Hou Bo should never have got the assignment. Aged just 25, she had picked up a camera after stints as a nurse and teaching peasant farmers to read. But the more experienced photographers were in the provinces and could not reach Beijing in time. So when Chairman Mao ( Zedong ) stood on the rostrum of Tiananmen Square and proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic to cheering crowds beneath, it was Hou who captured the moment on Oct. 1, 1949. It was a photograph seen around the world intimately associated with what launched a personality cult and myth of enduring dimensions.
The result was the first in a string of iconic shots. Hou became Mao’s personal photographer and, over 12 years, produced pictures that burnished his image and shaped the way he is seen even now: on the seashore; pensive before the Yellow river; jovial in a crowd. Many other pictures were not revealed until after his death, judged too intimate or inappropriate to his stature. Her photographs propagated a myth which can be uncomfortable given the fact that propaganda can be powerful and beautiful, though a surrogate to authenticity nonetheless.
During the cultural revolution, Hou Bo and her husband were beaten, tortured and exiled to a forced labor camp for arbitrary and dubious reason. She survived as have the photographs. Some historians claim 60 million may have died during the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward and the violence of the Cultural Revolution.These pictures of Huo Bo represent an archival record of myth, state propaganda, deception, and the illusion of the mechanical eye. Also, perhaps a necessary illusion. Some may consider that the identical processes and mechanisms are employed by democratic governments in the West, and do some degree they are not without tort. Mao Zedong’s personal photographers bear a heavy responsibility for perfecting the craft – as the persuasive, seductive elegance of these photographs shows. Huo Bo was to Mao what Leni Riefenstahl was to Hitler.
”The two photographers met, fell in love, married, and spent 1950 to 1962 photographing every detail of Mao Zedong’s official and private life. They took all the vast pictures turning Mao Zedong into the Prophet, Peasant, Educator, Internationalist – and the image that spread worldwide via Andy Warhol’s reproduction of ‘Mao The Great Helmsman’. Together they share in the heavy responsibility of turning a man some may consider one of the most savage and ruthless dictators of the 20th century into a cult. ”( Fringe Report, Oct.2009 )
”There’s a powerful photograph of Mao Zedong at the Temple of Heaven, touching a 1,000 year-old tree in September 1949 (Xu Xiaobing); he’s in beret and looks almost shyly out to the right. Many of the pictures make symbolic links to permanence, and China’s past. There’s another of Mao Zedong at the Ming emperors’ tomb (September 1949, Hou Bo): he lies on a mattress, cap off, mug of tea nearby, and walking stick, briefcase, as other men watch: he looks like a tramp with a begging cup, touched with the innocence of a child. The symbolism links him to the rule of kings, coinciding with his declaration of the new People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Suare on 1 October 1949. ”( Fringe Report, Oct.2009 )
”Hou Bou photographs Mao Zedong bathing with 23 others at Lushan in 1959. It’s hard to believe now that he was regarded by many in China as divine – the picture shows a fat man in a towel, with pendulous breasts, fag in mouth, dyed hair, smirking. He was taking time off from the Lushan International Conference of the Chinese Communist Party – he was a founder in 1921, taking control at the Zunyi Conference during the Long March (6,000 miles escape of Communists from Jiangxi to Yan’an, 1934/5) – during which he purged Marshal Peng Dehuai, replaced him with Lin Biao, and posed for this genteel photograph. ”( Fringe Report, Oct.2009 )