Long Chin San's Photographic Painting

Long Chin San's Photographic Painting

The Art of Adventure - Bruce Percy

I have a large collection of photographic books at home. So many in fact, that until recently, they had extended beyond the book shelves and were taking up space on my studio floor. I've tidied them up and done a bit of autumn (it's coming!) cleaning, to give my book collection the space it deserves.

One book that I've revisited this month is a small publication from China about the photographer Long Chin San. I thought I would share with you some of the images from this book. These were made in the 1950's, and I just love them. 

Long chin San took objects such as flattened flowers, leaves and twigs and placed them onto photographic paper, exposing them to light to create these innovative photographs. He called these works 'photographic paintings'.

I'm not a verbatim photographer. I don't see photography as a means to capture what was there, but instead, as a means to give an interpretation. I think we are still very much at the beginning of the evolution of photography: it is going to evolve and change so much over the coming century that to think of it as only for recording real pictures is to limit its application and potential.


These images were made in the 1950's. Often when we look back, we find that the past shows where we are going. Photography has always been an experimental medium and photographers have been manipulating their work since the first image was captured, often merging negatives and using many different ways to create images onto paper. We all know that Ansel Adams greatly manipulated his prints and that they were often a radical departure from the initial negative. This is nothing new.

Yet what I get out of looking at these beautiful 'photographic paintings', is that there is always room for exploration. I'm also touched to think that perhaps my most recent Icelandic 'minimalist' images are derived from looking at these photographic paintings of Long Chin San's a few years back. I do think I'm very interested in creating paintings through photography: I'm much more interested in the art element than the verbatim aspect of photography for sure.

Photography should take us on a journey within. Good images should allow us to tap into our imagination and see beyond the subject to a meaning that is ours alone, a personal impression or feeling.

In these photographic paintings of Long Chin San's, I can't help feel he has conjured up beautiful compositions that would be most difficult to find in real life: because real life is never this perfect. And yet, when we look at landscapes, I think this is what we do: we try to distill them into some kind of order, some kind of sense of arrangement that pleases us, and makes us feel good. That is why the paintings of Hokusai for instance resonate with me: the great wave off  Kanagawa is perfect: everything is in place, as it should be. One would hope in our photography that we can reach such idealistic compositions.

I love these 'photographic paintings'. I'm convinced they have been instrumental in my own photographic development. I find them very beautifully composed and very pleasing and I think I aim to simulate this in my own work.