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Mar 16 2021

Obituary: Wang Fuchun (1942–2021)

by Martine Ma

A portrait of WANG FUCHUN. Photo by Charlotte Graham. Image via Twitter.

Photographer Wang Fuchun, known for documenting Chinese railroad passengers during the country’s transformative period of the late 20th century, died on March 13 from an undisclosed illness in Beijing, aged 79. 

Born in Harbin, Wang enrolled at the Train Driver Training School of Suihua Railway in Heilongjiang province at the age of 20. He picked up his first Seagull camera as a trade union officer in 1977, when he was asked to photograph workers as part of a political campaign. He took up photography full time as an artist in 1984, and went on to take approximately 200,000 photographs over 4,000 train rides in China, covering almost every high-speed railway line in the country. Inspired by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s documentary style, Wang created portraits in black-and-white film, while saving his color rolls for images of trains and railroad tracks.  

Wang captured China’s rapid transformations through the passengers he photographed. In the 1970s and early 1980s, most passengers wore green-colored military suits or the Zhongshan suit, creating a sense of uniformity. By the late 1980s, passengers had grown out their hair and diversified their clothing, a sign of relaxation that coincided with China’s opening up to the world. In the 1990s, their styles became increasingly fashionable, corresponding to the country’s economic progression. Beyond clothing, Wang’s penetrating gaze on intimate and candid interactions also captured other social changes. By the 2000s, his subjects became more reluctant under the scrutiny of his lens. In response, he adopted digital photography in 2005 and began his self-described “thief-like” practice, stealthily photographing passengers as he walked through carriages, documenting the evolving relationship between people and technology.

In 1996, Wang was granted the Golden Statue Award for China Photography by the China Photographer’s Association, and in 2014, he was named one of the 30 most influential Asian photographers by the Invisible Photographer Agency. Images of his included in a published monograph, Chinese on the Train (2001), were featured in a solo exhibition at Beijing’s 798 Photo Gallery in 2006 and at Hong Kong’s Metro Art Gallery in 2009. In 2019, the National Railway Museum in York, the United Kingdom, held a retrospective for him, titled “One Billion Journeys: Wang Fuchun’s Chinese on the Train.”

Martine Ma is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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