Luo Dan


Luo Dan was born in Chongqing, China, in 1968 and graduated from the Sichuan Fine Art Academy in 1992. He currently lives and works in Chengdu, China.

Luo Dan studied design and printmaking before working as a photojournalist for an agency. He worked for the agency for about 10 years but he felt that he needed to do work that had more personal relevance. The agency work just wore him out and he found it lacking in meaning. In the nineties he decided to focus on his own artwork and made two major journeys across China, photographing these journeys with medium format film-based cameras. During this time his work acquired a ‘stillness’, a more serious and contemplative style. He wanted to show the changes that were happening in China, the changes to lifestyle and the urbanization of the countryside, by recording this large series of works. The images are sharp and clear and document China at a particular time.

On Luo Dan’s cross-country journey of China in 2006, he produced the photo series “China Route 318”. In 2008, he again travelled the country to take photographs for his project “North, South”.

From “China Route 318”, 2008,

On another trip, Luo Dan found a remote village, in the Nu River valley in the western part of Yunnan Provence that still remained authentic to a simple agricultural life. This was a predominantly Christian village, the Lisu (a Chinese minority nationality), who were converted to Christianity by missionaries many years before. Luo Dan was attracted to their lifestyle and beliefs.

Luo Dan returned to photograph the villagers with a wooden box camera that he had found in Shandong. The camera was really a museum piece with a lens from 1900 that was slightly soft in its focus. Luo Dan decided to use a wet plate collodion process. This process was first used in the 1850s, using glass plates to make a negative. The process required the photographic material to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of about fifteen minutes, necessitating a portable darkroom for use in the field. Luo Dan converted a minivan to a travelling darkroom.

Luo himself says,

“As photography grew ever more technologically complete, it drifted ever farther from its earliest starting point. External factors entered in, and its purity was gradually lost.

The collodian process is from the earliest times of photography and although laborious, produces remarkable detail and a sense of timelessness that comes from the historic nature of the process. This area is very remote and has almost been forgotten by the modern world. In his photographs, titled “Simple Song”, Luo Dan wishes to show something of the human condition that goes beyond the preoccupations of modern China; materialism, urban development and economic growth. China’s economic achievements are remarkable but on other levels there are many gaps and voids in human experience due to this rapid development. Luo Dan’s work holds a mirror to show that there is an alternate view, one that may have a more spiritual value.

The classical compositions and posed arrangements of his portraits have the appearance of photographs taken in the 1850s when portraits were made to keep a likeness for posterity. A portrait was something left to children and grandchildren, something that existed to transcend time. The American photographer Edward Curtis photographed the Native American peoples in about 1900 in order to preserve something of their unique culture before its ultimate destruction by the advancing technological changes of the 20th century. There is a likeness and a similar concern in the work of Luo Dan.

Luo Dan photographs his subjects with a very clear, steady gaze with an awareness of placement and composition. The collodion process makes very slow exposures and the subject must hold the position for up to a minute depending on the light. Often the images are slightly soft due to the movement of the subject or the surroundings. There is also a limited depth of field at times that selectively isolates the subject in front of the softer focus of the background.

His interest in this place and its people has some reference to anthropology in his scrutiny, however the photographs are so much more than an anthropological or ethnographic study by an outsider. The photographs document the lives of the Lisu people through their daily activities, their possessions and traditional costumes. The people are often posed in their Sunday best. They have a timelessness, a ‘difficult to place’ sense of being from the past but also the present and the future. The villagers could continue with this traditional lifestyle for many years to come. There is some concern however, that China’s demand for power will result in dams for hydropower, forever changing this region. Luo Dan stayed in the villages for about twelve months while making this series and he keeps returning.

The wet-plate process necessitates a very hands-on approach by the photographer. It reaches back to the basic fundamentals of photography; the effect of light on silver halide crystals that results in an image. Luo Dan’s photographs show the collodian process through the peeling and painterly edges of the prints, the marks and imperfections and the incredible detail of the collodion. The final works are the result of scanning the glass plates and printing the works to a larger scale on Ilford gold silk fibre paper. They are incredibly beautiful and capture a moment in time with great sensitivity. For some photographers who use this process it becomes all about the technique, however this is not the case. Luo Dan uses the wet-plate collodion technique as a way to return to a handcrafted skill of the past that mirrors the primitive tools and farming methods of the villagers. He is an alchemist in the way he creates ‘magic’ with his wooden box, glass and chemicals. The immediacy of the technique enables the villages to share this magic in the making of the glass plates. He is an authentic cultural observer.

In his words,

“I travelled a long road, saw a lot of things, and in the end realised that all differences are actually similarities. And so I stopped, and looked in a single place for something unchanging, tried to figure out why this place had the power to stand still in time.”

Holding a glass plate with the collodian image – image from Leap Magazine

“Simple Song No. 04, Yang Dulei and her sister Yang Hualin, Wawa Village, 2010 Wet plate collodion process, 110 x 145 cm, Pigment Print on Fibre Paper (image courtesy of M97 Gallery)

“Simple Song no. 24, John Is Knocking the Bell, Laomudeng Village”, 2010 Wet plate collodion process, 110 x 145 cm, Pigment Print on Fibre Paper (image courtesy of M97 Gallery)

“Simple Song no. 5, He Yujuan and her son He Shengjie, Laomudeng Village”, 2010 Wet plate collodion process, 110 x 145 cm, Pigment Print on Fibre Paper (image courtesy of M97 Gallery)

Images courtesy of M97 Gallery, Shanghai