Rural youth, home for the Lunar New Year, prepare to ride motorcycles in Xiangtan County, Hunan province, in 2006. (Rian Dundon)
Rural youth, home for the Lunar New Year, prepare to ride motorcycles in Xiangtan County, Hunan province, in 2006. (Rian Dundon)

Once lost, now found, cult classic photobook is available once again

Gail Hershatter’s foreword to Rian Dundon’s book “Changsha,” originally published in 2012 but now being distributed by Jet Age Books (as you will see below) conjures up the skills of a magician. As she gets us ready for what we are about to experience by flipping through the book’s pages, she talks about “the world he makes visible.” Hmm, yes, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I’d say that is a pretty good primer for the world we’re about to enter.

As it turns out, Dundon has performed a magical feat in “Changsha.” The world he makes visible is one that you weren’t likely to see back in 2005 when he, as a 24-year-old, struck out for one of the world’s most populous countries. Now, nearly 20 years later, you’re still not likely to see depictions of the world Dundon came to know. That, in itself, makes “Changsha” a singular book.

We are far more familiar with scenes from the bigger cities — Shanghai, Beijing — than what Hershatter refers to as the country’s “second-tier” cities, Changsha being one of them. Changsha may be thought of as second tier, but imagine this — it’s a city of 6 million people, perhaps 7 million. Washington, D.C., where I’m typing this, has around 700,000. I’d wager that D.C. is a bit more high-profile than Changsha. Let that sink in.

Changsha may not be well known, but it certainly is a multifaceted, vibrant place. We can say that for sure after stepping into the world that Dundon describes in the book. And the only way that this became possible was through Dundon’s unbounded curiosity and willingness to plunge into the unknown.

In the afterword to “Changsha,” Dundon tells us that he originally only intended to stay in China for a year, but that year stretched into six. During that time, he learned the language through hanging out with people and thrusting himself into the life of the city. Familiarity with the language went hand in hand with learning about the place — all gleaned from hanging out in pool halls and visiting karaoke clubs.

After he began to become more comfortable with his new surroundings, Dundon began thinking of the kinds of photographs he wanted to make. He knew he wanted to avoid stereotypical photos that abounded (and honestly, still do) at the time — modern cityscapes, Mao posters and so on. And what kind of photos would those be? Well, as he says, again in the afterword: “I wanted to make pictures that didn’t necessarily read as China. Personal photographs. Private photographs.”

That is precisely what Dundon ended up doing. “Changsha” is an extraordinarily personal book. It’s also just extraordinary, full stop. The work is intimate and beautifully composed. It feels like a piece of cinema vérité. It’s approach is reminiscent of Truffaut in “The 400 Blows.” Yes, it’s that good, in my opinion. It’s one of the most stunning books I’ve encountered in the last 20 years. And it almost faded away …

In a series of events I don’t fully understand, “Changsha” nearly vanished from the face of the Earth. Meaning, the physical copies of the book more or less disappeared. It was originally funded through a crowdfunding campaign held through its publisher, emphas.is, and everything seemed to be going fine at first.

The crowdfunding campaign was a success, and a couple hundred people received their copies. “Changsha” garnered a fair amount of good press back when it was originally published too, with write-ups in the New York Times, Time magazine, Mother Jones and many other publications. But once the books seemed to disappear, it became impossible for many people, including me, to get one and see what the fuss was all about.

As things like this often do, “Changsha” because a legendary, unattainable book. I know that I, for one, always wanted to just be able to see a copy, let alone own one. It had achieved cult status, thanks to those early good reviews and also to the snippets one could take in through Internet searches.

This is where the New York photographer Alan Chin comes in. He had known Dundon for many years and had even seen early iterations of the book as Dundon workshopped its sequence on Chin’s metal magnet board at his home in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

One day, a thought manifested itself in Chin’s mind. He wondered whether it would be possible to help Dundon find the vanished copies of “Changsha.” As he says here, “I had visions of wading through sewers with flashlights in hand, of knocking on doors in the dead of night with search warrants, of dabbling with the occult, forensic science, and untangling confusing clues and false leads.”

The search turned out to be a tad more prosaic than that, but not without some glamour. They ended up finding the books still sealed on their original pallet in a basement somewhere in the south of France. And then, after some boring logistical details, the books were reclaimed and are now available through Jet Age Books.

As Chin says on the book’s product page, “So, at last, we are proud to be offering Rian Dundon’s original CHANGSHA, no longer a long-lost cult classic, but for the FIRST TIME in general distribution! See more images from the book below.” And my response to that, in the most nonobjective fashion, is hallefreakinglujah.

You can find out more about the book, and buy it, here, and you can see more of Dundon’s work (yes, he’s still at it!) on his website, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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