Dr. Yan Wang Preston (b. 1976) grew up in Henan Province, China, moving to Shanghai at the age of 18 to study medicine. Although she had a childhood interest in photography, it was here that she was first exposed to publications which would have a transformative impact upon her practice, such as Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape (1986) by mountain photographer Galen Rowell – a work which appealed to her passion for climbing, and prompted her to experiment with different types of film. Yan moved to the U.K. after marrying fellow mountaineer Neil Preston, and saw the move as an opportunity to change her career. After studying for an MA in Photography at Bradford University she began a practice-based PhD in Photography at the University of Plymouth.
This was the genesis of one of her most prominent works, the documentary series Mother River. Over a period of four years (2010-2014), Yan travelled the entire 6,211km length of the Yangtze River, exploring the connection between China’s topography and identity. According to the careful design of her project, Yan captured an image every 100km; these restrictions forced her to avoid several of the river’s ‘beauty spots’, enabling her to create a detailed, nuanced portrait of the Yangtze which challenges its conventional image.
Projects such as Forest (2010-2017), a series of images depicting reforestation in China, continue Yan’s focus on the association between humans and nature. Photographs of mature trees domesticated by the shopping districts and transport stations of Chongqing contrast ambiguously with haunting depictions of deserted ‘model town’ landscapes in Haidong Development Zone, emphasising the moral complexities at the heart of industrialisation. Against the backdrop of a rapidly changing environment, Yan’s work invites the viewer to dwell within an experience of place, examining their own relationship to the delicate transience of natural and urban worlds.
By Katherine Riley