The London-based Chinese photographer Dorothy Sing Zhang has, in her short yet prolific career, shown a keen interest in the sociological and the strange, making sensitive images that capture the nuance and vulnerability of our shared human condition. During the pandemic, she studied directing under Danish film director Lars von Trier, which may account for the ominous sense of foreboding that permeates much of her practice. From shadowy vignettes of children playing chess to eerie still lifes of biscuits, pencil shavings, or mushrooms, her studies of domesticity, with their sense of both the cinematic and the absurd, have created an artistic momentum that Sing Zhang has applied to her fashion photography and her personal photographic and video projects since graduating from London’s Slade School of Fine Art in 2021. A questioning of privacy and photographic agency resonates clearly in her latest book, Like Someone Alive (Art Paper Editions), a monographic study of the private moments of 54 sleeping subjects who each permitted her a one-night pass into their London bedrooms to document a night’s sleep from meters above their beds.
After a scouting process that permitted her to respect a uniform distance between mattress and ceiling height in the homes of friends and neighbors, Sing Zhang employed the cable-release method, suspending her 35mm camera above her subjects’ beds for a bird’s-eye view and allowing their movements while they were sleeping to trigger each flash exposure. Each single roll of film resulted in a varying number of photographs depending on the subject’s level of restlessness throughout the night. Her absence during the photographic act is a key conceit to the project, posing questions of authorship and trust. Are her subjects all actually asleep? Are an open laptop, books, iPhones, or a cat perhaps just artful props? Were sheets and bedcovers carefully selected for the occasion? Sing Zhang intentionally divorces herself from the answers to these questions by leaving that knowledge to her subjects alone, who range from mothers and their children to shirtless and tattooed young men, siblings, and couples in various states of undress.
Despite the distinct parameters of Sing Zhang’s project, myriad aesthetic expressions emerge throughout the portfolio. Her grasp of chiaroscuro lends itself to the roiling folds of bedsheets and suggests a sort of improvised Renaissance draping, as fabrics are entangled with exposed limbs or cascading hair. As a sweeping Mark Rothko retrospective opens at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, one can’t help but feel the color fields radiate from some of Sing Zhang’s images, as in a pale white face appearing from within a sea of bottle-green bedsheets and pillowcases, or perhaps the undulating shapes of a Lynda Benglis sculpture echoed in the soft forms of thick duvets and crumpled pillows.
“The visual representation of closed eyes induces an unfamiliar sensation rendering an individual disconnected from the external world,” Sing Zhang said in an interview with photograph, of her impulse to document these stolen moments. “Their interior becomes exclusive to themselves with a barrier separating the viewer from the subject. This serves as the foundation for my conceptual photography that encompasses notions of sleep, death, and eyes closed – gestures all on the table, offered as narratives.” Through the formality of her repetitive process, Sing Zhang achieves a peaceful study of a universal human state – one rarely explored in the field of artistic portraiture. Each image allows viewers to imagine or project their own narratives onto her subjects, drawing from little more than glimpses of faces and bodies ensconced in the most intimate surrounds of their very own beds.