“Time: The Images of Chang Chao-Tang, 1959-2013” celebrated the Taiwanese photographer’s 70th birthday and the museum’s 30th. Chang began to take pictures in 1959, while still in high school. This was during Taiwan’s long period of martial law, known as the White Terror, which ended in 1987. Until recently, Chang executed his work in stark, shadowy black-and-white, fashioning a transformation of reality; his interest was in depth and strangeness rather than surface appearances. Eerie landscapes, strange rock formations and groups of people, obliquely lit, enhance the surrealist quality of many of the photographs.
This was not an exhibition that allowed a routine walk-through visit. Although it followed a chronology of sorts within a spacious display of some 400 works—photographs, videos, contact sheets, cameras and other paraphernalia—the show’s visitors were encouraged to look for something other than the artist’s development. Section titles such as “Social Memory/Inner Landscapes,” “Existential Voices” and “Faces in Time” keyed to the issues that make these consistently lovely images both critical and revealing.
Many of Chang’s subjects lack a visible head or face. Headlessness is a common trope in surrealist photographic portraiture—a way for artists to reject a focus on the individual personality. One thinks of Francesca Woodman, to give a telling example. Woodman’s “crossed-out” self-portraits, set in interiors and often modified by superimpositions, appear to express the artist’s desire to merge with the space—with walls, chimneys and torn wallpaper. In striking contrast, most of Chang’s works depict people other than himself and are set outside. Austerely critical of society’s absurdities, they show no trace of longing or desire. In three works from 1962, a figure is photographed in extremely shallow depth of field, his head bent so that the body seems to end at the neck. One image shows him standing on a ledge with a horizontal orientation that parallels the pavement in front of him and the clouds behind him, into which he seems to merge. In the second image, the man—in the same pose—is enlarged and cropped, leaving only the trunk of his body, looking like a violin à la Man Ray. In the third, a near-negative, he is reduced to a white outline, vaguely suggestive of the chalk contour around a dead body, although he is standing.
Though Chang’s photos have been called pessimistic, such an assessment goes against the grain of their perfectionist beauty. Original and often keenly surprising, they demonstrate an eagerness for exploring people’s subtle interactions with each other and nature. A work from 1966, in which a group of men—all white-shirted but for a slightly isolated figure in a checkered shirt—turn their faces away from the camera, displays with a minimum of means the sensation of exclusion within social togetherness. Another group portrait, from 1988, shows figures with their backs turned, clad in black robes and hoods, confronting a landscape with a threatening sky, whose stormy mood seems to transmit into the anonymous crowd.
The look this artist casts on the world of Taiwanese modernity is neither negative nor tender; it lacks all sentimentality. Instead, it is one of wonderment, as he decomposes, transforms and in the end lifts his subjects from routineness. Chang has mentored many, and photography by the following generation in Taiwan is stamped with his mark. Yet his influence, generosity and openness have not resulted in the formation of a distinctive school. This landmark tribute paid homage to a key figure in Taiwanese art, one worthy of international acclaim.