See You, The Shanghai Issue, by James H Bollen brings together single and themed portraits of the city’s women in a publication that nods to old school, DIY, fashion and lifestyle magazines, such as the mid-’90s Sleazenation. The “freer and more offbeat” approach, aesthetic, and ethos of these publications provide the inspiration, acting as a counterpoint to what Bollen sees as “the branded and airbrushed images of today’s fashion magazines”.
It’s quite a task to single-handedly put together this type of publication, not least because it was the combination of writers and photographers that gave Sleazenation its variety and edginess. The challenge for Bollen is how to emulate this diversity but still maintain a cohesive personal style. This is not to say that every photo has to look the same, but flicking through the magazine is a tad confusing, especially as it appears that Bollen is responsible for the overall design, typography and layout, as well as shooting, editing and sequencing over 50 portraits of around 20 different women.
The portraits are separated into sections, one for each woman, resulting in a pic ‘n’ mix collection—Bollen uses monotone and colour, horizontal and vertical formats, available and artificial light sources, and although the photos appear varied in style, craft and technique, at first glance, the overarching tone is that of a snapshot aesthetic. Flash lighting creates hard shadows, over exposure bleaches out features, and the common photographic ‘mistake’— shooting a portrait of a subject standing with their back to a window, resulting in a face in shadow and a well-exposed window and skyline—are deliberately amateurish.
Design elements can hinder the enjoyment of images and the juxtaposition of very large titles and very small font sizes, without any accompanying text, creates lots of white space. This may be the intention, but it’s just too extreme a difference and feels empty, making one wonder whether Bollen shot enough photographs of the various women from which to make a tight edit. The paper stock has the surface feel of a glossy magazine and, at times, there are flashes of what could have been.
AFTERNOON TEA contains a graceful portrait of a tea tutor, Xiao Xue, articulated through Bollen’s sensitive response to colour and light which is echoed in a delicately held teacup, asymmetrically framed by leaves illuminated by sunlight. Highlights include the black-and-white portraits of Blair Chu, one of which is used on the front cover; the single monochromatic image of Taozi, a flight attendant; and the colour street shot of Hong Yu, a Sino-British scholar who turns towards the camera caught mid step.
In the introduction to See You, The Shanghai Issue, Bollen explains his methodology and there is a sense of earnestness in the way he sets out his intentions with great transparency. Texts and captions are written in both English and Chinese indicating the potential audience for the work and a desire to cross cultural and racial divides. However, the whole project feels less coherent than it could have been, suggesting that something has been lost in translation.
– reviewed by Miranda Gavin
See You, The Shanghai Issue. Photos By James H Bollen is distributed by Art Data.
For further viewing: www.jameshbollen.com