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Chongqing Inspires Award-Winning Midlife Photography Career | Story

By JAMES ALEXANDER|Feb 04,2024

Chongqing - The publication Hi! I’m Chongqing has recently hit the bookshelves nationwide in China, taking readers on an immersive journey through the remarkable development of this 8D metropolis, beginning from its very formation millions of years ago and detailing key factors that have shaped the lives of Chongqing people from times ancient to modern.

As one unfurls this work three years in the making, a collection of more than 200 exquisite photographs with detailed illustrations, along with plentiful scientific diagrams created for popular audiences, which bring to life the full scope of geographical and cultural depth waiting to be explored in Chongqing, an internet sensation that has taken the world by storm in recent years.

This impressive photograph taken at dusk appears on the first open page spread in Hi! I’m Chongqing. It vividly captures the dynamic topography and multi-dimensional cityscape in a single image from a distance of 16 kilometers. (Photograph/Chen Yunyuan)

Timeless passion for Chongqing

Chen Yunyuan is a professional photographer and Chongqing native who has contributed works to the recent publication Hi! I’m Chongqing. Born in the 1970s, Chen has always retained a deep fondness for artistic expression since early childhood, which first budded from traditional pastimes like song, dance, and calligraphy. However, while the arts may have seemed the most natural career path in life, practical realities dictated he would have to wait more than two decades to eventually realize his dreams.

During his twenties and thirties, Chen worked in various industries such as retail, catering, and construction, yet it was the latter in particular that ultimately left him with a profound sense of midlife disillusionment, exacerbated further by the unrealistic prospect of engaging haphazardly in business or investment. Around this low point, Chen happened to dig out an old camera lying at home one day and motivated himself to casually photograph his home city when out and about rather than spending hours each day shut indoors.

Chen began exploring the art of photography along the riverbanks of Chongqing. This captivating image of three bridges crossing the Yangtze appears in the new publication Hi! I’m Chongqing. (Photograph/Chen Yunyuan)

He began by taking pictures along the riversides in his free time and later turned his lens towards the mountains, rivers, and human culture. As it happened, this juncture in life coincided with the dramatic rise of self-media platforms around the year 2015, which prompted Chen to post a selection of crips images taken with his phone camera on photography websites. However, he never expected this album, later dubbed “Chongqing under a Mobile Phone Lens,” would soon capture an enthusiastic response from audiences online.

This development gave me a lot of recognition. The main thing for me at the time was to promote Chongqing, the city where I grew up and felt strong affection towards. As time passed, I gained more knowledge and experience with the art of photography, which ultimately cemented my love for this industry and took up the career professionally. Explained Chen as he reminisced on the early days.

In the years since Chen turned professional, he has consistently explored photographic art in search of his particular niche, whether directly through the camera lens or in the application of editing software. Later, it was the field known as luminous photography which assumed a pivotal role in Chen being named among the ‘Top Ten National Photographers’ by Visual China in the year 2017.

Chen achieved success in replicating the field of luminous photography in his native Chongqing, a technique that had already gained popularity overseas. (Photograph/Chen Yunyuan)

Making photographic waves through ‘minimalism’

The idea of luminous photography involves capturing architecture on camera and then accentuating the features in exclusivity against a dark background. This approach had previously been experimented with in other countries but was still quite a rarity for China at the time. Seeing there are many traditional buildings in Chongqing, I decided to give this a try myself. Ultimately, this style won a prize dubbed the ‘Oscar of the Photography World, awarded by the National Photographic Art Exhibition.”

Naturally, Chongqing’s unique topography and cityscape have long been a key factor in his passion for photography, and these features still provide a source of endless wonder for Chen. “The magic of Chongqing comes through its highly dimensional appearance in the form of heights and depths set amidst the mountains and rivers, which are embellished further with the bridges, and the mist that commonly settles in between.” Chen described. It was also the distinctive urban features that inspired another category of photographic works, one that his audience has named as minimalism.

Chen has developed this form through a careful blend of thought and experimentation. The basic principle involves photographing urban landscapes with powerful yet simplistic linear features, such as open public staircases or the elegant patterns outlined on brick walls offset with light and shadow. However, he often saw there would be unrelated content like random passers-by, who, despite not being integral to the foreground, ultimately created a side-point of interest that strangely counterbalanced the overall impression of oversimplicity.

In his search for a unique persona, Chen has made waves in the photographic concept of minimalism, which features pronounced lines contrasted with objects of indirect curiosity. (Photograph/Chen Yunyuan)

This new exploration into the relationship between the main subject and accompanying body has won a sizeable following among enthusiasts, and this minimalist approach has now become his favored style when it comes to urban landscapes, humanistic culture, and even commercial projects he undertakes. Providing the accompaniment does not encroach overly upon the main content; it makes the resulting image plain to grasp while also stoking curiosity in the audience.

Works grace Chongqing photographic documentary

The new publication Hi! I’m Chongqing was compiled between the Institute for Planets and the Chongqing Municipal Publicity Department in conjunction with the Western China International Communication Center. In the early design stages, Chen was identified among a select group of photographers who had produced many works in the city. When Chen learned they wanted to produce a photographic documentary on Chongqing from a geographical perspective, the opportunity to become involved was an exciting prospect from the very first mention.

His main contribution to the book has come through a selection of photographs, including the first inside cover spread that depicts the stunning multi-dimensional cityscape at dusk, with a mountainous backdrop and elegant bridges vying for prominence across the rivers. When asked to describe his favorite personal work, Chen focused on this particular example, looking towards the Yuzhong District from the north, which blends a multitude of characteristics within a single frame.

Chongqing offers stunning vantage points for photography enthusiasts who can picture the mountains, rivers, cityscape, people, and climate into a single captivating image. (Photograph/Chen Yunyuan)

This photograph was taken around sixteen kilometers from the downtown area. In many cities, this would produce a flat image with just a few tall buildings in sight. However, we can see all the different levels, heights, depths, and spread, along with the mountains and rivers. This is quite a rarity. Also, Chaotianmen Bridge catches the eye and gives the viewer the impression of a true gateway city, almost like a landscape painting. The city lights also give the photograph a hi-tech futuristic allure that’s very gratifying. Chen explained.

Another prominent work from Hi! I’m Chongqing that remains close to heart is a photograph taken on a previous New Year’s Eve, when tens of thousands packed beside the Liberation Monument to witness the stroke of midnight. For Chen, the appeal of this location stems from its historical significance as a spiritual bastion for the people, while in the modern day, it has become a top symbol for the Jiefangbei CBD, where tourists nationwide love to congregate en masse.

In recent years, there have been no fireworks, performances, or light shows organized for this yearly fixture, but many young people wait hours for this single moment, as it represents new hope for the coming year and a chance to reflect on the past. “The attraction for me is to watch the crowds build up as midnight approaches and to feel the excitement when the clock strikes twelve. This is something you can only capture there in person, so I always find it worthwhile to come here for New Year’s Eve.” Chen explained.

Nearly one hundred thousand people gather around the Liberation Monument to welcome in the new year as they reminisce on the past and bear auspicious wishes for the future. (Photograph/Chen Yunyuan)

Now Hi! I’m Chongqing was formally released in December 2023; Chen offered lavish words of praise for this book, which features his small, yet by no means insignificant, contribution. He explained how family and friends regard the publication in high esteem and that he readily attends promotional events in the hope more readers can learn what Chongqing is truly about from a wholly new perspective.

Moreover, Chen reacted with excitement at the prospect of an English version for international readers and expressed his willingness to contribute wherever possible. “I’m always excited to promote the image of Chongqing, and I think there are still many people worldwide who don’t understand this city well. When this new version can be published, I’m sure readers will genuinely feel happy to realize just how beautiful and well-developed the city is.”

The new photographic documentary Hi! I’m Chongqing, which recently hit the bookshelves nationwide and tells the full story of Chongqing from the perspectives of mountains, rivers, people, and city. (Image/Official Poster)

Districts and counties offer untapped potential

Looking to the future, Chen plans to continue his main focus on Chongqing but would like to expand his content in many directions. For example, he spoke on his desire to capture the distinct beauty that Chongqing exudes through each of the four seasons, as well as the chance to photograph elements of traditional culture using his minimalist approach.

Furthermore, he has noticed on his travels that many young people from the outer districts and counties have come to live in the main urban area, meaning that most works there are taken by photographers in the older age brackets. As a result, he has considered reducing his time in the big city to work on fantastic resources waiting to be unearthed further afield.

My passion for photography stems from my lifelong affection towards this city itself, so I haven’t yet produced that many works in the districts and counties, which are quite stunning. I did travel to several beautiful places in 2023, like Changshou, Jiangjin, and Fengjie, and have found they present a unique appearance in each of the four seasons, so I hope to travel more to these places this year and bring people new angles they’ve never seen in the past.

Chen has won great recognition for his ability to capture the daily lives of Chongqing people through minimalist techniques, such as this incredible photograph showing how they traditionally work and live along the steep city steps. (Photograph/Chen Yunyuan)


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