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Billed as the Louvre of Asia, as China’s own Tate or MoMA, the towering M+ Museum on Hong Kong’s waterfront West Kowloon Cultural District makes a bold statement about Asia’s place in 21st-century global culture. And reflecting that focus is its collection of 20th and 21st-century photography, strongly weighted to Asian talents and the Asian experience.

Before the museum’s grand opening on 12 November, I explored this perspective further with Isabella Tam, Associate Curator, Visual Art at M+ and a specialist in East Asian photography. Following is an edited version of our Q&A:

Tony Maniaty: What guidelines you have established for collecting and displaying photography in M+? What kind of images, and what themes? Are there any limitations?  

Isabella Tam: I’m proud that we’ve built something unique at M+. The collection of 2,200 works encompasses fine art and conceptual photography, and journalistic and architectural documentary, with the earliest images from 1930 to works made in the past few years. We have original prints and handwritten notes from Werner Bischof’s The End of the Road series (1952), and Marc Riboud’s prints from his Three Banners of China essay (1957), representing the activity of the Magnum photographers working in Asia in the post-war and Cold War periods. And we’ve successfully acquired Japanese photobooks and magazines from the 1930s to the 1970s, broadly capturing Japan’s rich photographic practice – an area that can’t be neglected. We’ve also gathered a strong collection of works representing the rise of conceptual photography in China in the 1990s, with well-known photographers like Hong Hao and Rong Rong.  In the same period, the 80s and 90s, there’s an exciting group of experimental images by Hong Kong artists – such as Lee Ka Shing, Holly Lee and Blues Wong – that speak to the transitional moment from the 1997 Hong Kong handover towards the digital 2000s. Their experimental works demonstrate an artistic aesthetic that’s truly original, translating the cultural hybridity of a region where art, design and literature are woven into their photographs. They’re stories that are untold in other institutions.

Hong Hao, born 1965, Beijing works Beijing
My things No. 5 – 5000 Pieces of Rubbish in 2002
Chromogenic print M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation
© Hong Hao. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

TM: How are you handling the issue of ‘colonial’ photography, the representation of Asia to European audiences in the 19th and 20th centuries? Will this be a part of the M+ collection, and how will you interpret this?  

IT: The colonial era is part of Hong Kong’s history and inevitably contributed to the local visual culture, but rather than addressing ‘colonial’ photography as a specific topic, our strength is amateur ‘Salon Photography’ in the post-World War Two years. During this period, Hong Kong received a lot of refugees from China, many of them culturally savvy – photography was considered a democratic medium for expression, helped by the launch of magazines such as Photo Pictorial (1964-2005) and Camera Club (1956-1960). These were important platforms for showcasing salon works, exchanging ideas, and promoting commercial photography – not only in Hong Kong but also in mainland China and Southeast Asia, creating an interesting cultural circulation. 

Holly Lee, born 1953, Hong Kong works Toronto
The Great Pageant Show circa 1997
Chromogenic print, M+, Hong Kong
© Holly Lee. Photo: M+, Hong Kon

TM: How do you see the current state of photography in East Asia, particularly in China? What are the trends, where are the most interesting developments in photography? 

IT: Photography in East Asia is nowadays pretty much in sync with international practice, but I also think about the legacy of Japanese photographers, in particular, people like Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama – they still have strong influence in China and the region. It’s also notable that mid-career photographers and the younger generation are taking up issues related to the changes underway in contemporary society, in the form of longer research projects, and addressing these through their photography in either a formal documentary or a conceptual way. Another direction is looking at physical and digital archives to probe into micro-histories through photographic or other lens-based work or installations.

Rong Rong, born 1968, Fujian works Beijing
East Village, Beijing, No.46 1994
Gelatin silver print, M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation
© Rong Rong. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

TM: Will the M+ photography collection be available online? What’s your thinking regarding in-gallery shows versus online exhibitions, particularly in the Covid era? 

IT: M+’s open access policy is designed to release as much of our collection as possible, so you’ll see pretty much all the accessioned photography works online. I think the challenge is how to translate or to create a similar kind of visual and spatial experience from the in-gallery show to an online show, that’s essential. Especially in the era of Covid with travel restrictions, online shows are growing as an important channel for sharing collections. Technology and online platforms provide us with an opportunity to be creative in showing photographic work – in ways that would be a challenge for in-gallery shows. We’re also aware of the intersection between photography and the moving image, and how photographers and visual artists are exploring new ways of working with lens-based media, expanding our understanding of photography and blurring the boundaries between still photography and the moving image.

Wang Tuo (Artist) born 1984, Jilin works Beijing
The Interrogation 2017
Single-channel HD digital video (colour, sound) M+, Hong Kong. M+ Council for New Art Fund, 2020
© Wang Tuo. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

All images provided by M+ Museum, Hong Kong.

Header image credit: Kevin Mak

About the author

Tony Maniaty is a Sydney and Paris-based photographer, author and journalist, academic and reviewer who works across a broad creative canvas.  He is the features editor for Head On Interactional. 


Hong Hao
Holly Lee
Rong Rong
Wang Tuo

Werner Bischof
Marc Riboud
Lee Ka Shing
Blues Wong
Nobuyoshi Araki
Daido Moriyama

About M+ Museum

See more here


Tony Maniaty is a Sydney and Paris-based photographer, author and journalist, academic and reviewer who works across a broad creative canvas. He is the features editor for Head On Interactional.

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Image detail: Gary Ramage