The last time I met Yan Wang Preston was on a train in Huddersfield, where she teaches in the University’s Photography department. On paper, Preston is intimidating: she has two PhD s, (in Clinical Medicine and Photography). She relocated to West Yorkshire from Shanghai, where she had worked as an anaesthetist, in 2005, and since picking up the camera she’s won multiple awards for her works.
In person, Preston is down-to-earth and curious, traits that pervade her artistic practice.
“Photography is my way of understanding the world; I walk around, I observe, and when I feel something strongly, I take a picture” she explains. You can feel this mix of empathy and contemplation, for example, in her recently completed project, Forest, published as a sumptuous book; the result of almost a decade returning to Chongqing, China to research and document the tree trade, whereby old trees, widely revered in the culture, are transplanted from all over the country to new cities. On billboards all over Chongqing, were visions for an ideal city, addressing the obvious human needs for living, transport, safety and healthcare, and the more surprising call for a ‘forest city.’
A palette of greens and greys and the naturally overcast light of Chongqing set the atmosphere for Preston’s narrative, which mixes documentary and large-format landscape methods, with a style that is both topographic and emotive. When Preston first noticed the uprooted trees, she recalls, they “were in a lot of pain — all their leaves are removed, and they like to paint the broken part of the branches with red, so they look like bleeding limbs to me, like a wounded soldier who can’t even stand.” Wrapped in plastic, and with a “needle stabbed into their bark,” as Preston puts it, she felt deep sympathy for the trees, and decided to continue to photograph them, returning over eight years at intervals to the same locations and the same trees. At first she photographed them up-close, “like sculptures,’ appearing discordant with their surroundings and isolated, but later she captured them from a distance, to look at how they adapted to their new environment. “Inevitably, they do grow together.” she concedes. The later photographs, she tells me, came from a calmer place, emotionally. A lot had happened in her own life during the time she was working on the project, including becoming a mother.
Forest has already won several awards, and it is about to be revealed that it’s received another; six exhibitions of the works are planned throughout 2019, including in the UK, Italy and Canada. Why does this topic have such wide resonance? “People say to me; Forest is not about trees, really,” Preston responds. “Why do trees sell, why do they even have a selling point? It’s because they’re alive, they’re history, and we love them”. Forest speaks of the profound symbolism of the colour green, our emotional and fast-changing relationship with the landscape, the pain of dislocation and the ideology of urbanisation.
For Preston, they’ve also lead to a personal revelation.”I had to learn to accept it; at first, all I saw was conflict and exploitation – that doesn’t mean I’m complicit – but we can’t really make moral or environmental judgements, that is life – it just happens, it grows, it changes, it adapts.”
The government leader of Chongqing is now in prison, and Preston notes that the tree trade peaked in 2011, although it is still widespread in China, the idea of the Forest city has disappeared from policy.
Lately, Preston has been shooting trees closer to home, in the woodlands of West Yorkshire. ‘It’s so intense!” She says. “There are branches everywhere; the light keeps changing…they didn’t grow according to a single perspective, did they!” She recalls a poetic line from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1972 sci-fi novella, Word for World is Forest, imbued with all the sentiment and symbolism of her own: “No way is clear, no light unbroken.”
As for the trees, some of them are still there, in their migratory homes, while others were wiped away, lost – but with Preston’s photographs, not forgotten.