Chen Nong is one of the most extraordinary photographers in China today. Working almost entirely alone, each of his meticulous photographs takes him approximately a year to research, assemble, populate and shoot. His breathtaking images, rich in historical context, pay hommage to real-life events from Chinese history, re-enacted according to his own singular vision.
In his Three Gorges series, we witness a gathering of locals uprooted from their homes, standing defiantly against an almost mystical watery backdrop. In the Yellow River series, a lively peasant rebellion - a seeming cast of thousands - forms a throng in the foreground, full of movement and passion, echoing the dramatic river behind them. These are haunting images, suggesting at once early photography and romantic painting, documentary work and a more strikingly contemporary aesthetic.
In the more mythical Water Lily works, we see a dreamier side to the artist. These richly coloured nocturnes conceal liliputian humans nestling peacefully in fields of giant water lillies. As with much of his work, they recall carefully lit stage-sets, or stills from an early colour movie.
Chen Nong, 46, is in a sense more filmmaker than photographer. Each of his series is an epic undertaking. Once he has the seed of an idea, and has sketched it out in detail, the artist then goes on a pilgrimage to far-flung parts of China to find the appropriate location to shoot. There, he builds a set and assembles his cast - often comprising willing volunteers and friends - in order to realise his precise vision.
Using a 110-year old antique camera, the photographer shoots in black and white, in order to print on silver gelatin paper. The post-production process is equally elaborate. After he settles on a small selection of images, he hand-paints each one in a close range of colours to produce a vintage, burnished effect. The result is super-realist, highly stylised, at times even verging on the expressionist.
Chen Nong lives simply in Beijing. Almost all the proceeds from his last project goes into funding the next. He is a true manifestation of an artist who lives for his work. Chen Nong has exhibited across the world. His work has been recently included into permanent collections amongst which are MoMa in New York, the Harvard Art Museum. This is the first solo show of the artist with an overview of his photographs and sketches in the Netherlands.