To mark the launch of Yan Wang Preston's KickStarter campaign we asked our resident volunteer writer, Joshua Turner, to find out more about the project Mother River.
Yan Wang Preston applies method to madness in Mother River, which spans the 6,211km Yangtze River.
In 2010, Yan Wang Preston began the 4-year long process of photographing the Yangtze River, the longest river in Asia; this would be an arduous journey, taking eight separate trips to complete. During the journey Wang Preston would have to adopt the roles of intrepid explorer and vigilant photographer whilst facing the ongoing threat of often treacherous and inhospitable landscapes.
“The relationship between nature and society is one of the most fundamental relationships that we constantly have to negotiate. It really has a lot of weight on it.” – Yan Wang Preston
Y1 The river source. From Mother River series (2010-2014), ©Yan Wang Preston.
Y32 3,100km from the river source. From Mother River series (2010-2014), ©Yan Wang Preston.
Mother River began to form unconsciously with Wang Preston as she spent her childhood surrounded by natural landscape in a small town in central China, forming some of her earliest memories, amongst which she remembers "sitting on an apricot tree with its full, sweet blossom swinging in the wind." On arrival in England, an awareness of the post-industrial landscape developed and triggered an interest in the relationship between nature and society, that has informed her work since. 2 years prior to the start of Mother River the pre-production process started, as she began the task of translating the 6,211km of river into a photographic hypothesis that could extract a comprehensible narrative from a subject that spanned most of China. Experimental work was carried out in England along the banks of the River Ribble and the River Irwell, the aim of which was to test different systems of measure. In reality the Yangtze was a different beast altogether, as Wang Preston’s relationship with it was much more personal, not to mention the difficulties presented by scale.
The photographic representation of the river that most of us know focusses predominantly on cultural beauty spots of the sort that can be found by a swift Google search. Certain specific locations such as the Three Gorges area, frequently photographed to represent the Yangtze, often romanticise the landscape, allowing little insight into the reality of the vast cultural nuance of the river. In contrast Wang Preston wanted to create an unbiased representation, and capture the diversity of the culture found on the river; this work is about the river and all that it affects. She designed a system of making one photograph every 100 kilometres as an intentional subversion of this photographic norm. This approach, which she labelled the Y Point System, still allowed for elements of subjectivity, though Wang Preston was concerned not to let openness of interpretation lead to lack of direction.
Mother River Y Points System map
Her process avoided over-emphasis on heavily romanticised imagery. The Y points compartmentalised the river into manageable portions, giving Wang Preston reason to visit and photograph areas in a systematic way; enabling the creation of an original visual document portraying mostly untouched and forgotten parts of the river.
“On the physical and intellectual level, the project was actually impossible to predict or control. I always knew about this but could only deal with it when it came. For many reasons, I could not reach Y15 and Y16.”
Y61 6,000km from the river source. From Mother River series (2010-2014), ©Yan Wang Preston.
The adoption of a large format view camera is reflective of the equipment used by early explorers to photograph the uncharted areas of the world, Wang Preston embraces the nature of the adventure in Mother River. When setting the 63 Y points, there was a level of unpredictability that could not be measured, each point came with its own tailored challenge. A combination of forces of nature and uncontrollable circumstances meant that Wang Preston could never reach points Y15 and Y16. She embraced this as a part of the journey and symbolised this through the presentation of blank images in place of these plates. As each Y point presented its own individual challenges, the whole journey from points Y1 to Y63 manifested a totally different kind of test; Wang Preston’s endurance was stretched as she balanced the journey with a range of other demands. At times the intensity of the project took its toll. When loading the sheets of film into the holders ready for exposing, a part of the process that feels inconsequential compared to setting up and photographing, Wang Preston had a lapse in concentration. This momentary slip caused her to load 24 sheets back to front. This reflects the psychological hardship of the journey, yet more so it represents Wang Preston’s determination to create this work. The locations were reshot, but in a truly intrepid style the mistake was embraced. Points Y41 and Y42 show the vivid red hues and silhouettes of a dreamy scene, momentarily shifting our focus from the vast Yangtze River to a reflection of the photographer; we embrace the imperfection of what it is to be human and make mistakes, as we do the same for the dust scarred and chemically bleached plate.
“The reality of doing it was a process of negotiating with confusion, repetition, boredom and disappointment. It was a process of dust, mud, windstorms, snow, ice, sweat, tears and occasional blood.”
14.06.2013. From ‘All the beds I slept on’ series (2010-2014), ©Yan Wang Preston.
Beds is a sub-series by Wang Preston, that grounds the whole project in reality. It documents the 76 beds she slept in during the creation of Mother River. With monumental projects it can often be difficult for the audience to comprehend how much effort was applied by the photographer to develop their concept into a final resolution. In Beds the photographer has created a visual diary of her journey, the creation of which was adopted to provide a momentary break from the conceptual considerations of Mother River, a reflection on the physical conditions experienced on the journey. Perhaps this gave Wang Preston comfort, for the Y points allowed no security or certainty of what could be photographed, or even if the location could be reached. Beds, however, was a certainty. It provided a level of comfort and dependence that was essential for the continuation of the journey.
Wang Preston’s first monograph Forest was launched at The Photographer’s Gallery on 10th May 2018, and she aims to continue this with a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of Mother River. The campaign, which is now live, has been closely designed by Wang Preston to deliver personal and playful rewards, including signed copies of the book. A postcard book of the subseries Beds shows all 76 beds Wang Preston slept on during the project – and 76 of these books will be made. This includes 75 bound postcards, the final postcard will be written on and sent in the post. Also available are handmade ‘wrong’ 10x12.5-inch darkroom prints, each in an edition of 3, chosen from the 24 Y points for which she accidentally loaded the film backwards. Wang Preston invites you to share in her experience of Mother River as you will be unable to choose which Y point print you receive, giving you a taste of the uncertainty of her journey. To come close to the Mother River experience, Wang Preston will offer a workshop at Hebden Bridge. This will be a two-day course during which participants will explore a river in Hebden Bridge, subsequently mapping on Google Earth to then search for specific points in the field; finally editing the images to create a dummy book. There will be more up for grabs, including prints at various sizes and a sponsor set where the purchase of 20 books will get your logo printed in the book.
Yan Wang Preston travelled the length of the Yangtze, an eye-watering 6,211km, and further to create Mother River. It is a body of work that exhibits the diverse geo-cultural landscapes that line the Yangtze, avoiding the nauseating nostalgia through a systematic approach that presents a fascinating journey of exploration.
To pledge for a Mother River book, search for ‘Mother River’ on Kickstarter.com. Campaign runs from 30th May to 30th June 2018.