Ren Hang's work

Ren Hang’s work is notable for its vibrant colour and relative simplicity.

In February, Chinese photographer Ren Hang, at just 29, took his own life. His battle with depression was well documented, more often than not by the photographer himself. While Hang’s challenging work may not necessarily be fodder for AP’s readership, it would seem remiss to avoid exploring why his passing is such a loss to contemporary photography. This attractive book, released by Taschen, shows exactly why he was seen as such a rising star of photography.

Hang’s body of work was known for its explicit – many would say pornographic – use of the human form. His images often drew the ire of the Chinese authorities, whose draconian regulations seem almost tailor-made to tackle the kind of images Hang revelled in. He was often intimidated and threatened, yet his work remained challenging and provocative. While we can’t publish his more explicit images here, a quick search on Google will reveal just why Hang’s work was seen as so inflammatory. While you may not necessarily appreciate the content, it’s difficult not to admire Hang’s commitment and passion for his photography. His images are about so much more than shock value.

The majority of Hang’s work was shot in his high-rise apartment using his own friends and fans as models. Each model is carefully arranged, composed and contorted. Every individual becomes, in a sense, a human still life. There’s nothing elaborate about Hang’s images. Each frame is reduced down to its most basic components, all of which is revealed beneath high-key lighting. They are gorgeous and feel utterly alive.

Pornographic art

Hang’s images bring to mind other photographers who have immersed themselves in this kind of content. We all know the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and his confrontational, yet masterfully executed, images of sex and S&M. Over time, those images have become seen as classic works. Following Mapplethorpe we can look to the work of Nobuyoshi Araki, another photographer who was unafraid to blur the lines between art and pornography. Hang’s work seems tame in comparison. I suspect the negative reaction from some photography enthusiasts to Hang’s work is not due to its content, but more due to its stylistic nature. The colourful high-key images feel incredibly contemporary. Many will look at them and accuse them of simply being snapshot photography. That is a nonsense accusation. Hang’s images are considered and deliberate. They are the work of a photographer who knew exactly what he was doing. It’s an absolute tragedy that we’ll never know what he could have gone on to achieve.

SCORE: 5 out of 5

Ren Hang book cover

Published by Taschen

Price £34.99, hardcover, 312 pages

ISBN 978-3-83656-207-2