written by:
October 14, 2009

At Dress Codes, the current exhibition and third triennial at the International Center of Photography in New York, I saw a provoking gallery of pieces that critically explore fashion and its relationship to art and culture. Among the radically image-defying works of artists such as Cindy Sherman, Miyako Ishiuchi, and Lorna Simpson, I was unexpectedly captivated by Hu Yang's series, Shanghai Living.

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Shanghai Living, a series of 500 photographs, is the product of Hu Yang's documentation of people from all social classes in their homes in Shanghai. Individuals, families, professors, labor workers, the upper class, the unemployed -- all are depicted within the context of their living spaces.

While some photographers' work may speculate or superimpose stories on top of the strangers that they depict, Hu Yang goes about storytelling in a different way. He asked each subject three questions:  1. What is your current living situation? 2. What is your greatest ambition? 3. What do you fear most?

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Through these interviews, Yang touches on the social issues without pre-tones of activism or presumption. We see gilded interior furnishings, cramped worker quarters, small television boxes blasting -- and we learn about the family with four young children whose only income is a father's vending cart; the unemployed woman who spends all day staring at the posters on her ceiling; the university professor who thinks he may have chosen the wrong path and dreams about a better life. In a world where the line between documentary photography and privacy-invasion/exploitation can be dangerously blurred, Hu Yang portrays the diverse human fabric of Shanghai, and the living environment of strangers in a way that is somewhat rare -- with humility and respect.

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Photos from ShanghART Gallery

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