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Hold That Smile--All Day

Artist and doctoral student Jun Gao uses long-term exposure photography to capture unseen qualities of stillness and light

By Jonathan Sapers

When the artist Jun Gao decided to photograph Columbia University’s Low Plaza recently, he arrived before sunrise. By the time he had set up three homemade cameras—two for color, one for black and white—he had been joined by children running back and forth at a nearby book fair, curious passersby and the occasional inquisitive security guard.

In the afternoon, a friend came by. “We enjoyed the sunshine, the peaceful and beautiful Sunday with numerous lovely little kids, and shared ideas of art and philosophy,” says Gao, a doctoral student in TC’s Art and Art Education program.

In the evening, after the moon “started to shed soft light on Alma Mater”—the famous statue of Columbia’s Athena-like icon—the camera is finally down.

“We kind of assume photography is instantaneous, but I believe time in photography should be as long as we want, or as short as we want,” says Gao, conceding that this philosophy puts him at odds with the apparent goals of modern camera makers, who produce ever quicker modes of picture taking. “If the time is too short or too fast, the outcome is totally different. Time should be one of the keys to decide what the image should look like. But normally, we really don’t consider that.”

Gao, a 34-year-old native of Qingdao, trained as a public artist and art teacher in China, where his work is widely known and admired. He became interested in long-term exposure photography while studying at the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, England (then the Kent Institute of Art & Design) where he had come in search of a change of perspective.

“Ten years ago, Chinese art education constrained itself with certain fetters that were not related to the rapidly developing economy,” Gao says. “In China, when I was in college, the educational methodology was like this: The professor selects some topics and then you follow the topics and do research. But in England, my professor asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ and I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And he said, ‘I need you to decide what you want to do.’ So I sat down and considered, ‘What is my true interest?’”

He found it in the form of a famous early Louis Daguerre photo, “Boulevard du Temple.”

“The exposure time was over ten minutes,” Gao says, of the photo, which shows a Paris neighborhood empty except for a man getting his shoes shined (captured because he stood comparatively still during the photographing). “Because of the relatively long exposure time, a very, very busy street becomes very quiet. I thought, ‘Wow, that is so amazing.’”

After coming to the United States, to pursue a master’s degree in art education from Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, Gao received an installation grant from the university’s Photonics Center. Again, he faced the unfamiliar challenge of choosing his own path: “I asked them, ‘What’s your opinion? And they said, ‘No, you are the artist. You make the decision, we will follow you.’”

The result was a range of works, including a 10-hour exposure of a beach in Rhode Island (where the trail of the sun looks like a jet from a fire hose spraying from left to right across a dark sky) and a several-month-long exposure of a section of the Massachusetts Turnpike as it wends its way through Brookline into Boston with yellow stripes of sun erupting from the middle of the photo like anti-aircraft fire. In contrast to the sun, the always-busy highway appears empty while a parking lot in the foreground appears full of non-descript cars—their brands and identifying characteristics erased by time.

After Boston University, Gao came to TC to pursue a doctorate in teaching art at the college level. He has worked with Associate Professor of Art Education John Baldacchino, who sees Gao as one of a new generation of talented, thoughtful Chinese artists who love their country but are pragmatic in negotiating the tensions between politics and art—and between China and other cultures. “I can see him being a very good bridge between China and America,” Baldacchino says.

Gao definitely aspires to the role. “The more people from different places understand each other, the richer and broader the art world we can perceive,” he says. “I do not know whether I can become a candle to enlighten a small portion of the world, but I am sure that I can at least become a spark light from a match. The light of a match might be only a glimmer, yet if there are many matches together, their light will be illuminating.”

It’s a description that echoes the mood of his own work. In the day-long exposure of his Low Plaza photograph , there is an eerie emptiness, as if the only things inhabiting the Plaza were the Alma Mater statue, buildings and time, measured in an anomalous band of light: the unfamiliar record of the sun passing across the sky.

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