Beijing moon trek
Updated: 2012-02-03 10:49
By Chen Yingqun (China Daily European Weekly)
San Bartolome is keen on depicting the traditional and the modern in China. [Wang jing / China Daily]
French photographer uses traditional doors to capture the spirit of the capital
San Bartolome is a man with a very keen eye, a great deal of patience and a knack for turning the mundane into wonders for the eye to behold. His tools: a camera, doors and people who were once strangers to him.
As the world's top photographers swarmed into Beijing to capture pictures of the Olympic Games in 2008, San Bartolome was beavering away behind the scenes, photographing a group of small-trades people in a suburb of the city.
He has been in Beijing recently for the exhibition of his works under the name Moon Door Dreamers. The entrance of the title refers to the delicate Chinese traditional door, which looks like an old key hole, used as a pictorial backdrop or frame, and the dreams refer to the emotions of those living behind the doors in Shibalidian, Chaoyang district, near the South Fourth Ring Road.
"He has good insight," says Liu Rongrong, 24, a photographer.
"He has captured people and images that would never occur to us."
Another person with more than an inkling about aesthetic appeal, Caroline Deleens, a fashion designer, says of the images: "(I can feel) a lot of humanity and sensibility. The light and the shadow interest me the most."
Two strands of the artist's French, Spanish, Italian and German ancestry are reflected in his full name, Pierre-Jean de San Bartolome. Now 62, his passion for art has roots that are more than half a century deep, going back to his being interested in drawing when he was 4.
When he came to China for the first time in 1993, he was struck by what the French call "un coup de foudre" - love at first sight. "Chinese culture is diversified and comprehensive. It is different and appealing to me."
But beyond culture, what transported him was his love for the country's people. For the past 18 years he has visited China frequently and made many friends.
In 2008 he decided to shoot a series of portraits. "Chinese people are friendly and hospitable. I (wanted) to photograph their states of waiting, thinking, and acting." He wanted to show their ups and downs and to show them just as they are, he says.
But for all the premeditation, San Bartolome's stories with residents in Shibalidian came about by accident, or perhaps destiny.
One day in April 2008 he was on his way to a junk merchant's warehouse and got caught in a traffic jam, something that is the daily fare for many Beijing residents. He spotted two long walls whose bleak grayness was relieved only by archways, like moon doors.
The long wait, during which he observed the comings and goings of locals, got him thinking, and he decided to go back to the area one evening to find out more about the people who lived there.
Traditional moon doors usually provide an entree to ornate, opulent houses and lush gardens, but through these doors was a world of shops plying cigarettes and wine, grocers and small half-star, family-run restaurants.
For San Bartolome such small-business people represent traditional aspects of life, and he was soon eager to portray the folk of Shibalidian and their humble lives in his pictures.
"Small-trades people are the dynamism of this world. They are easygoing and can communicate with strangers without restraint. I was deeply touched by them."
San Bartolome spent two months befriending them. He observed their personalities, and everyday actions and emotions. "I don't like taking candid photographs, which (can make) the subject uncomfortable. I can only start when we become friends and can understand each other."
The residents were "curious and excited" about his plans to incorporate their lives into his pictures. "Photographers usually go for celebrities and won't put common people under the spotlight. So these people are happy to have my attention."
One of those people was Zhao Gang, a driver. "We were happy to be the subjects of his photos," he says. "San Bartolome is special ... He is able to make the meager look beautiful It is hard to believe how beautiful and elegant he has made us look."
San Bartolome took his photos in the evening, asking residents to pose in the way he thought would best reveal and display their emotions. He made the moon doors a backdrop or prop and used artificial lighting to highlight the subjects' faces.
"Everyone's face is unique and tells different stories, such as dreams, sullenness and a relationship," he says.
To add balance and reflect the real China, he also shot pictures during the day to tell stories of the country's modernization.
"I want to reveal both the traditional and modern parts of China, and lives of people from different social classes."
The delicate use of light and shadows is a prominent characteristic of his photos. "Light is like breath. Wherever there is light, there is life. Shadow helps show the stereo structure of subjects."
San Bartolome has a passion for photographing construction sites. For that appreciation he thanks his father, an architect. The day his father ignited his senses regarding the construction of walls is engraved in his mind.
"We were shoulder to shoulder by the river. He stirred the pebbles and lime with water, and put the mortar in my hands, telling me how to choose the shapes of building stones."
That special attraction for the built world means that when he sees a building being demolished it brings a tinge of sadness, something alleviated only by the thought that a new building will go up in its place to bring a frisson of excitement.
Away from his camera, San Bartolome is a man of many parts. Apart from being a photographer, he is a stage director, artistic manager and writer. But underlying all of that he sees himself as "a great traveler, a citizen of the world, curious about all the cultures, aware of their complementary natures and of the beneficial influence they provide to one's own self".
As one enamored of buildings and construction, it is perhaps appropriate that he has also made his mark building bridges, these ones cultural. From 2003 to 2008 he was the cultural attache at the French embassy in Beijing. With his enthusiasm for Chinese art, these days he could well be a cultural ambassador for the Middle Kingdom.
"There are many arts that China hasn't showed to the world, which I think will definitely attract European audiences China should tell more about its modern arts and certain art forms that are not popularized but are unique."
San Bartolome, who flits between Paris and Beijing - in recent years he has spent a total of at least two months a year in Beijing - recently finished a series of artworks with the title Billiard Table, which looks at people playing billiards in various settings.
He has other projects lined up in China, and is keen to work with Chinese artists, actors, choreographers, opera and theater directors and others. His effervescent enthusiasm leaves the distinct impression that his love affair with Beijing has only just begun.