Three Woodsmen on a Gallery Road in Qutang Gorge with Sun Ligao at the Front
1996, Inkjet print on fine art paper, 41 x 128.5 cm (paper size), 15 editions
During the 14 years long construction of the Three Gorges Dam, Zeng Nian photographed the process, the people, and the landscape. The Three Gorges series gave Zeng Nian the international reputation as the witness of the dramatic changes in China brought on by rapid modernization, and the resulting impact on China’s history and culture.
The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydraulic dam located in the province of Hubei, China. While it produces hydroelectricity, it was mainly built to control flooding in the lower parts of the Yangtze River. Zeng Nian recognizes the immense historical importance of the Three Gorges Dam. This ambitious construction project resulted in mass relocation of over one million people, and flooded archeological and cultural sites. Zeng Nian captured the dramatic and violent moments before they vanish beneath the river’s water. “I wanted to photograph the things and people I knew would disappear one day,” said Zeng Nian.
The choice of a wide-angle, panoramic 6:17 format projects a sense of melancholic nostalgia. His investigation of the social and cultural realities of China in the throes of rapid development fills his photographs with humanity, reality and simplicity. His work acts as a window into the old China. In Zeng Nian’s work, the Three Gorges becomes the symbol of the confrontation between secular history and the modern world.
Spanned across 16 years, the production of the Three Gorges series had taken Zeng Nian, who had already relocated to France, on multiple trips to various locations in China. In this long journey to document one of China’s most significant event in recent history, Zeng Nian came face to face to the people who were caught in the waves of transformation and destruction that accompanied the country’s rapid growth. In 2012, shortly after completing Three Gorges, he decided to retrace his steps and turn his lens from the vanishing landscape to the people who occupied them.
In this Portraits series, Zeng Nian developed a unique approach to portraiture by mimicking the way the human eye observes. Using a digital camera, Zeng Nian would photograph up to 50 individual images, each with its own focus, and later assemble them into a complete, larger-than-life portrait.
“We usually observe someone with several focuses: how they are dressed, how they look like, any traces of their age, their body gestures, etc. These are all the elements we use to form a first impression towards a person in our mind.”
– Zeng Nian
The resulting portraits are full of personality, stories, and warmth. The observer is invited to meet each individual as if they are present, to know and to understand them through each and every detail. Using this technique, Zeng Nian extended his project to the rural areas of China and France, drawing a connection between the country he is from, and the country he lives in now.