The Door Opened: 1980s China - How black and white photographs carry a vivid narrative

  • Tuesday 18th December 2018

    Last month, The Glass Tank walls were adorned with a vast display of photographs taken in China during the 1980s. For this months blog post, we reflect on the art of black and white photography.

    The photographer, Adrian Bradshaw, first arrived as a student of the language and culture and went to on spend three decades in the country. As well as studying, he also spent this time taking hundreds of images during a time when very few people were lucky to have an insight into the country. In 1980, China’s population was more youthful than ever and many remember this decade for the introduction of the one-child policy. It was a point of economic reform and an important historical period for the country and the rest of the world. Overall, the 1980s marked a generational turning point and proved a fascinating source of inspiration for a young British student armed with with a camera.


    The Door Opened Install Shot

    Political upheavals such as the decade long Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward had previously left China ‘stagnant and colourless’ according to Bradshaw. However, in the 1980s things started to change. Expression began to seep into the culture, until it was eventually encouraged. Clothes started to become brighter and the vividness of the Chinese culture was embraced.

    "China in the mid 1980s was rediscovering fun, fine food, fashion and faith sometimes in its own neglected traditions and sometimes in the first contact with a world of possibilities barred for generations." - Adrian Bradshaw  

     People today use colourful adjectives when remembering this iconic time and those of us who were not there may have a bright and hopeful image in our minds - yet our exhibition in the Glass Tank consisted of entirely black and white images. You may ask how the exhibition successfully captured the vibrant times of 1980s China without a drop of colour on the walls. Nevertheless, our visitor feedback and praise certainly suggested that it did. There is no simple way to explain the magnificence of black and white photography. It is difficult to put into words how an image with no colour can carry such a vivid atmosphere. It simply just does.

    However, we have began to consider the factors involved a bit further in hope to evaluate the success of the black and white image...

    1. Photographers could have stopped using black and white photography decades ago and yet they choose not to.

    One thing about black and white photography is that it is no longer necessary. There is something special about the artistic choice to continue working in a medium that could have easily died out. Photographers today who use digital cameras that can replicate pristine life-like colour still often choose to shoot in black and white. This demonstrates the timeless persistence of black and white imagery and that there is some artistic quality to be gained by using it.

    The Door Opened ballet 

    2. When you take a black and white image it takes the form of a memory.

    Somehow a black and white image feels more distant than a coloured one. It is not directly representative of how we see the world and becomes an evocative interpretation of the past. This creates an air of nostalgia and memory in the image.

    "Why do we like nostalgic pictures? Because we find security in the past. We nostalgize over the “good old times”— perhaps because we don’t want to lose our personal memories. And memories is what make us human." - Eric Kim

    The absence of colour does not equal an absence of narrative, in fact it can enhance the narrative even more so, which leads us onto the next point…

    The Door Opened Child 

    3. There is no distraction from the subject.

    By removing the element of colour out of an image there is one less thing for us to observe. This leaves a lot more room for thought regarding the composition, structure and textures in the creation of an image. Without fighting against vivid colours, the emotional presence in the image has no competition. In Bradshaw's image below, two young men wheel their bicycles on a busy street. The blurred background may have been overly dominating if it was in full colour. 

    The Door Opened Bicycle

    4. Light becomes key.

    With no colour, light is much more contrasting and obvious in a photograph. It can take centre stage and dominate the frame. Light can enhance the narrative of the photo incredibly. Whether it is describing the weather, illuminating a face, silhouetting a figure or dramatizing a landscape - all of these make a visual comment on the mood of the moment captured. Below is a perfect example by Adrian Bradshaw, where the wedding dress in the shop window is dramatically lit, drawing the viewer inwards to the scene.

    The Door Opened Shop

    5. Black and white images hold something very human.

    Taking us back to the start slightly, it is challenging to pinpoint the human element which lives in a black and white photo. You could argue that a lot of photographs contain something very human - regardless of colour - which is absolutely true. However there is something special about something colourless - a word often related to lifelessness - holding a deep essence of life. For example, the glint of light in the eye of a black and white portrait, holds an intense sense of being alive. The photographs by Adrian Bradshaw certainly demonstrate these things. Bradshaw has used a timeless medium to preserve both grand and ordinary moments in history and people's daily lives. His images simultaneously carry a sense of community and togetherness alongside apprehension and hesitation. Most importantly perhaps, his black and white photographs portray a stunning landscape of change and the hopeful spirit of the people within them.

    The Door Opened Install Shot 2

    The Door Opened: 1980s China was in The Glass Tank between 26th October - 30th November 2018

    You can learn more about Adrian Bradshaw, the exhibition and photography via the Oxford Brookes University Youtube Channel: 

    Quote 1 - Adrian Bradhsaw 
    Quote 2 - Eric Kim 
    All images copyright Adrian Bradshaw