When Ren Hang took his own life in February of this year, media reports were quick to depict him as a figure of controversy. The celebrated Chinese photographer was viewed not only through his work, but through the context in which it was created.
Obituaries addressed Ren's encounters with the police, his well-documented battle with depression and the sometimes uncomfortable contrast between the topics he explored -- sexuality, gender and the human body -- and socially conservative Chinese values.
But the organizers of the first major posthumous exhibition of Ren's work are hoping to present a more nuanced account. The collection is on display from Friday as part of the annual Photofairs Shanghai
. It is intended to demonstrate the photographer's technical and artistic prowess, according to co-curator Tim Crowley.
"When you see what people have written about him since his death, it's very focused on him taking some kind of political stance through rebellion or (by photographing) nudes," Crowley said in a phone interview. "But when you look at his photographs as a whole -- and through conversations with him -- it becomes very apparent that he was non-political.
"That angle has been pushed upon him, probably as a sales ploy more than anything else. Like a lot of (Ren's) generation, politics didn't really play a big role in his day-to-day art and images."
A new perspective
Composed largely of male nudes taken between 2010 and 2016, the new exhibition "19 Photographs" features some of the last Ren prints to be authenticated. The images were chosen from a larger show by the same organizers, "Beauty Without Beards," which had opened at Beijing's KWM Art Center
two weeks before the photographer's death.
The exhibition's curators say they turned to a range of new sources to better understand Ren's work. This included speaking with his mother and studying a barely-read film script that had been completed just before his death, according to co-curator and director of KWM Art Center, Zhang Yuling.
Ren had been arrested multiple times in China and his photos have been defaced at exhibitions, or confiscated by officials. Credit: Courtesy KWM Art Center
"(Ren) told me that he takes himself more seriously as a writer than a photographer," Zhang said in a phone interview. "He'd just finished writing a film script, so he sent it to me and asked for my suggestions. Like every young writer, this (early output) is basically an autobiography, so the story told me more about him."
The images selected for "19 Photographs" feature tropes associated with the late photographer, including outdoor portraits and the use of living animals. But they also present a subtlety often overlooked in his output, according to Crowley.
"If people are expecting to see very controversial works, then they'll probably be quite disappointed," he said. "The show's not really about that. It's a conscious attempt to give the audience a better idea of his process of making a photograph."
For Zhang, this process is characterized by the way Ren interacted with his subjects.
"We wanted to choose photos that emphasize how Ren Hang used human body as a compositional element," she said in a phone interview. "We wanted (to offer) a perspective that shows his very special aesthetic."
More than legacy
Instead of using professional models, Ren usually picked subjects from among his friends, family and Beijing's creative community. This included 30-year-old Hannie Yang, a "friend-of-a-friend" who modeled for him in 2010.
While the photos featured in the exhibition contain tropes often associated with Ren's work, like the use of animals, the curators hope to shine a new light on the late photographer's work. Credit: Courtesy KWM Art Center
Far from the provocative figure pictured in the media, Yang remembers a friendly, unpretentious photographer who made her feel at ease. While suggesting that Ren's work walked the fine line between art and pornography, she suggests that upsetting social norms was, if anything, an inconvenience.
"We were doing one part of the shoot in front of the window," she recalled, "and (Ren) said, 'while you're posing, look around, because I've been in trouble so many times from neighbors seeing nude people and reporting me.'"
Our posthumous understanding of Ren's work is not simply about his legacy, according to the director and CEO of the Australian Centre for Photography
, Cherie McNair. Death has introduced the photographer's work to new audiences, with McNair claiming that the photographer was "largely unknown" in Australia before his suicide.
"The (media coverage) following his death became more about the censorship debate in China than about his commitment to making his art, regardless of which political system he was in," McNair said in a phone interview.
"I think a much more interesting discussion is about where his photography was going. His work was becoming more sophisticated -- like the locations, which moved from indoor images to these amazing outdoor shoots.
"The posthumous positioning of his work and subsequent interrogation is interesting, particularly as the artist is no longer present to provide context."
"19 Photographs" is part of Photofairs Shanghai, which runs from Sept. 8-10, 2017.