Zhang Kechun’s Photo Series: The Yellow River

A Buddha head in a coal yard in Ningxia. (Image: Zhang Kechun)
A Buddha head in a coal yard in Ningxia. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

In 2010, Chinese photographer Zhang Kechun set off on his fold-up bicycle to spend two years photographing the Yellow River in China. Zhang would travel for a month at a time, lugging around a large-format Linhof camera. Not wanting to rush the project, he sometimes would not take a single picture for an entire week.

Two men taking photographs by the Yellow river in Gansu. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Two men taking photographs in Gansu. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

In an interview with Time Magazine, Zhang said:

After the Yangzte River, the Yellow River is China’s second largest river and is approximately 3,400 miles long. It runs through nine provinces and empties into the Bohai Sea, just south of Beijing. The Yellow River has been the inspiration for many poets and artists.

It is known as the “Cradle of Chinese Civilization,” much in the same way as is the Nile River to the Egyptian people. During times of destructive flooding, it is nicknamed “China’s Sorrow.”

White deer under a cooling tower, Inner Mongolia. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Statues of deer beside a cooling tower near Inner Mongolia. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Zhang Kechun is a professional artist based in Chengdu, China. He was born in 1980 in Sichuan Province, where he began painting as a child. After he studied art and design, he worked in Chengdu as a designer before developing an interest in photography.

Zhang won the National Geographic Picks Global Prize in 2008 and the 2014 Arles Photo Festival Discovery Award. His work was also prominately displayed at the 2013 Beijing Photo Biennial.

For this series, Zhang preferred to photograph on overcast days, overexposing the images and giving them a soft, pastel look. While it wasn’t his intention to document the effects of pollution, he decided to include it, along with images of industrial development, which caused the project to take on a new meaning.

People fishing at the river, Xiaxi. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

People fishing near Xiaxi. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

While much of the river has been adversely affected by pollution and industrial development, Zhang was able to still pay homage to it by conveying its gentleness and sense of beauty through his camera lens.

Zhang explained to Time Magazine that he intentionally juxtaposed the river against people who appeared rather small in comparison to instill a feeling of hope for the future of the river, stating:

Yellow River in the Middle of the Mountains, Gansu. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

The river flowing among the mountains in Gansu. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Zhang has another beautiful photo series entitled Between the Mountain and the Waterwhere he follows groups of local tourists as they visit various mountains and rivers in China. This series also shows the rapid effects of modernization on the environment.

Zhang noted that Chinese culture contains a deeply ingrained belief that “mountains are virtuous, rivers are moral.” He wanted to capture the natural beauty of China’s mountains and rivers despite them being altered by human intervention.

People Painting a House in the Middle of the River in Gansu, 2011. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

People painting a house in the middle of the river in Gansu. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

People Building High-speed Rail Bridge, Xiaxi. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Construction of a high-speed rail bridge in Xiaxi. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

A group of people exercising under a dragon-like sign, Gansu province. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

A group of people exercising under a dragon sign in Gansu Province. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Man Doing Morning Exercise Under the Bridge with Mask, Ningxia. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

A man doing his morning exercises under a bridge in Ningxia. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Fake Hill in the Middle of the Lake, Shandong. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

A man-made hill in Shandong. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

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