China in colour: Bruno Barbey on documenting the development of a global superpower over 45 years

A statue of Mao Zedong covered in scaffolding with two construction workers standing on top.
Veteran Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey first photographed China 46 years ago, during the rule of Chairman Mao. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens at 200mm, 1/250 sec, f/6 and ISO320. © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

During the past 45 years, China has been transformed from a large but undeveloped country into one of the world's foremost industrial superpowers. Throughout that period, senior Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey has been assembling a unique body of work that documents ways in which the country has changed beyond recognition.

China is just one of the many subjects Bruno has explored in his long career. As a photojournalist he has covered news stories around the world, including wars and conflicts in Nigeria, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Northern Ireland and Iraq. He has also documented life in a range of countries including Morocco, Brazil, Turkey, Nigeria and Italy. He has published over 30 books and staged more than 80 exhibitions of his work worldwide.

However, China has remained fascinating to him and he has returned many times. This work has resulted in two recent books on the country: China: From Mao to Modernity (2015) and The Color of China (2019).

Bruno's work has found a receptive audience, not least in China itself. He recently staged a major exhibition of his photographs of the country in its National Art Museum in Beijing, which was seen by 80,000 visitors in just 10 days.

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So what has attracted Bruno to China for so long? "I like countries that have a cultural and historical background, and China is particularly fascinating because it has a 6,000-year history," he says. "It's really an incredible cultural heritage. But what's been really interesting to me is to see, in each decade, how quickly the country has developed and changed, especially since the 1990s. I also like the Chinese people – they are easy to deal with, a bit noisy, but full of enthusiasm."

He first photographed the country in 1973, when it was still in the period known as the Cultural Revolution, under leader Mao Zedong. Looking at these early images now brings home the changes to Chinese people's lives. "In the first pictures I shot in the '70s, people were all dressed in blue or grey," Bruno says. "They all wore the same worker's suit. Today young people spend a lot of money on their clothes, those who have enough to afford them. They are very chic, very elegant, so that's a huge difference.

"When I visited the city of Chengdu in 1980, there was no international airport, there were few cars and almost everyone was travelling by bicycle. Today you have lots of traffic jams – and lots of pollution too." The cities have also been transformed architecturally. "I remember being in Pudong, Shanghai, and taking photographs of paddy rice," Bruno continues. "That is where all the skyscrapers are now. The architecture today is incredible, with amazing buildings designed by famous architects from around the world, which are spectacular to see."

Old buildings being torn down, leaving piles of rubble in the foreground, with cranes and skyscrapers visible in the background.
Bruno captures the architectural transformation of Shanghai in this shot of the demolition of an ancient quarter with the futuristic Pudong New Area in the background. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 1/200 sec, f/11 and ISO250. © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
A person with an orange umbrella sitting on the tarmac of a yellow box junction.
Bruno has documented huge social and political changes over the decades. Here a photo of a protestor sitting on a road junction in Hong Kong becomes an almost abstract colour composition. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 1/250 sec, f/10 and ISO400. © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

Shooting in colour

Other Magnum photographers photographed the country in previous decades, including Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud, but they all shot in black and white. Although monochrome was still dominant in documentary photography in the early 1970s, Bruno wanted to shoot in colour from the outset.

Black and white, he explains, was dominant for both aesthetic and practical reasons. "At that time, colour reproduction, even in the most famous magazines, was poor," he says. "I used to work a lot with National Geographic, and when I look at those articles today I see they're not so well printed. But I've always been fascinated by colour, maybe because I was born in Morocco, which is a country of light and colour. For me it started in the mid-1960s, when I was sent to Brazil by Vogue magazine and took a few hundred colour films with me. I really started to take colour photography seriously from then on. I especially love shooting colour on the latest digital cameras. And magazines now are very well printed."

An example of modern architecture in China, Shanghai's Expo Axis lit up with pink light in geometric lines.
More of China's striking new architecture, in this case Shanghai's Expo Axis at night, captured thanks to the low-light capabilities of Bruno's Canon equipment. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 1/80 sec, f/4 and ISO1000. © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
A shot taken looking down inside the New Century Global Mall in Chengdu, showing escalators lit up with blue lights.
The dizzying scale of Chengdu's New Century Global Mall. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 42mm, 1/60 sec, f/5 and ISO800. © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
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Bruno has tried many different cameras during his long career, but has used Canon kit for many years. He currently shoots with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV). "I enjoy shooting with digital. It's a fantastic tool," he says. "It's fascinating for photographers of my generation, to see how today we have such opportunity for creativity due to digital technology.

"I'm able to work in very low light with no flash, which was not possible before. I also like to do street photography, which you have to do very quickly and you don't have time to focus; the speed of autofocus makes it so easy now. You don't need to think about technique. Everything is solved by the camera."

Bruno says he likes to keep his kitbag very light and the "perfect lens" for his kind of work is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. "I sometimes use a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM, which I like because it's small and light," he says. "I also have a tilt-shift lens, a Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, because when I shoot architecture I like everything to be perfect and avoid converging verticals."

In the field

Bruno's practical approach is to choose a particular place he wants to shoot and simply wait for something to happen that he wants to photograph. One favourite place is in Shanghai, looking over the Huangpu river towards the city, where at weekends there are lots of things going on. He always likes to keep both foreground and background in mind when he's shooting, so he can juxtapose different elements in a scene. The most important thing for him, however, is that people are not aware they are being photographed.

"In most of the pictures I take, people don't realise they have been photographed, or they have just realised it a moment before," he says. "I shoot very quickly. Sometimes, even now, I shoot without putting the camera to my eye so I can be more discreet. Of course, when you shoot a lot, the editing is an important part of the images. 50% of my work is done when shooting, 50% in post production.

Three pedestrians walking along a Hong Kong street past a brightly coloured poster.
Bruno enjoys the speed and spontaneity of street photography. He says he likes to choose a location and simply wait for something to happen, but memorable images require that perfect juxtaposition of foreground and background elements. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 61mm, 1/250 sec, f/6.3 and ISO400. © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos
A group of women all wearing white performing yoga on a sand dune in the Kubuqi Desert in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
For Bruno, it is vital to capture people being natural and not posing for the camera. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 1/160 sec, f/20 and ISO250. © Bruno Barbey / Magnum Photos

"Usually I take the pictures first and ask permission afterwards, unless I'm doing a portrait and the person and I get to know each other first. But if you want to have a natural situation, if you ask permission first it's finished. People will not be natural any more and the situation will be destroyed, so most of the time I never ask permission."

Perhaps surprisingly, Bruno says he hasn't encountered bad reactions when photographing people in China. "In China or Japan, or in Asia in general, there's not much of a problem with photographing people," he says. "Maybe that's because they're keeping polite for foreigners. It's easier to take pictures in, say, Shanghai than in Paris. In Paris you take pictures and somebody will challenge you and say they're going to sue you. That's not such problem in China. The Chinese love photography; it's fantastic how they are motivated and fascinated by it."

Although he's now 78, Bruno has lost none of his appetite for photography and has further photographic trips planned to both China and Morocco. "Being a member of the French Academie des Beaux-Arts, I am surrounded by friends and great artists and some of them are very old and still working," he says. "Some photographers work into their 90s. I will continue to work while I am, as we say, 'bon pied, bon oeil' [literally, 'good foot, good eye']. I hope to be able to work as much as I can until the end."

Autor článku David Clark

Bruno Barbey's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Magnum photographer Bruno Barbey with a Canon camera on an assignment.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

The EOS 5D Mark IV is a full-frame 30.4MP DSLR with 61-point autofocus and 7fps continuous shooting. "I like to do street photography, which you have to do very quickly and you don't have time to focus; the speed of autofocus makes it so easy now."


Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

A professional-quality standard zoom that offers outstanding image quality and a fast f/2.8 aperture throughout its zoom range. Bruno says for his kind of work it's the "perfect lens."

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II

With this lens, independent rotation of the tilt and shift mechanisms permits maximum creative freedom. Bruno says, "When I shoot architecture, I like everything to be perfect and avoid converging verticals."

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