Hidden away in the rabbit warren of lanes that make up Tianzifang markets, Beaugeste Photo Gallery is not the most conspicuous of places, but for the next few months it is hosting one of the most interesting and important exhibitions Shanghai has seen in some time. ‘Marc Riboud’s Hundred Flowers’ features over forty original photographs taken by the legendary French photographer during his stay in China during the Hundred Flowers Campaign of early 1957.

In February 1957 Chairman Mao made the famous proclamation to ‘Let one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools of thought contend.’ Mao believed that ‘constant revolution’ was vital for the progression of a socialist state, and was concerned that the relative stability of the early 1950s would cause people to lose their revolutionary fervour and lead to stagnation. With this in mind, the Hundred Flowers Campaign sought to relax restrictions on freedom of expression and encourage ‘constructive’ criticism of the Communist regime.

What ensued in the following months was an outpouring of spontaneous expression: ideological, cultural, and political. Marc Riboud, a young photographer who had been given the rare opportunity to visit China courtesy of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, was there to capture this crucial moment.

‘He was the right man at the right time,’ declares Jean Loh, owner and curator of Beaugeste Gallery. ‘Marc has come to China twenty-two times since 1957, but this was his first experience here. This is just a small selection of his 1957 work; he took over 900 photographs during this visit alone.’ It becomes clear as we walk around the small gallery space that Loh is a fountain of knowledge on this subject. He has selected each image meticulously, and consulted extensively with Marc Riboud himself. Every photograph has an insightful story behind it, which Loh is all too happy to explain.

First we look at photographs taken at the Beijing Fine Art School, of students at a life drawing class with a nude model. This might not seem too remarkable, but the European tradition of nude drawing, as well as many other foreign artistic practices, were forbidden before and after this short window in 1957. ‘When these photographs were first exhibited, people thought they were fake, they could not believe that such practices happened during this time,’ explains Loh. ‘No other foreign photographer was able to capture these scenes. They are truly unique.’

We move on to one of Riboud’s most famous shots: a woman eating in a steel mill canteen in Anshan, Liaoning province. ‘This work became iconic because of the subject matter. The steel industry was an immense source of national pride at this time. It symbolised China standing up and becoming a modern society,’ Loh reflects. ‘However, what I find interesting about this photograph is the relationship between photographer and subject. Marc was captivated by this young woman he was photographing. In his notes accompanying the photograph he wrote that she was twenty four years old, had studied engineering, and was single. He was clearly attracted to her.’

Another highlight of the exhibition is a portrait of Qi Baishi, the godfather of modern Chinese painting. Taken just a few months before his death, the photograph depicts an frail old man accompanied by a quite sinister looking carer. ‘I think that this woman had been hired to watch Qi Baishi’ considers Loh. ‘Look at her, that expression is not one of compassion or care’.

"Riboud captured every level of Chinese society, from two wrestlers entertaining a crowd on a mucky Beijing street, to Zhou Enlai and other senior cadres sipping port with foreign diplomats at a gala dinner."

Perhaps most fascinating of all is a picture of a father watching his daughter practice piano. It is a beautiful photograph in itself, but the story which Loh tells me is truly incredible. ‘I researched the identities of the two people in this photo. The father, Sun Fu Ling was director of the Fuxing Flour Factory. He suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution, but he is still alive today. Meanwhile, the little girl, Sun Chongwen, is now professor at Beijing’s China Conservatory of Music, and here we have a photograph of her beginning that journey.'

Elsewhere, the exhibition captures the myriad traditional cultural forms that re-emerged in early 1957, including shadow puppet shows, wushu performances, dances and festival celebrations. Riboud captured every level of Chinese society, from two wrestlers entertaining a crowd on a mucky Beijing street, to Zhou Enlai and other senior cadres sipping port with foreign diplomats at a gala dinner.

The strongest quality of these photographs is Riboud’s ability to capture the essence of his subjects, and the spirit of community that prevailed during this brief moment of Chinese history. His eye for composition is fantastic, particularly considering the difficulties he would have had in getting these shots: using primitive equipment and having a chaperone watching his every move.

As we look at a slightly awkward picture of a Hutong courtyard, Loh remarks that ‘Marc did not understand why I wanted to include this photograph, but I explained to him that for me, as a Chinese person, it is a nostalgic thing. So few of these Hutongs are left, and they are all vanishing. This photograph shows how things were. It is a glimpse of a forgotten past.’ I could not agree more, but the same can be said for every photograph on display here. Despite the challenges, Riboud compiled a priceless account of Chinese society during this turbulent period, and gives us a glimpse into a world that many are eager to forget, but which must be remembered.