Xiangyue is an independent platform dedicated to building a community around art photography. In support of this effort, online, it publishes WeChat articles and Bilibili vlogs, its content running the gamut from artist interviews to explorations of how to analyze a photograph; offline, it hosts workshops and photography exhibitions. Based in Shanghai, it currently consists of a small team of three: Liu Bo, Ding Ding, and Zhong Linjiang. One of their various endeavors is their eponymous photo books, which compile the work of a few dozen photographers per issue.
“象曰”是一家致力于构建艺术摄影社区的独立平台，在线上，他们通过微信文章和 B 站视频，分享艺术家访谈和照片分析等丰富内容；在线下，则举办了一系列工作坊和摄影展览。“象曰”总部位于上海，目前团队有三名成员：刘波、丁丁和钟林江。团队推出了一本同名摄影作品杂志，每期都会展示数十位摄影师的作品。
In the early stages of building the Xiangyue community, the team started a WeChat group in which members could only share photos, and nothing else. The rule was strictly enforced, and whoever sent anything else was booted from the group. As the chat room became flooded with images, an idea began to form, one that ran counter to the conventional fascination with digitalization. “We thought it would be such a pity for these outstanding works to languish on a phone screen,” says Zhong. “If the pictures were in a book, presented in the medium of paper, it would allow these works to last forever—it would truly embody their value.” Inspired, they set up a crowdfunding page and opened a call for submissions for the first issue, which ultimately came out in October 2019. Three photobooks have been published since, and the fourth is imminently on the way.
在“象曰社区”成立初期，团队建了一个微信群，除了分享照片之外，群里不会发任何其他内容，否则就会被踢出群。随着群里分享的图片内容越来越丰富，他们逐渐有了一个与主流数字狂热背道而驰的想法。钟林江说：“我们觉得这些优秀的作品只能寂寂无闻地留在手机内是一件很可惜的事情。如果能印刷成书，以纸为媒介呈现，这些图片就能永远留存，真正体现它们的价值。”受此启发，他们创建了一个众筹页面，并为第一期征集投稿。最终，《象曰》杂志创刊号于 2019 年 10 月出版问世，自那以后，他们已经推出了三期摄影杂志，第四期也即将出版。
In a world where so much has been invested into developing and proliferating digital media, it seems meaningful that Xiangyue sees the digital realm as the one where an image would stagnate. It’s easy to understand why, though: online, an image can drown among a billion others. In book format, by contrast, we can see and feel where a book begins and ends, and perhaps that familiar limitation still makes for a better experience of content than the limitlessness of the digital world.
Zhong says many of their followers have asked about the origin of the name Xiangyue (象曰 in Chinese). The name was chosen by Xiangyue founder Shitou, who passed away last March, and to whom the third issue is dedicated. Xiang is one way to say “appearance” or “image,” but its original meaning is “elephant”–and surprisingly, the double meaning illustrates something of Xiangyue’s ideology.
Since elephants were a seldom-seen animal in ancient times, they came to stand in for distant or abstract concepts; the character is thus often used in words involving “the indefinite, the ambiguous,” says Zhong, offering examples such as imagine [想象], abstract [抽象], impression [印象], and maybe most importantly, image or imagery [意象]. The second syllable yue [曰] means to say or convey, so the more direct interpretation is simply of an image saying something. But the name intentionally retains another sense that’s far more nebulous.
很多粉丝都曾问过钟林江“象曰”这个名字的来历。这个名字其实是由象曰创始人石头所取的，遗憾的是他已在去年 3 月离开世界，第三期杂志的诞生亦是为了向他致敬。“象”有“表象”或“图象”的意思，但其本义是“大象”，这种双重含义却恰好诠释了“象曰”背后的深层理念。
This looser sense truly shows itself in the third issue of Xiangyue. Between the accessibility of smartphone cameras and photo editing software, the “perfect” shot seems more obtainable than ever – but that’s precisely what they’re veering away from. “There are many ways for a photo to be good,” says Zhong, initially shrugging off my question about how he curates photos for the books. “But personally,” he allows, “one kind of picture I would not select is the kind that underwent extremely painstaking polishing.”
The theme for the issue is a Chinese idiom, “the fish sink and the birds fall,” which describes animals’ reactions to profound beauty. Yet at a glance, some of the images in this volume might seem to be bewildering responses to such a prompt. A peeling decal of some cherry blossoms on the door of a dirty white car. A steamed-up washroom in somebody’s apartment, the sink counter full of soaps, detergents, a toothbrush in a mug. An uncomfortably close shot from just behind a swimmer about to dive into a river. Many other photos within are unfocused, blurry, or almost abstract. “We wanted to seek after beauty in an image, with no limit to form,” says Zhong, and indeed, this resulted in a book of images stretching the limits of what might be considered beautiful.
As rejections of the search for perfection in digital media, these images are ideal. Understanding them as responses to a theme related to beauty, though, requires the viewer to do some further digging on their own. One could push oneself to draw out poetic interpretations of the beauty of the above images. The decal: quiet, tired individuality. The bathroom: the warmth of a cluttered home. The swimmer: mankind’s vigor, in action. Alternatively, one might ask whether the photos themselves are meant to be beautiful, or if they actually depict the fish and birds responding to something else beautiful about the world.
Suffice it to say that Xiangyue is interested in the way that an image that seems nondescript, framed the right way, can flick a switch in a viewer’s imagination. To the attentive eye, the apparently imperfect image becomes more worthy of attention than the perfect; the ordinary moment reveals itself to be more unique than the rare; the unfocused lens shows something that would otherwise never have been seen. Ultimately, if a picture doesn’t seem to be about beauty at first, one has to admit that its inclusion in the book’s narrative elevates it to be part of the conversation.
In the editor’s letter of the issue, Zhong asks whether the photo book is a work of art in its own right, then humbly declines to answer—but in fact, the editorial choices are no small part of what makes it engaging. “Editing a photography book, one needs to pay close attention to story and rhythm,” he says. “There were some photographs that I liked but, to my regret, didn’t select, because they didn’t align with either the given theme or the overall style of the book.” Photos are arranged with great attention to detail, and distracting information, such as photographers’ names, is left to the end credits so that the images can tell their story unimpeded. Certain photos are isolated to give them space to soliloquize; others are juxtaposed to put them in conversation with each other, or so they can amplify each other’s respective messages.
Near the back of the book is a page that simply reads, “Every book of Xiangyue is a seed.” What do they hope will grow out of that seed? “Our objective, on some level, is to inject fresh blood into Chinese photography,” he says, “and to change some of the status quo of photography and art circles.” He notes that the majority of China’s photography enthusiasts aren’t pursuing the medium as a means to make contemporary art. In the photography section of video platform Bilibili, most channels tend to focus on technical subjects such as camera specs and lenses. Xiangyue’s channel is an anomaly in the photography section of video platform Bilibili, where other channels tend to focus on technical subjects such as camera specs and lenses.
这本摄影书结尾有一页写着：“每一本《象曰》杂志都是一颗种子。”那他们希望这颗种子能长出什么呢？“从某种程度上说，我们的目标是为中国摄影注入新鲜血液，改变摄影和艺术界的一些现状。”他解释道。他指出，中国大多数摄影爱好者并不是把摄影作为创作当代艺术的手段。在 B 站的摄影版块中，大多数账号都侧重于研究相机、镜头等技术题材。而“象曰频道”却是平台上的一个异类，它侧重于提供艺术家采访和讨论如何分析一张照片之类的视频内容。
None of this is to say that Xiangyue is explicitly anti-digital, anti-photo editing, or anti-technique. Their logo, inspired by the curvature of a fish-eye lens, is tied to their belief in viewing the world from different perspectives. And in a way, the Xiangyue ethos certainly seems to be a response to contemporary trends in Shanghai; for instance, the team’s humble workshop is not far from glitzy high-rise malls that grant pride of place to virtual reality pop-ups, increasingly sophisticated interactive media displays, and sportswear ads with models edited to look somewhere between unreal and hyper-real. For the upcoming fourth issue, they draw inspiration from Zhuangzi’s belief in uncovering the merits of nothingness, which feels particularly aligned with the team’s overall vision. Amid all this rush for faster, more advanced, higher quality, new and improved, Xiangyue prefers to slow down. They find the beauty that already exists all around us, turn it into a seed, plant it, and wait patiently for it to grow.
但这一切并不代表“象曰”就是反数码、反后期或反技术，形似鱼眼的 Logo 更像是一种看世界的眼光，以作为某种对上海当代潮流的回应；例如，团队简陋的工作室不远处就是繁华的大型购物中心，而这些购物中心往往是各种虚拟现实装置和复杂交互式媒体的展示平台，还常常能看到一些运动服装广告中，经过后期修图，看上去近乎虚幻与超真实的模特。在这座城市急切追逐更快、更先进、更高级、更新颖和不断提升的浪潮中，《象曰》的第四期“无何有之乡”诞生了——它的本意是什么都没有的地方，用来指一种精神境界，并影射某种价值观。不过，眼下尚且的荒芜又有什么呢？只要你愿意放慢脚步，发现我们周围本已存在的美，把它变成一粒种子，播撒下去，然后耐心地等待它破土而生，无有便是所有。