Wherever he goes, Chinese photographer Deng Wei brings his camera.
"The world is seen by everyone's eyes. And my camera's viewfinder
is like my third eye," Deng said. The 48-year-old rarely stops
shooting, but last month he was "ordered" by his assistants to put
his worn-out Nikon FM2 camera into a glass box for his latest photo
show at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.
The 100 exhibited portrait photos, selected by a panel of
experts from Deng's voluminous portfolio from the past three
decades, have been donated to China's top art museum.
Shot in the style of Rembrandt and using classical lighting and
color effects, Deng portrays the personalities and life stories of
people in every photo. The result is a universe of images that
lingers in viewers' minds.
The list of big names whose portraits appear in the exhibition
includes Chinese scholar Qian Zhongshu, late Israeli Prime Minister
Yizhak Rabin, Chinese-American physicist and Nobel Prize winner
C.N. Yang, Canadian photographer Yousuf Kaarsh, Norwegian explorer
Liv Arnnesen and Zambian lawyer M. Chona.
Also featured are ordinary people such as a New York City
teenager, a Tibetan grandmother and a Chinese soldier.
"I have traveled afar to capture people in different parts of
the world. Now I would like to share with people in the motherland
the world that I've seen," Deng said at the opening ceremony for
the show, which ended on April 26.
"This donation and exhibition does not mark an ending but
rather, a new start for my career," Deng said.
He said that he kept for himself only about 300 photos that he
believes are well-done, and he destroyed three rolls of negatives
he considered flawed right before the exhibition's opening.
Deng Wei's works include The Traveler
(pictured top), British dramatist Tom Stoppard (below right) and
The Old Grandma (below).
Over the last few decades, the photographer "has accomplished a
mission that many of us considered impossible," said Feng Yuan,
vice-chair of All China Federation of the Arts and Literary Circles
and former director of the museum. It was Feng who asked Deng to
donate his photos about three years ago.
And "his fruitful efforts would do so much to enhance mutual
understanding among Chinese people and people from around the
world," Feng said.
But Deng calls himself "simply a man who fulfilled his
Born in 1959 in Beijing, Deng cherished a deep love for art -
especially drawing and painting - from an early age. At 15, he
seized an opportunity to learn from master Chinese landscape
painter Li Keran. And during his university years, Deng rubbed
shoulders with a variety of influential cultural figures in China,
thanks to the endorsement of his father Deng Yuwen, a scholar of
ancient Chinese literature.
But Deng didn't begin to learn photography until 1978, when he
became a classmate of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Gu Changwei and Tian
Zhuangzhuang. After graduation, these talents garnered world
reputations as key members of the "Fifth Generation" of Chinese
"Although I majored in filmmaking and have done several
prize-winning works for film and television, I have found that
photography fits me best, because this career allows me to better
comprehend the realities of life," Deng said.
After graduating in 1982, Deng stayed on at the university for
several years as a teacher.
However, "with each passing day, I grew tired of the routine and
predictable life that laid ahead. I hoped I could do something
bigger and more exciting," Deng recalled.
In 1990, he left his post and embarked on a difficult journey to
photograph world-eminent figures.
But he had to spend a long time laying the foundations for this
He knew that he would have to familiarize himself with the
lighting conditions he would encounter, as well as the characters
of his subjects. So, he read everything he could get his hands on
about his subjects in order to effectively capture their essences
during the short time periods he was allowed for each shoot.
At the encouragement of his father, Deng transformed a
years-long project into an album entitled A Photographic Record of
Eminent Cultural Figures of China in 1986. The project fuelled his
zeal for photography and sealed his lifetime commitment to the
trade. He decided then and there that the path of a filmmaker was
not the road for him.
The album was a hit at home and abroad, and many took it as a
sign that Chinese intellectuals had regained their positions of
social esteem after a period of humiliation during the "cultural
revolution" (1966-76), Deng recalled.
After the album's publication, Deng cast his eyes on
world-eminent figures he knew only through TV news and newspaper
Since 1991, Deng has visited and photographed more than 100
famous figures traveling in Asia, North America and Europe.
"There are still more world eminent figures that I want to take
photos of," Deng said, citing such names as Vladimir Putin and
But he also planned to shoot a series of portraits of master
Chinese craftsmen, whom he considers torchbearers of many of the
nation's vanishing forms of cultural heritage.
"These people may not be known to people outside of their
villages. But they have also made contributions to our cultures,
and deserve my respect and photographic depiction," Deng said.
(China Daily May 8, 2007)