Article by JOHN W. W. ZEISLER from The Picture Professional Art direction by Ophelia Chong
NOAH SHELDON HAD BEEN TRAVELING back and forth from China to New York for work, where he is represented by Julian Richards, but when his wife, an architect and artist, was offered a job in Shanghai, they jumped at the offer. Aside from being able to raise his daughter bi-lingual, Sheldon would also have the opportunity to ingrain himself in a culture not often photographed. Now, when you look at Sheldon’s photographs, one of the most apparent things is what’s missing. He often refuses to show a finished product. Instead, he brings the viewer into a moment of process; an empty stadium, the politician on his way to the stage, models receiving last minute instructions backstage before heading down the runway. There is something unnerving but also invigorating about this, and Sheldon’s new project Weightlifters continues in this vein.
For this collection, Sheldon got the opportunity to photograph members of the Chinese national weightlifting team preparing for the London Olympics. It is a precise and captivating essay on the process of training the body for a Herculean task.
He blends relaxed portraits of the men and women with staged shots that show off the athletes’ statuesque bodies. There are also several compelling images of the artifacts of the gym, where the athletes have spent most of their lives—damp towels, the daily log book of accomplishments, the fading colors of weights. A sweaty, humid light pervades the images. The effort and preparation of the athletes is palpable.
In China, photography is sometimes a difficult passion. A crumbling wall or old building may call out to a photographer, but such documentation is not always welcome. Sometimes the sight of Sheldon setting up his tripod draws the attention of Chinese officials who don’t want him photographing old things. He says, “I’ve gotten really good at taking quick pictures of everything my minder wants me to, then I go and photograph what I want to.” Sports photography can be even more difficult because the athletes are important representatives of China’s image abroad, and access to them is limited. As in much of East Asia, sports academies are common in China, and Sheldon had been trying to do a project about them for a while. When he was finally granted access to photograph a school in Beijing, he hopped on a plane only to arrive at the location and be turned away for being a foreign photographer.
Undaunted, Sheldon turned to an art director friend who had just been asked by Nike to do a shoot. The Nike imprimatur had enough cachet to get Sheldon over the hurdle of “sensitive matters,” and he was able to visit a sports school for weightlifters. Although Sheldon had limited access, only two minutes with each athlete, he was able to snap enough to cull into the sixteen images he finally chose. Many of the lifters he photographed went on to cover themselves in Olympic glory, but somehow these before shots tell a more intriguing story. They are relaxed, down-to-earth, and atmospheric, eschewing the spectacle of sport for the quiet moment. Even the photos of the athletes as statues have a playful quality, displaying the humility and dedication of the men and women.
He’s made the most of his time in China. In addition to his professional work and artistic projects like Weightlifters, he maintains the photoblog Far East Broadway where he displays photos, often portraits, of his time in China. Spending a good deal of time in factories, he often thinks of Lewis Hine’s photographs, and these photos carry a casual, everyday quality, documenting the diversity of the country. He says, “When the West thinks and depicts China, it is so often huge masses of conforming people.” However, living there has allowed Sheldon to contextualize and sympathize. He has come to believe that China is “a land of eccentrics with a quiet kind of individualism expressed in small gestures.” Weightlifters, with its soft-spoken candidness, gives viewers one such glimpse into this unexpected perspective.✹