Thomas Sauvin, French photography collector, editor and curator, describes his solo exhibition Beijing Silvermine as “a portrait of Beijing and the life of its inhabitants at the end of the 20th century”. This extraordinary collection of photographs ispresented at the 4A Centre of Contemporary Asian Art in association with the Sydney Chinese New Year.

Beijing Silvermineis a collection of over 500,000 photographs taken by amateur Chinese photographers. Spanning the decades following the Cultural Revolution, it provides a remarkable portrait of the Chinese capital and its inhabitants during a period of dramatic social change. The BRAG spoke to curator Thomas Sauvin about the project that shows “a new face of China” to an international audience.

The project began in 2009 when the Beijing-based collector encountered a man by the name of Xiao Ma who stockpiled negatives to recycle for their silver nitrate content. Recognising a rare chance to resurrect lost memories, Sauvin struck up a deal to buy the negatives by the kilo. He collected, edited and archived the rescued photographic negatives. This ‘silvermine’ of anonymous and vernacular photography styles covers a period of roughly 20 years – 1985 to 2005 – allowing us to witness the intimate and public lives of ordinary Chinese people through “a combination of major life events and meaningful anecdotes.”

“I have been looking at these half a million photographs for about four years now. Some very crucial themes emerged, themes about birth, love and death,” said Sauvin. The exhibition explores these themes, allowing us to travel through the lives of the Chinese. It expresses the social changes within China as the country started to open up to the West. The subjects pose beside new refrigerators, they begin to travel and there is an unavoidable and contagious ‘joie de vie’ radiating from the entire collection. “I tried to use private snapshots to portrait collective memories,” said Sauvin, who has painted an unseen insight into a recent past.

The exhibition subtly illustrates the stupendous depth of the silvermine. It includes mesmerising video animations, produced by the Beijing based animator Leilei in collaboration with Sauvin. The animations reveal the surreal landscape of the photography while reflecting “the quantity of the images in the archive without erasing the content.” We are also invited to discover original negatives, some of which Sauvin himself has not yet seen. This is an insight into the incredibly personal nature of the project. Also included is a documentary by French filmmaker Emiland Guillerme which tells the story of Thomas Sauvin’s Beijing discoveries.

Beijing Silvermineaccounts for a period when affordable consumer film first came into widespread use in China to when digital photography encouraged mass disposal and wilful neglect of film. The exhibition illustrates the wondrous, imperfect and perishable qualities of film photography itself while presenting a rare connection between the photographer and his subject. As Sauvin points out, “this is something you rarely find in photojournalism or contemporary photography where the photographers position themselves as observers.”

Sauvin continues to collect 9000 negatives a month and presents a different grouping for each exhibition making this an exclusive experience.Beijing Silvermineis an opportunity to see a unique collection of emotive photographs and witness extraordinary moments in everyday life that have been rescued from oblivion.

Beijing Silvermine runs until February 22 at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

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