Feng Li, Good Night | Collector Daily

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Jiazazhi Press (here). Softcover, 150x225x25 mm, 352 pages, with 187 black and white photos. Includes 1 poster, but no texts or essays. Design by Cheng Yinhe. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Street photography has always had its darker side, where the casual moments and clever juxtapositions of city life get a grainier, oddly surreal detail or two that pops out of the shadows. In many cases, photographers have deliberately gone in search of the nocturnal underbelly of the world’s biggest cities, where wild things tend to congregate; in others, they’ve discovered that the untamed everyday oddity seemingly stands everywhere we look, even during the day. In both scenarios, it doesn’t matter which specific global metropolis we might choose, as the dreamy and the bizarre seem to linger everywhere, from New York, London, and Rome to Tokyo, Bangkok, and Kolkata, and back again.

In 2017, Chinese photographer Feng Li added his name to the list of street photographers with surreal tendencies with his highly acclaimed photo book sleepless night. In it, Li followed the weirdness found in his hometown of Chengdu, bringing an eye for pops of color and the consistent use of energizing light flash for his subjects.

Li’s story is worth noting – he works as a civil servant for the Sichuan Provincial Department of Communication, where he takes photos of local events in Chengdu for the Propaganda Department. While on business trips, he also creates images for himself, and it is the eccentric moments that have found their way into sleepless night.

Good nightit’s sort of a sequel to the sleepless night project, or maybe better, some sort of sibling or relative. And while fiery color was a dominant component of Li sleepless night pictures, Good night settles entirely into the darker tones of black and white, letting darkness (with a burst of high-contrast flash) be the main (and only) color story. In many cases, Li’s flash is so powerful that it’s impossible to discern whether it’s day or night, which of course adds to the overall sense of confused unreality that bubbles through this photobook.

Good night is a thick book, and weighing over 180 images, it is overloaded by normal photo book standards. The cover creates an eerie atmosphere, with an image of a parrot surrounded by a flash-lit palm leaf and the looming edges of a building interwoven with the title and artist’s name in black, which are intentionally obscured by the silver overprint of the image. Inside, vertical images are displayed one at a time, always on the right-hand page, while horizontal images are either given full treatment or scaled down and matched top and bottom. This leads to plenty of white space for most page turns, but also the breathing space we need to process the unnerving weirdness found in each of Li’s images. Almost all of Li’s images require a process of two-step engagement, where an initial sense of recognition is then recalibrated as we uncover more details that upset a typical reading of the image.

Li’s photographs cover a wide range of subjects, making it difficult to divide the mass of images into useful categories or groups (are lightning bolts, or spiders, or shrouded things, or people in inexplicable costumes, or street fights, or people with their faces obscured, motives worth following?) More concretely, it is Li’s keen eye that ties these images together into a cohesive whole – he tends to finding a dark (often vaguely threatening) atmosphere when no one is around, and it amplifies the theatrics of situations where people are present, whether they are “performing” or not, often bordering on the absurd. Together, the images offer an uncontrolled, wild, and darkly unexpected take on everyday China, where this kind of subtle eccentricity isn’t usually featured.

Chance and good timing play an important role in street photography, but Li’s success rate for visual “decisive moment” winners is far too high to be random. The most amazing image of Good night is probably one of a boy bouncing a ping pong ball on his racket while his friend is watching right next to it; the ball jumps in the air, Li fires her flash, which turns the ball into a glowing white orb and casts a black circular shadow, the two “balls” perfectly aligned in front of the friend’s eyes. It is an amazing photograph, of a very modest moment. But Li finds this kind of magic everywhere – in a man pushing a skeleton down the street; another wearing a jumble of white tubes like a crazy wig; a grim-faced man who stands ready with his knife; a girl with feathered wings that become a doubled dark shadow; a baby apparently left in a trash can; and various people seen only by their outstretched hands, behind frosted or misted glass, emerging from river water or raised in prayer (with one finger cut short).

While everyday life isn’t a horror movie, in Li’s hands, simple observations quickly turn into setups that feel poised to lead somewhere menacing or just totally unexpected. Someone is holding what looks like a severed head; dinosaurs emerge on the side of the road for picture-hungry snappers; aliens dance in shiny costumes; rabbits come out of a wrecked van; people are taken away in handcuffs; strange eyes appear in the bark of a tree; a huge teddy bear is impaled on the spikes of an iron fence; and a man sadly holds a handgun as he sits alone at a table in the park. Any of these moments could be the start or end of a short story, Li’s singular discoveries and situations left pleasantly open.

When Li doesn’t see the hazy sadness of a lonely Christmas tree or an artificial moon hoisted into the sky on scaffolding, he seems to be having fun with the playfulness of visual interruption. The smoke rings provide a memorable darkening effect, surpassed only by what looks like a fried bug (or just candy) on a stick jutting right past a smiling girl’s face. He then balances this deliberate disruption with so many images of peeking through – from behind a slit in curtains, from an oversized suit, from behind a round hole in a large air conditioner, through binoculars and a camera, and through the mouth of a bear costume. His viewing pleasure is certainly contagious, reaching a climax of relatable silliness with a thrown nut caught in the air between the pitcher’s hand and the catcher’s gaping mouth.

The general conclusion to be drawn from Good night is that the genre of street photography continues to be reinvented and reinvigorated by contemporary photographers like Li. Almost every image in this lively photo book can be logically followed by the question “what’s going on here?” This intentional mystery, and the active engagement it then requires from the viewer, Good night fresh and exciting. Li keeps us guessing, and that quirky feeling of being just a little out of control creates the potential for lasting surprise, even on later journeys through the images.

Collector’s point of view: Feng Li is represented by Galerie Marguo in Paris (here), and by Concrete Rep in the UK (here) for his commercial work. His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail probably remains the best option for interested collectors to follow.

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