Since 2002, Sze Tsung Leong has been photographing the dramatic urban changes that have transformed the cities of China — revealing a process that ranges from the destruction of traditional neighborhoods, which once formed the unique identities of China’s cities, to the mass construction of new urban environments. Photographed with a largeformat view camera in cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Nanjing, Pingyao, and Xiamen, these highly detailed images portray the immense scale of an urban upheaval overwhelming the minute scale of the individual.
The dense concentration of visual information in the photographs reveals the contradictions created by an uncertain and fluctuating environment: traditional buildings in the process of being demolished are juxtaposed against the new urban reality about to replace them; seemingly abandoned buildings on the verge of destruction, or in the midst of construction, reveal clues of inhabitation; historic areas survive more as a result of neglect and isolation than intent; and obscured in the midst of expansive, culturally ambivalent spaces, small Chinese script on indistinct signs serves as the only hint that these environments are in China.
Collectively, the photographs in History Images capture the erasure and subsequent absence of history, and the eventual creation of a new history anticipating a future yet to unfold; it is an urban reality caught in the tenuous period after the end of one history and at the beginning of another. While these photographs portray a specific period in the history of China, they also parallel and evoke the experience of cities throughout the world that have been affected by other forms of drastic upheaval: the extensive reconfiguration of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century by Georges-Eugène Haussmann to accommodate the new middle class; the wartime reduction to rubble of European cities; the listless spaces resulting from the postwar suburban attenuation of American cities.