Jack Davison’s lyrical response to one of China’s oldest ethnic groups

View Gallery 10 Photos
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Abstract forms, vivid colours, and unexpected motifs thread through Davison’s exploration of the Miao in Song Flowers — his second photobook published by Loose Joints, in collaboration with Marni

Jack Davison translates the essence of his subjects into the images he shoots. A distinct approach that ensures his photographs are never straightforward. Instead, they capture the colours, moods, and rhythms of the places, people, and objects that find themselves in front of his lens — sinuous flower-stems bend and curve, black silhouettes creep across luminous backgrounds, humans and animals move within frozen photographic frames.

“I did not want to be too heavy-handed,” reflects Davison, speaking of Song Flowers, his second photobook published by Loose Joints, this time, in collaboration with Italian fashion house Marni. The project is a visual response to one of China’s 56 recognised ethnic groups — the Miao. “I wanted to assemble a set of motifs and icons from which people could form their own thoughts and opinions.”

A strong sense of the Miao, the slowness and intricacy of their lives accentuated by China’s relentless modernity, emerges from the publication’s pages — lotus flowers assemble before a concrete bridge, outstretched palms are coated in ink, a white pup nuzzles a lone finger.

These are the kind of unassuming details to which Davison was drawn as he spent two-and-a-half weeks observing the group. The Miao are renowned for their intricate handmade clothing and textiles, yet they are largely absent from the images, which eschew the obvious and embrace the in-between: fleeting moments, unexpected angles, colours, and forms.

The publication borrows its title, Song Flowers, from the name given to improvised, lyrical observation poems, which punctuate Miao poetry. Many of the figures embroidered onto Miao costumes also derive from this tradition. Similarly, Davison’s series captures the lyricism that permeates this culture – translating it into photographs, which, despite their stillness, are full of rhythm.

Davison arrived in the mountains of Southeast Guizhou in September 2019, on the invitation of Marni, to observe the lives and traditions of the Miao, and create a series of images to sit alongside a clothing collection also inspired by the community. Now, almost a year on, and to coincide with Song Flowers’ publication, he reflects on the experience and the book that developed from it.

© Jack Davison 2020 courtesy Loose Joints & Marni.

How did the project, and the collaboration with Marni develop?

Initially, I was a little sceptical because people can tend to be slightly snobbish about China and the fashion industry there, dismissing it as a place where clothes and accessories are manufactured cheaply, without having any knowledge of, or connection to, Chinese people and culture.

However, those fears abated as soon as I spoke with Marni’s creative director Francesco Risso. Risso had travelled there earlier in the year. He had fallen in love with an area of southwest China, near Guizhou, and had spent time with the minority ethnic group, the Miao.

When I spoke to him about the project, he was genuinely invested and thoughtful about the potential collaboration with the Miao. I realised that it was not just a case of co-opting the Miao’s aesthetic but working with them and directly commissioning the craftspeople — it became something I felt I could delve into properly.

Did you go with a preconceived idea, or did the project evolve on the ground?

I have been to China before, but only to Shanghai and Shenzhen, which are towering metropolises by comparison. This was my first visit to rural China and to the mountainous province of Guizhou. Risso had described the things that had interested and excited him. And I also had preconceived notions, as everyone does when they travel to new places. Some stereotypes exist for a reason — it is the same when people come to the UK; there are things that are uniquely British and photographing them is often inescapable.

There is such a strong visual conflict at play across China, between traditional rural farming communities and ultra-high-tech, fast-moving cities. We would be driving through the middle of expansive alpine valleys and suddenly stumble across colossal cities — full of grand buildings making up densely-populated areas. It was an amazing mix of nature and man-made technology — high-speed railways running over ancient paddy fields.

The passage of time ebbs and pools in rural communities. The modern world, by comparison, is often hectic and relentless. What I was drawn to while spending time with the Miao was this elongating and accelerating of time. I was hoping with Song Flowers, to try to reflect the way in which rural communities such as the Miao coexist within differing experiences of time — spectacular garments are assembled over years, while families speak to their children abroad instantly via fast speed internet connections; lotus beds farmed for generations sit beneath modern high-rises assembled in a matter of months.

© Jack Davison 2020 courtesy Loose Joints & Marni.
© Jack Davison 2020 courtesy Loose Joints & Marni.

The Miao are well-known for their craftsmanship and culture. However, rather than focus on those conspicuous elements, you went behind and captured the backdrops, workshops, faces and hands that shape Miao culture. Why did you approach the subject in this way?

The garments are so beautiful, intricate, and filled with a mirage of repeating mythical motifs. For me, it is more interesting to explore the hands that are making the objects, and the spaces in which they are made, than the objects themselves.

I want the series to illustrate the tactility and patience of Miao crafts. The objects aren’t made en-masse by automatons but by families — hammering away thin slivers of silver, slowly, in their living rooms. There is such a different sense of scale and time, particularly in this day-and-age, when gratification comes in an instant. It was about depicting how someone’s thumb was pinpricked with wear, or observing the hunch of a man bent over his bench.

Everything in Miao communities is tactile — whenever anything is fixed, it is taped together, reassembled — layers are added, be that bundles of wire, or stitches weaving into each other. I am always drawn to details that provide a sense of place, rather than making work that displays the facts too readily or obliquely.

I guess I try not to show the obvious.

“I want colour to be burning strong — almost overbearing when the reds are dark and bloody, and the blues metallic and cold”

Can you tell me more about the idea of a Song Flower in Miao poetry —shorter, lyrical poems, which ‘spark the imagination and soothe the heart’ — and how you have incorporated them into the work?

Titles are always impossible. If you think of my first book, Photographs, it was not the most imaginative name! But, part of me loved that sparse, intentional simplicity. Song Flowers developed from reading about and looking at the oral tradition in China of how songs and poems are passed down. It also has a nice lyricism to it that appealed to me. Sarah Piegay Espenon and Lewis Chaplin, of Loose Joints, ultimately dug up the phrase from their investigative reading.

Lotus fields — flowery moats of unfolding pink flowers and odd bald seed-heads – surround some of the villages in which we spent time. The image of the lotus repeats in the book and in the Miao’s needlework. For the book’s cover, designed by Piegay Espenon, the creative director of Loose Joints, we created a slightly abstract version of a lotus flower to play with the shapes and forms that appear in the Miao’s textiles.

© Jack Davison 2020 courtesy Loose Joints & Marni.
© Jack Davison 2020 courtesy Loose Joints & Marni.

You have a distinct style. How did you translate this into photographing a culture, which is also visually distinct, while retaining the Miao’s essence? And how do you decide whether an image should be colour or black-and-white?

I try to keep that process as one of discovery, to seek out the things that I’m drawn towards — as if I had stumbled across the place by accident, and was trying to give a sense of it through my images.  I’ve always loved photographing hands, and portraits that obscure rather than tell-all. So part of it is falling back on tried and tested methods and my own motifs, which I have realised run through my work.

We spent quite a few weeks in Guiyang, so I found a rhythm. We would walk, meet families, share meals and often very strong rice wine, and then see their practice and the spaces in which they made work. People were very welcoming, even if they were somewhat bemused by me, in my shorts and bucket hat, looking rather odd and very sweaty.

The decision between black-and-white and colour is always something I try to discover, later on. It is not always a choice I make in the instant. I want colour to be burning strong — almost overbearing when the reds are dark and bloody, and the blues metallic and cold. I struggle with green in photographs, so nature images generally end up black-and-white. If I can find strong colours it will generally be a colour picture and if it is more muted, and focused upon details or shapes, then black-and-white fits. For good colour pictures, you need to photograph colour — that sounds obvious but it is something that took me a long time to work out.

Song Flowers by Jack Davison, published by Loose Joints, is available here.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.