OLD PHOTOS: 1910-1913

梁碧波纪录片名人工作坊 央视网 2012年01月31日 15:12 A-A+ 二维码


OLD PHOTOS: 1910-1913 is a 3-episode documentary film series, which has been broadcast for 3 times within October of 2002 by CCTV-1, CCTV-4 (international) and CCTV-9 (English), the later two of which are covering the globe.                  

In August of 2002, shortly after I returned from the United States, I heard an amazing story from a friend, the story about Luther Knight, a young professor from John Hopkins University, who came to China 93 years ago and died here of typhus. What he left behind is over 300 photos he took. These old photos were going be exhibited in Chengdu and a Chinese named Wang Yulong was managing this project. The story intrigued my curiosity immediately, because during my 6-month time in the United States as the research fellow with the Asian Cultural Council, I had realized the gap between two different cultures and the importance of cross-culture communications and interactions. Also, I found a kindred spirit in Luther Knight who came to another country to share his experience, just as I had done in New York. I decided to explore the story. The first thing got into my mind was to find Wang Yulong.

Wang Yulong and I met in an apartment in Shuangliu, a suburb of Chengdu. As an independent photographer, Wang Yulong fully understood my intention. He was 47 years old, born in Shenyang, a faraway city in the northeast of China. During the “Cultural Revolution”, Yulong was assigned to Tibet as an “intellectual youth”. Later, he was recommended to the Northwest Nationalities University with the major in the Tibetan language. After graduation, Yulong came back to Tibet and worked in the local government. He used to be the founder of Shigatse Daily, a communist newspaper covering the Shigatse area, where is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, who is one of the two prestigious spiritual leaders in Tibet. At that time, Yulong never expected he would be the organizer of Luther Knight’s exhibition. It all originated from an American teacher he happened to meet whose name is John Knight. John and Yulong became good friends. They would meet once or twice a year, either in Tibet or Chengdu. The apartment used by Yulong as a meeting place for us actually belongs to John, who bought it with the future hopes to be able to retire there in older ages. Luther Knight is the 10th and youngest son of John’s great-great grandfather. However, John had only sketchy knowledge about the early relative until August 2000, Yulong brought to him an exhibition book, which was sent out in Sidney Gamble’s photos exhibition in Chengdu. There was one statement in the book that made John feel unhappy, which criticized Luther Knight’s photography skills. Upon returning to Hong Kong a few days later, John called upon his cousin to get all Luther’s glass negatives. These were quickly scanned and printed out and it was soon discovered that Luther was NOT an inferior photographer, but one highly skilled in various aspects of picture taking. Still, in a letter to his sister, Luther shared that just before coming to China, he almost went into partnership with a friend in portrait photography. John came to an idea to hold an exhibition for his uncle, to let his dream come true, even he had passed away 90 year ago. By the same time, the public could judge themselves what Luther’s work was like. Finally, he went to Yulong for help. Yulong was also shocked by these old but well-taken pictures. With the images of rich landlords, arrogant military officials, showy aristocratic ladies and ragged peasants, China of 100 years ago seemed to come to revival. Yulong accepted John’s invitation and took the role of the organizer for the exhibition.

I was moved, not only by Luther Knight’s legend, but also by Wang’s persistence.
I wrote a proposal to CCTV on making a documentary film about the story of Luther Knight who at the time had taken over 300 photos during that tumultuous period. In my proposal, the film of OLD PHOTOS consists of 2 storylines,

Luther Knight’s story overlapping one part of Chinese history
These photos were taken during a time of two years and ten months, for Luther arrived in Shanghai on August 2,1910, and died in Chengdu on April 19, 1913. Amazingly, this short period of 1,000 days perfectly overlapping one of greatest changes that ever took place in the long-history China, the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of a Republic. Luther’s photos are of a short but very vital period of Chinese history, and these photos, hidden from the public for about 90 years, are now open to be viewed by this present generation in China. To the public, both these photos and that part of history are “new”.

Wang Yulong’s efforts for the exhibition overlapping the current Chinese society
As an independent photographer, Yulong realized what a big challenge he was facing at the moment he agreed to the organizer of the exhibition. The biggest problem of all was looking for sponsors. Due a limited budget, Yulong had to reduce each cost to the lowest. He tried to negotiate with many film developers, such as Fuji Film and Kodak, hoping to get free treatment, though most answers he got was NO. Through the eyes of Yulong, the audience can sense the changes took place in modernizing China. Many popular franchisees are imported; the life standard is improving, but meanwhile the society is commercialized in some way. 

Through the storylines, four stories were interwoven in the film: Luther’s last 1.5 years in China, Yulong’s ambition of putting up the exihibition, things happened to China 100 years ago and what happened here right now. By means of juxtaposition of these stories, I hope the film could be a demonstration of how the history and people could interact with each other.

The proposal was quickly approved by CCTV. They thought the film better to be divided into 3 episodes. I selected 5 filmmakers from my studio as the members of crew. We began to travel with Yulong who was following Luther Knight’s footsteps then. Luther kept detailed records of all the photographs he had taken, but after his death, this information, including all of his diaries and a number of important photos were somehow lost. In order to notify the places with what’s on the photos, Yulong decided to visit all places Luther had been to when he was in China. We documented the whole process, from Shanghai to Tibet, from fertile Chuanxi Plains to the mountainous ethnic autonomous regions. Meanwhile numerous interviews were made, such as historians, museum curators, geologists, cultural specialists, earthquake survivors and former apprentice of photography studio. We even have had a meeting with John Knight, who was doing some charitable and educational work in Hong Kong and made Hong Kong the place of permanent residency. It was difficult for us to get the permission to do the interviews there, because Hong Kong is a special administrative region. Citizens of the mainland applying to go there must undergo strict examinations, mainly politically. Anyhow, we made it.

The biggest problem we had while shooting the film was how to make history present itself once more. OLD PHOTOS is a film concerning with now and past. But a century ago, the film was not widely accepted. So we could hardly find any archive footage shot in China then. What we only could rely on is Luther’s work and a handful archive pictures. Dozens of letters from Luther to his sister triggered my inspiration----they contained detailed account of some historical events, such as the establishment of the Han Military Government and chaos broken out in Chengdu, etc. They were written in personal tone and would be more interesting than the quotations from the history textbook. So, we turned some excerpts from Luther’s letters into subtitles in the film and an American teacher helped us to do the voiceover.

Another way we found to “playback” history is to act it. In the Three Gorges, the job of boat tracking has disappeared for several years. Manpower has been replaced by machines. We had to hire some locals to track a boat in front of our camera. It is said the professional boat tracker were half naked, because they were extremely poor and couldn’t afford a pair of pants for wading into water. We asked the temporary actors if could consider to make their acting more “real” by taking off the pants. They all laughed and said “ NEVER”. Some scenes like this are made into the effect of black-and-white film in the postproduction stage, with the hope that it would look old.

The crews want to do something for Luther and Yulong, too. Unlike many foreigners who have come to and gone from China, Luther was an American who died and is buried in Chinese soil. But, neither John nor Yulong had the clue where Luther’s grave was located, for 90 years has passed by. We turned to the municipal archeologists team for help in the name of our TV station. The team no doubt has more access to the archives and more professional in the aspect that any of us.

From May 2001 to July, the shootings was completed. At the end of July, the postproduction was started. At that time, it was both unknown whether the exhibition could be put up or Luther’s grave could be found. But, in order to meet the program schedule set by CCTV, we had to begin the postproduction, while by setting an eye on the two ongoing things. Fortunately, due to many efforts made by Yulong, the exhibition was opened on September 28 as it had been planned. However, all attempts to locate Luther’s grave have been so far unsuccessful. We added these results, no matter successful or not at the end of our film as the ending of the whole story. October 20(?), OLD PHOTOS was first aired in CCTV-1.

It is an unusual experience for me to make OLD PHOTOS: 1910-1913. Luther Knight’s photos, like some time capsule, took me to the most chaotic period of the Chinese history. From the famine in 1911 to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, from the monarchy to the democracy, my homeland was experiencing great agonies just like a mother was giving birth to a baby that was some new social system and new values. The country we’re living now is quite different from Luther had seen. But, we still have the duty to let people know what changes had happened, even dramatically, to the country and to our ancestors.

Two people would remain in my mind ever since----- they are Luther Knight and Wang Yulong. Many pictures Luther took along the Yangtze River were from high up in the mountains, which he climbed lugging his heavy photographic gear, showing not only his professional dedication but also physical vigor. From the information contained in Luther’s writing we sense that he had a deep respect and admiration for the Chinese people, culture, language and land. The industriousness of the common folk, the diligence and intellectual curiosity of his students, and the beauty of the terrain are just a few of the things that seemed to constantly amaze and enthrall him. We quoted one part of obituary released in Chengdu newspaper for Luther’s death in our film. It goes as the following,

Chengdu has been highly favored in having foreign teachers. They have been men of high ideas. Luther Knight was one of these men. Being a photographer, he brought back some rare pictures. As a teacher he was faithful and did more than was written in the bond .As a man his name stands unsullied.

I wish my film could be helpful to erect a practical memorial to Luther Knight in the heart of the Chinese people, whom Luther loved and respected.

My fellowman, Yulong moved me with his persistence and commitment, which must have also moved many businessmen he has contacted with, I guess. As an independent photographer, Yulong had to overcome every difficult problem all by himself. He repeatedly tasted the bitterness of being turned down, but at last he fulfilled his commitment and got self-satisfaction.

Knight’s exhibition in Chengdu became a hot topic as soon as it was opened. Many locals were attracted to it. They came to the show and tried to identify the places shown in the photos with those where their ancestors lived. Some even recognized people in the photos were their great grand parents. The broadcast of OLD PHOTOS: 1910-1913 worked as an incentive to the trend of “finding root” nationwide. More old photos were discovered and more legends were unearthed. China is a land of many legends, which define the national culture and give people the confidence to look into future.




  • 央视纪录片
  • BBC 专场
  • 美国国家地理专场

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