Photography is a rare breed of magic: distilling larger-than-life feelings into a single image, freeze-framing the vivid pain and triumphant beauty of our world, simultaneously widening our worldview and making us feel intimately seen. A single photograph, at the hands of the right photographer, has the power to equally celebrate and challenge our existence, to break down boundaries and transform our way of thinking.
When the news broke on Friday that the radical and phenomenally talented Chinese photographer Ren Hang had passed away at the heartbreakingly young age of 29, it was a stunning, devastating loss. Not just because Hang was a bright and leading light in the contemporary photography world, an inspiration who won continuous acclaim for his unique, provocative work, but because his otherworldly nude portraits crackled and surged with a youthful and undeniably electric energy. This loss hangs with such an unbearably heavy weight because his photos felt so fearlessly free of inhibitions and intoxicatingly full of life.
Ren Hang’s photography is stark and exhilarating, his boundless creativity thrilling to witness – some of his photos literally made me gasp the first time I saw them – and he used the naked human body in unprecedented ways, as a surreal and transformable instrument, imbuing disjointed milky limbs, headless torsos, and fleshy sex organs with a strange and elegant beauty.
His visceral, discombobulated portraits were likely to make you squirm, yet they seared into your mind and remained there, strikingly simple and oddly magnetic, haunting you with the feeling that there is more to the story just below the surface.
Hang, a self-taught photographer and poet, began using a point and shoot camera to take nude portraits of his friends and roommates in college. Though his subjects are almost always nude, he continually strips his subjects’ nakedness of objectification and sexuality, instead embracing a raw vulnerability that is rooted in intimacy and playfulness. His work is erotic without being overtly sexual, capturing the strange and often indelicate nuances of the human body with a kind and mischievous eye.
There is little distinction among genders, with bodies flowing freely into one another, tangled into abstract and expressive sculptures, stripped of context and blasted with color. There is so much beauty in the way he leaned into the uncomfortable, the unconventional, the weird, and found the moments of honesty and joy, both physically and emotionally.
Hang’s evocative, ambiguous portraits seem to have tapped into something larger than life: a landscape of isolation and longing, capturing youth and nature as a metaphor for the wilderness of our natural instincts and naked desire. He artfully blends the stark musculature of the naked body with the lush, ethereal beauty of plants, animals, and water, merging them in a way that accentuates their living, breathing connectedness.
His raven-haired models cling to lily-pads and lay strewn on craggy cliffs, seemingly plucked from some Garden of Eden, some fantastical utopia where the rules of this world do not apply. Often, his work is lighthearted, disconcerting, with tongue firmly in cheek (an octopus clinging wetly to a model’s head, a man licking his own armpit, a tulip erupting from a bush of pubic hair), yet all of his photos carry a quiet and trembling power and a boundary-breaking fearlessness.
Though he repeatedly claimed that his work wasn’t political, Hang had a turbulent relationship with his native country, despite international recognition and success. In China, his work is staunchly censored, and he was arrested and jailed multiple times for explicit imagery. It is almost difficult not to see his erotic work as a middle finger to China’s extreme repression, yet Hang has always maintained that his inspiration stems from an apolitical mindset: “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.”
Despite backlash and public defacing of his work, his photos never felt edited or diluted – he remained true to his artistic vision, dedicated to creating work that has freed itself from the shackles of convention and comfort, work that, when witnessed, felt like coming up for air when you didn’t even know you were underwater.
I could go on forever, about the powerful and nurturing importance of seeing the world differently, about the way his subjects’ nakedness always struck the perfect balance between tenderness and irreverence, about how his work reads like luminous visual poetry, mysterious and bold with so much brewing beneath the surface.
I will always be inspired by Ren Hang’s bravery, curiosity, and rare breed of magic. His work was rooted in love and open-minded acceptance, in the desire to subvert society’s norms, and transform and transcend the way we view our bodies and the world around us.
I could continue on about how staggeringly honest his work is, how unafraid he was to pour himself into his art, but what I really mean to say is: thank you for sharing your extraordinary magic. The brightest light has gone out far too soon, but your breathtaking work will live on forever. Rest in peace.
“Life is indeed a
But I often feel
It seems to send the wrong man.” – Ren Hang, 1987-2017