This is not a traditional Chinese painting. It is a photographic print. Yet it is not exactly a photograph. It is a photographic creation by world-famous Chinese artist Dong Hong-Oai. Using a style known by some as Asian pictorialism, classic Chinese motifs are framed and layered with a view to create the effect and feel that a photograph alone or a painting alone cannot provide. This fusion of disciplines is as unique and intriguing as the life of Dong Hong-Oai.
Born in 1929, in Guangzhou, Dong Hong-Oai left his home when he was 7, after the sudden death of his parents. The youngest of twenty-four siblings, he was sent to live in the Chinese community of Saigon. There he became an apprentice at a photography studio owned by Chinese immigrants and learned the basics of photography. During this time, he became particularly interested in landscape photography. At 21, after doing a series of odd jobs, he became a student at the Vietnam National Art University.
In 1979, a bloody border war started in Vietnam. Following a series of repressive policies targeted at Chinese immigrants, Dong Hong-Oai became one of the millions of ‘boat people’ who left Vietnam in the 70s and 80s. At the age of 50, speaking no English and knowing no one in America, he arrived in San Francisco. He set up a small darkroom and started selling his photographs at local street fairs. He was able to raise enough money to travel back to China periodically to take photographs of surreal landscapes, and more importantly, study under the tutelage of Long Chin-San in Taiwan.
This famous master, who died in 1995 at the age of 105, had been trained in the traditional art of Chinese landscape imagery painting. This art form did not seek to accurately depict nature, but to interpret the emotional impact of nature. The dramatic monochromatic landscapes, using simple brushes and ink, combined different art forms – poetry, calligraphy and painting – and allowed artists to be experimental. At one point in his career, Long Chin-San moved from his impressionistic style of painting into photography. He developed a method of layering negatives to correspond with the three tiers of distance and taught this method to Don Hong-Oai.
Looking to better emulate the traditional Chinese style, Don Hong-Oai added calligraphy and his seal to the images. In the 1990s, his new art modeled on traditional paintings started drawing the attention of the art world. Soon he didn’t need to sell his photographs on the streets. He was now represented by an agent and his works were sold in galleries to private collectors, corporates and museums throughout America, Europe and Asia. He was then in his 60s and for the first time in his life, achieved some financial stability.
Don Hong-Oai died in 2004, at the age of 75. He left behind an incredible volume of pictorialism work that is as popular today as when it was first introduced to the art world. Don Hong-Oai was one of the last photographers to work in this manner. He is also arguably the best. He was honored by Kodak Ilford and at Fotokina in West Germany. He was also a member of the International Federation of Photographic Art in Switzerland and the Chinatown Photographic Society. Many around the world are still discovering Dong Hong-Oai, the photographer who saw the world through Chinese paintings.