Mr. Li vaulted to worldwide renown in 2003 after Contact Press helped publish his monograph “Red-Color News Soldier,” which contained scores of uncommon images from the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 till chief Mao Zedong’s dying in 1976.
The Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao to re-inject proletarian Communist fervor into his flagging nationwide undertaking, despatched tens of hundreds of thousands of younger zealots onto China’s streets. They staged public present trials, beatings, criticism periods and “residence raids” of bureaucrats and intellectuals. They turned on their lecturers, co-workers, pals and oldsters. The turmoil, which Mao initiated to claim his authority and purge political rivals, is estimated to have brought about 1.5 million deaths, many by suicide.
Working throughout that period as a state newspaper photographer, Mr. Li defied directions to destroy negatives that contradicted official propaganda. He saved 30,000 negatives beneath his floorboards, ready for the appropriate second to launch them.
That second by no means got here in China. Though the 2003 e book, printed by New York-based Phaidon Press, has been translated right into a half-dozen languages and gained an award from the Abroad Press Membership in New York, it was barred from print by Chinese language censors.
Copies of the Hong Kong model printed in 2018 have been confiscated on the border, mentioned Mr. Li, who decried the Beijing authorities’s efforts to shunt the Cultural Revolution out of public discourse and its historical past textbooks.
“The Cultural Revolution passed off in China, however analysis into the Cultural Revolution thrives in different international locations and it has little influence on China. I actually can not settle for this,” Mr. Li informed the South China Morning Publish in 2018. “My images had been taken in China and most of my readers needs to be in mainland China, whether or not or not they’ve skilled the Cultural Revolution.
“Many individuals who’ve seen the images would say, might this be potential? How might there be such images?” he added.
As a photographer for the Heilongjiang Each day in China’s far northeast, Mr. Li captured manic scenes: the Heilongjiang provincial governor compelled to have his head shaved publicly and splattered with ink; Purple Guards rallying and dancing in sprawling plazas; counter-revolutionaries being lined as much as be shot subsequent to a shallow ditch; his personal colleagues forcing their chief to put on a dunce hat in a newsroom wrestle.
“Have been it not for his documentary work, individuals as we speak wouldn’t find out about many scenes that passed off in these years, or those that remembered who’ve completely forgotten them,” the Wuhan-based author Fang Fang wrote on social media this week.
Pledge, Mr. Li’s longtime editor, mentioned the photographer was enthusiastic concerning the Cultural Revolution on the outset and took part in it earlier than rising disillusioned as he witnessed its spiraling harmful power.
“So he started working on this schizophrenic method, each relentlessly recording historical past, but in addition serving as a photographer who was a part of the state propaganda machine,” Pledge mentioned.
“Virtually each main occasion that formed our trendy world had 10, 15 well-known photographers who documented it,” Pledge added. “On this huge occasion in China there was solely Li, one particular person who lower himself into two to witness the darkish facet of the entire. If he had been born in Paris or New York, he could be 10 instances as celebrated as he’s.”
Mr. Li was born Sept. 22, 1940, within the port metropolis of Dalian, then beneath Japanese occupation. He was three when his mom died. His father, a peasant farmer, took him to weekly Chinese language and Soviet movie showings in close by villages, instilling in him such a love for cinema that Mr. Li would recycle his household’s trash to pay for tickets.
He attended movie college, hoping to turn out to be a cinematographer, however was reassigned after commencement to turn out to be a photographer. He joined the Heilongjiang Each day in 1963 and was despatched to the countryside for Maoist reeducation simply earlier than the Cultural Revolution exploded nationwide.
Because the youngest member of the photograph employees, Mr. Li was ceaselessly despatched to cowl risky political occasions. He labored road scenes with a 35mm digital camera and punctiliously composed panoramas of mass rallies together with his square-format Rolleiflex.
Whereas working, he wore a purple armband that recognized him as a “Purple-Colour Information Soldier” — revolutionary propaganda employee — which allowed him to shoot darker, extra brutal dimensions of the upheaval.
Mr. Li wasn’t resistant to political vagaries, he informed a London viewers in 2012. He labored in fixed concern of the newspaper’s political opponents and was betrayed by rivals in 1969. He was despatched to a reeducation camp within the countryside, the place he served two years’ arduous labor alongside together with his spouse, Zu Yingxia, an editor on the Heilongjiang Each day.
Mr. Li was in a position to exhibit his hidden images inside China as soon as, at a contest in 1988, when the nation loved a level of political freedom beneath liberal leaders earlier than the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Sq. in Beijing one yr later.
He met Pledge in 1988 however didn’t start his e book undertaking till 1998, when Mr. Li immigrated to the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., and spirited out his huge assortment of painstakingly catalogued movie. It took the 2 males three years to cull the negatives.
He and his spouse had two kids. A whole listing of survivors was not instantly obtainable.
In his later years, Mr. Li acknowledged that he had led a revolutionary unit — and wrestle periods — contained in the Heilongjiang Each day. That revelation, mixed together with his function as a state photographer, fueled criticism amongst some Maoists in China who referred to as Mr. Li an opportunist whose views of the Cultural Revolution shifted in accordance with the nation’s political winds.
Mr. Li’s supporters, in response, lamented that he was heckled at a photograph pageant and on social media — indicators, they mentioned, that the Cultural Revolution by no means actually ended.
Pledge mentioned his good friend was by no means an ideologue or fierce Communist Social gathering critic, however that he largely anxious concerning the suppression of reminiscence.
“The amnesia was his massive concern,” Pledge mentioned. “He mentioned: ‘Errors had been made. Horrible issues occurred. We’ve got a duty to discuss them. We should discuss them.’ ”