Morath and Miller
by Laura Bien
From the January, 2008 issue
Mao Zedong's lumpily stuffed white horse in Yanan's Revolutionary Museum, Zhou Enlai's black crank telephone, and a woman worker's spartan concrete apartment-cell next to a socialist "Workshop for Women over 45" are among the images scheduled to appear in an UMMA Off/Site exhibit of Inge Morath's photographs. The works chronicle the trip she and her husband, playwright Arthur Miller, took in 1978 to a China on the cusp of modernization.
Images showing premodern traditions include one of a tidy array of black pottery jars containing human "night soil" ready for transport downriver from the city of Guilin. In the background, tall, humped mountains, like those seen in traditional Chinese paintings, evoke the country's distant past. In other Guilin images, chickens scamper across watery mud near a low, small house, and Chinese characters cover a riverside rock grotto's walls.
The photos are interspersed with enlargements of Miller and Morath's trip diary entries. Miller writes of Guilin:
The fisherman on his lovely raft who poles himself along will doubtless welcome the outboard motor, even if it leaves a pencil-thin trail of spilled oil in the water, and the squatting women beating their wash on the banks can hardly be blamed for staring at magazine pictures of washing machines, as they must have done by now. I stare at them in their motorless silence along their crystal river and hope that they manage better than we have.
In contrast to these timeless rural images, a photo of two workers in Beijing's "fine arts factory" shows old culture produced by new methods. A young girl bends over a chunk of rock she is carving with a delicate electric drill. The drill bit, cooled by a steady stream of water, creates what a Morath journal entry calls "delicate chains of jade, lacelike bottles, and pendants of miniature coral trees."
Modern-day China's urban car traffic and pollution are evoked by their absence in a photo (above) of a bicycle-filled street
jing. Depicting workers on their way to jobs at 6:30 a.m., the photo shows slanting sunlight bathing the cyclists in a soft, almost otherworldly glow suggesting peace and calm. One also senses the photographer's strong affection for this scene she encountered on her and her husband's early-morning walks in Beijing, and her painstaking effort to gracefully frame and capture the essence of the bicyclists.
It's the favorite photo of exhibit curator Katherine Derosier, who calls it "the quintessential snapshot of China and its bicycle culture. . . . In this image I think you can see [Morath's] connection to this culture . . . China through her eyes."
The exhibition is planned for January 12 through March 23.
[Review published January 2008]
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