WHEN Stephen Wilkes first visited China in 1978 as a Syracuse University student, the New York native had an inkling the country was in for changes. It was two years after the death of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, post-Cultural Revolution. And though Wilkes was right, he didn't realize the extreme degree of the transformation that he'd be chronicling almost three decades later.
"I never would have imagined that one of the oldest cultures in history would change as radically as it had," he says. "It's like watching a time-lapse movie." The results of his four recent follow-up trips -- 17 images of landscapes and individuals -- are on display in the new exhibition "Stephen Wilkes: China" at the David Gallery in Culver City.
Wilkes traveled all over China, from megalopolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, to more modest (but still large) cities such as Changsha and Guilin, attempting to capture old China's coexistence with new China. Along with traditional pastorals, there are long shots of elaborate factories. "China's moving away from being a farming society and putting more weight on manufacturing," Wilkes says. "I'd heard the factories were as big as American football fields."
Wilkes got to see this firsthand. Through his connections as a commercial photographer for clients such as IBM, Perrier and Nike, the artist was able to arrange to shoot one of the shoe company's factories. "They have 20,000 people making sneakers at one time. It was like a city within a city," he explains, injecting his own cultural reference point into the description: "When they break for lunch at 11:30, it looks like Yankee Stadium being emptied in the fifth inning."