Recently Unearthing Asia has the pleasure of interviewing Dr Leping Zha, an unconventional photographer. Dr Zha’s professional career is not in photography, but he shares an unforgiving passion for it and an incurable thirst for Huangshan, his beloved childhood playground. Here he shares his story and amazing photographs, oozing with emotions and palpable passion.
Dr. Zha, it’s a pleasure to have you with us today. Could you please tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Leping Zha, and I’m a Principal MRI Scientist in a Toshiba lab in Chicago, Illinois. I was born in China and went to the States in 1986 to attend graduate schools, first in Duluth, Minnesota, and then Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My real passion, however, has always been in the world of art, spirituality, and philosophy.
How did you get started in fine-art landscape photography?
I started getting interested in landscape photography when I was about 14 years old. I would grab primitive Chinese- and Russian-made cameras from my father’s cabinet from time to time to snap photos. Huangshan, in the Southern Anhui province of Eastern China is, without a doubt, my favorite place to photograph. In the West the word ‘Huangshan’ is incorrectly translated as ‘Yellow Mountain’. Most people do not realize that the word ‘huang’ refers to an ancient Chinese Emperor named Huang Di. Legend has it that Huang Di gave the mountain its name, and that it was also the location from which Huang Di ascended to the heavens.
What’s so special about Huangshan?
Huangshan is an inspirational place. This is where traditional Chinese landscape brush painting started centuries ago, and since then, it has inspired plenty of famous artists. One of the greatest Chinese poets, Li Bai, has often cited Huangshan as one of his muses. For me, Huangshan is deeply and emotionally attached to my heart and soul. My family was originally from a small village right at the base of Huangshan. As such, I would often spend my days going up into the mountains – it was my childhood playground.
With virtually no pollution, no global warming and very few visitors, Huangshan in the 1970s was a photographer’s heaven. Seas of clouds formed every other day, and in winter the snow covered mountain peaks for months. I would often come back empty handed from my trips up into the mountains. Sometimes I simply didn’t have a camera , and when I did have access to a camera, it wasn’t always easy to capture the best scenes since the fog and clouds were constantly moving. Nowadays, technology allows us to work with these elements, but back then it was simply luck of the draw. Additionally, I could never afford to stay long. My time was precious, and I had to go back to the factory to work, for which I earned 13 renminbi (approximately $2 USD) a month! I could not afford color film, and the black and white emulsions were very grainy. Professional photography was not accessible to me.
Things changed rapidly in the late 70s. Colleges in China reopened their doors, and I was among the first batch to get in. China opened its doors to the world as well, and in 1980 Ansel Adam’s landscape prints came to China in an exhibition in Beijing. I was mesmerized by the “Moon Rise over Half-Dome” image. My feelings, at that time, were of regret because I would never be able to see Yosemite with my own eyes.
But then, fate and destiny intervened! Fifteen years later, I was not only in America, but I was also just a four hour drive away from Yosemite! I literally started calling it “my backyard”, and would often go there to enjoy the amazing scenery. However, I refrained from picking up my photography hobby again, because I knew once I started there would be no stopping it, and it was an expensive hobby that was well beyond my means.
Ah yes, but then again that abstinence didn’t last long…
Yes. In the end, I landed a stable job and wasn’t able to resist the call of the West Coast’s natural beauties. I finally jumped back into photography and restarted my childhood love affair. I went to study with landscape masters David and Mark Muench, Charles Cramer, Bill Atkinson, John Shaw, Richard Garret, Charles Farmer, Richard Lohmann, John and Barbara Gerlaches, and Yuntian Yu. I was ferociously learning left and right, eager to make up for lost time. I tried film and digital capture, traditional and digital darkrooms, and various film formats. Eventually I decided on my preferred backbone gear, Pentax 67 system, to go with mainly color chrome film (Fujichrome Velvia), complemented by the occasional 4×5 (Ebony and Toyo).
In 2000 I finally had my first publication. I won the Cemex International Photography Awards and the Grand Prize of Earth Day 2000 Photo Competition. My works were displayed in local, national and international galleries and museums, and in books, magazines and calendars all over the world.
However, my endeavors could not be completed without going back to Huangshan. I often pictured the peaks and clouds in my dream, and longed to go back with renewed passion to recapture my childhood memories, and more if I could. However, I only had a few weeks of vacation each year and I did not know how to best go about climbing its peaks. Every time I go to Wuhan, my hometown, my parents tell me that it is unsafe to go on my own, especially with my expensive photo gear.
Then destiny called again. In the summer of 2000, a Huangshan painter came to Millbrae, California to exhibit his paintings, only a few blocks from where I lived. I poured my heart out to help them, and they were touched with my generosity and my passion for Huangshan. They put me in contact with the top Huangshan photographers on site, and soon in October, I was finally able to travel back to Huangshan!
Amazing! How did it feel to go back and relive your childhood memories?
It was indescribable. It was, without a doubt, my most memorable travel experience. To go back to Huangshan after a 22-year absence was one of the most spiritual moments of my life. There are many other beautiful places in the world, but none means as much to me as Huangshan.
I think the essence of my love for Huangshan can be described in one word – dignity. Every pine, every rock and every mountain formation bears a sense of dignity that I have been unable to find anywhere else. Nowadays, through my annual trips to Huangshan since 2000, I have made enough local friends to make my stay comfortable and productive.
Please tell us more about your photographs and artistic style.
My artistic style reflects the strong influence of my Eastern background. As with many of China’s major mountains, Huangshan is closely related to Buddhism and mysticism. I always strive to capture the deep spirituality of each location, as well as my own personal state of mind at the moment of observation.
I’m a born perfectionist, and I pursue technical excellence from composition to printing. However, I always feel it is more important to study and understand the forms, the grandeur and drama of nature, and to discover the ways human minds respond to natural elements.
Thank you very much for your time Doctor! And that, dear readers, is the end of our interview with Dr Leping Zha. You can find out more about Dr Zha and his photographs in his online website at www.lepingzha.com.
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