator are continuously seeking. These images of the June Fourth incident are similar to many other photos of the same event. Although this way of using negative photographic plates presents important historical fact, to decipher them only from the viewpoint of political correctness is not enough.

As far as the transmitting of information, Xu Yong’s negatives of June Fourth would be more effective as normal photographic images than as negative images. The core meaning of Xu Yong’s work “Negatives” is not only to declare the value of the photographic medium as evidence. Xu Yong uses what is revealed and illuminated in “Negatives” to remove the covers hiding morality and bravery, for traditional photography to seek new value in the digital age. This new value is not merely a continuation of traditional imagery’s original rationale; it also contains a unique creativity, especially in the meaning of fine art photography. On an unprecedented global scale, the traditional photographic industry has declined rapidly. Traditional photography as information technology has lost its original value and advantage. Xu Yong’s “Negatives” not only makes history and justice re-appear by refusing to forget; it also contains the basic creative concept: by transforming itself as new art, traditional photography can be reborn.

3rd September 2014, Beijing, Songzhuang

底 片

文 / 舒陽







by Xu Yong
Publisher: New Century Press, Hong Kong, 2015

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See also the excellent essay about this book in Lens blog of The New York Times.