Collecting and History
“Collecting” is a fashionable word right now. Since Reform and Opening, the hard work of three generations has impressively transformed the material lives of some Chinese people; this progress helped people to reliably buy necessities of food and clothing, and people even began to purchase luxurious cars and fur coats, which was a bit extravagant. After their basic needs were met, people began to focus on mental and spiritual satisfaction, which naturally led to an engagement with cultural life. Photography stood out because it was part of mass culture, and the concept of collecting inevitably expanded into this area.
But what to collect? In China, the basic understanding of collections seems to center on rarity, irreplaceability, maintaining and increasing value, and enjoyment. This is also true of accumulation of valuables and transactions in business. It is only the last trait—enjoyment—that generally satisfies spiritual needs. This understanding of collections results in the reduction of the basic categories of photography collection into one general track. Many of China’s photography collectors buy expensive or “brand-name” pieces, and have few other criteria when collecting. I’ve heard about a few collectors have nearly one thousand Leica cameras and several hundred Rollei cameras, with a significant repetition of models, which says something about the taste of these collectors. In their minds, photography equipment, something with historical and cultural meaning, is more or less equivalent to gold, silver, or cash.
Of course, the above type of collector is unworthy of the name, tending to be simply nouveau riche hobbyists. True collectors treasure culture and history. Through the dialogue between the collection and cultural history, they build links in a bridge between past and present; they travel back and forth across this bridge, interpreting the profound relationship between the past, and the present and future.
Lu Wanjiang is a true historic camera collector. His collection is closely tied to the technological developments that changed photography, a medium for conveying cultural meaning; rarity is not his only standard. Photography’s historical and cultural role developed from the technological progress it represented; it is the product of human labor and wisdom, pushed from individual efforts to collective creations. From the development of the camera, we can clearly see how humans have used their minds to resolve the issues of looking, remembering, and recording. Since the camera obscura of several hundred years ago, the development of the camera has reflected the course of civilization, from clumsy photosensitive metal and glass plates to flexible film to today’s small electronic sensors. Cameras are witnesses to humanity’s tireless explorations of the spirit.
Lu Wanjiang’s collection shows us modern world history, told through classic cameras, allowing us to appreciate how this almost magical mechanical or electronic device created a new form of visual history. We can see the traces of people such as Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, Henry Fox Talbot, George Eastman, and Oskar Barnack, and companies such as Kodak, Voigtländer, Rollei, Leica, and the digital giants Canon and Nikon; they have built modern global visual culture.
We should be grateful to Lu Wanjiang and other collectors who collect history from a cultural perspective.
November 10, 2017