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UPDATED: January 9, 2012 NO. 2 JANUARY 12, 2012
Life Behind Moon Doors
A French artist tells Chinese stories with his camera
By Bai Shi


A photography exhibition by French artist San Bartolomé entitled Moon Door Dreamers opened in the 798 Art Zone in Beijing on December 10, 2011, presenting a cross-cultural perspective on ordinary life in the capital city.

Bartolomé took these photographs in August 2008, and produced a video named Two Worlds, One Dream. These works were displayed in Pingyao, an ancient city in Shanxi Province, under the title Beijing Midsummer Night Dream in September 2010.

The moon doors serve as a keyhole through which one can catch a glimpse of a slice of Beijing life. He got his inspiration from one cycling trip to the southeastern suburb of Beijing, where he discovered a peculiar street along which a gray brick wall was built to cover the shabby bungalows. These cabins were mostly rented by migrant workers—peddlers, craftsmen, grocers and innkeepers.

Born in 1950, Bartolomé has worked as a photographer, stage director, artistic manager, writer and diplomat. A noted Sinophile, Bartolomé frequently visits China for photographic subjects. In the fall of 2003, he joined the French Embassy in Beijing as a cultural attaché. His work experience in China from 2003 to 2008 further enhanced his awareness of and love for China.

Caring for people

Bartolomé not only loves Chinese culture but also the Chinese people. He thinks that Chinese people are kind, hospitable and diverse.

Back from his bike ride to southeastern Beijing, he decided to shoot pictures about ordinary urban lifestyles. He observed dwellers carefully and made friends with them. After about 30 days and nights that he spent with these common migrants, he created a number of portraits. Meanwhile, he learned more about those rural migrants who earn their crust in a city with which they are unacquainted.

He adopted an optimistic perspective to shoot the sights, and he borrowed the title of one of William Shakespeare's comedy works: A Midsummer Night's Dream.

EXHIBITION: Bartolomé (left) and French Ambassador to China, Sylvie-Agnès Bermann, pose on the openning day of the exhibition (CLEO)

"The play tells a story about the ordinary people who are similar to the characters in my photos," said Bartolomé. "I am always touched by the common people, particularly their happy or sad stories, when I travel around the world."

Fundamental human concerns are the most important themes of these portraits.

"They live a simple life in the city. They might encounter troubles every day, but most importantly, they are happy. They have their dreams and fun," he said. "People usually are confused by their desires for a rich life. I want to say that a simple life can make people happy too."

Capturing lights and shadows

Having worked with stage art and photography for many years, Bartolomé deftly uses rich colors and light-shadow structure to tell stories. All the pictures of Moon Door Dreamers were shot at night, and the activities of the people behind the doors are highlighted in contrast with shadows in the external foreground. The audience can speculate on the professional roles of the subjects. Though the subjects were lit, discernible details exist in the dark sections, such as Chinese characters on windows and spare parts on the ground.

His choice of realistic moon door scenes contrasts with the fantastic stage effects and expressionistic use of light and shadow. Consequently, the ordinary residents look like Broadway performers, reflecting the dramatic vision of the author. Because of Bartolomé's ingenious "set design" and unparalleled mastery of light and shadow, the common Chinese faces are so unforgettable and show a complicated inner world which the audience can understand with help of psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Bartolomé believes a good photographer must be a good story teller. "No matter what the art form, it should contain emotions inside. So the sentiment is the most important part of art for me. Perhaps some art works look beautiful, but they are worth nothing if they cannot move people," he said.

He is consistently dedicated to recording and promoting Chinese images in his unusual way. The pictures of Moon Door Dreamers, filled with feelings and stories, present a unique perspective to show the real and optimistic lifestyles of ordinary Beijingers.

Email us at: baishi@bjreview.com

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