If you’ll be in the New York City area on March 1, don’t miss the reception for “Great Wall of China: The Forgotten Story,” a series of large-scale, historically based photos of the Great Wall, being held at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund office from 6:00 to 9:00 pm (RSVP by Feb. 22).
This project is a collaboration between Jonathan Ball, a California-based photographer, and David Spindler, one of the world’s leading authorities on Great Wall history and a member of WildChina’s expert network. The event will include a conversation moderated by Christopher Phillips, a curator at the International Center of Photography and co-author of a recently published book on contemporary Chinese photography and video.
WildChina recently interviewed David and Jonathan to learn more about their photo project.
WildChina (WCT): Where did the idea for the Forgotten Wall project come from?
David Spindler (DS): Jonathan and I were both living in Beijing in late 2006 and we started talking about how we could do a project combining his photography and my work on Great Wall history. As we started to think about our angle, the idea of photographing Great Wall battle sites from the points of view of raiders or defenders, on the anniversary of the battles and at the same time of day as the battles, came to us quite soon.
WCT: What skills and background did each of you bring to this project?
DS: I’m a historian who focuses on the Great Wall. I do my research in libraries all over the world and in the field. During the spring and fall, I spend a lot of time speaking to travel or study-abroad groups about this history. In this project, I was interested in applying what I had learned in a powerful, easily absorbed media—in this case, photography.
Jonathan Ball (JB): I’ve been a photographer nearly as long as I can remember – since I was about 11 years old. I have done many different kinds of photographic work over the years. My projects are varied; they include landscape work, portraiture, looser “slice of life” photos, building panoramic and other unusual pinhole cameras … I love new challenges and figuring out ways to solve them – this project provided them in spades, not least of which were the challenges of producing and displaying such large photographs.
WCT: What do you want to accomplish with this project?
DS: One of our goals is to bring the viewer back to the time and place of the battles, and to see them from the vantage point of a participant. Because of the methodology we’ve used, the light and vegetation in the images are nearly the same as what someone would have seen on the original battlefield. Because of the enormous size of the subject, we’ve made extremely large prints. We hope this makes it easier for viewers to more easily experience the time and place of the original events in a direct and powerful manner.
JB: I share the goals David states. Another aim of ours has been to produce a series of Great Wall photographs that is unlike the vast majority of Great Wall photos that have already been made. We have done this two ways: first, by underpinning the project with a rigorous historical approach that drove our decisions about what to photograph and when; and second, by making photographs that capture the points of view of participants in the battles that took place at the sites we depict.
The photographs in this project feature the landscape as much as they feature the Wall; they don’t simply romanticize the Wall. It’s an important contribution both to Great Wall scholarship and to fine art photography.
WCT: How did you first get interested in the Great Wall?
DS: My interest in Great Wall history stems from a general interest in history, in discovery and research and in endurance sports. My field and library research activities are an excellent way to satisfy these interests.
WCT: What are the key things a first-time visitor to the Great Wall should know?
DS: Probably the most important thing to keep in mind is that its sole purpose was defensive and there are many instances where the wall was a helpful part of successful defenses against Mongol attacks. Many of the myths in wide circulation have come about because people see a small section of wall and quickly extrapolate, using unfounded assumptions.
It’s also important to keep in mind what we don’t know—that there’s no reliable figure for the overall length of the various Great Walls or even a consensus definition of what a Great Wall is. Great Wall Studies, if it’s even proper to use the word, is a field still in gestation. There is not a single academic anywhere in the world who focuses on this topic.
WCT: What/where is your favorite Great Wall spot?
DS: I dont have a personal favorite. When I’m speaking to groups in the field, I think it’s important to visit spots that are historically significant, visually appealing, and free of heavy human traffic. Jinshanling fits these requirements quite nicely.
WCT: What if people like your work from this project so much they would like to take it home with them?
DS: Collectors may acquire signed limited editions of the prints and captions – and six of the images in the series are available as 360-degree panoramas mounted in a circular frame that literally surround the viewer.