I enjoyed Mu Ge’s January exhibit at Zen Foto Gallery, “Go Home.” Now in March, Zen Foto is showing “Still Lake” by Liu Ke (??), another photographer from Chongqing who also takes 6×6 photos by its rivers. (The two photographers are friends in real life.) Although their work is naturally close, the differences between them go beyond the fact that Mu Ge uses black and white and Liu Ke uses color.
Most of Liu Ke’s photos can be placed into one of three groups: portraits, conditions (i.e. of Chongqing) and abstractions. Mu Ge’s work consists mostly of these first two categories, and I think that right now, his portraits are stronger than Liu Ke’s. As for “conditions,” this is where the two are closest—each show human activity at the scene of Chongqing’s rivers.
But the abstractions are where Liu Ke breaks from Mu Ge: at times, he forces a strong composition on his material. The image of a lone bus in an otherwise empty scene is compelling, and it wouldn’t have any place in Mu Ge’s world.
The bus is actually one of the strongest motifs running through Liu Ke’s work, and it becomes another backdrop against which to observe people. The photos of people sitting on buses are some of the best photos in Liu Ke’s portfolio. They’re often craning their necks out the window, looking towards something that’s hidden from the viewer.
There can be a lot of ambiguity with Liu Ke. Why is this shopkeeper covering his face? And what’s happening on TV?
I don’t think it’s coincidental that this photo was taken away from the river. It seems as though if you’re in Chongqing and take a photo of something by the river, there’s a good chance that an unexpected element—power lines, a boat, a half destroyed building—will creep into the frame, just due to the loose distribution of human material in this area.
Liu Ke’s work is actually weaker when it asks this material to carry the weight of his photos; the ineffective image of a woman walking on a dam comes to mind here. By contrast, the shot of fireworks through a window creates a very strong impression. As Liu Ke looks away from the river, he develops a personal and thoughtful style which is certainly worth following. I recommend looking at his prints and portfolios, which will be up until March 24 at Zen Foto.