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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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“Emperor’s River”: Philipp Scholz Rittermann along China’s Grand Canal

Carol McCusker and Philipp Scholz Rittermann

In 2009 and 2010, photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann traveled along China’s Grand Canal to capture the country’s vast and varied socioeconomic landscape. The canal, more than one thousand miles long, runs from Beijing to Hangzhou and for centuries has been an important economic and cultural engine. With his interest in the built environment, and the way people and the planet are transformed by it, Rittermann traveled to China first as an invited artist and then on succeeding trips to document this massive waterway. Having mastered the digital panorama in subsequent projects (a format hungry for visual information), he found his ideal subject with China.

Rittermann’s panoramas are built from numerous photographs of a specific landscape, each taken within minutes of one another. Each digital frame is captured by panning across his subject. The images are then stitched together into a seamless chronology in postproduction. Moreover, they can be built vertically as well as horizontally, with high “bit- depth” maintaining rich tonalities, which enhance dimensionality. Every event the photographer records — workers harvesting lotus leaves, the movement of a construction crane — is truthful to what was there, just not all in a single instant. Each frame’s needs (light, perspective, focal separation) must be understood by the photographer in a fraction of a second while shooting and then all frames painstakingly pieced together later when constructing the final image. The photographs layer multiple moments, generating a highly complex portrait of a place. Time is stretched and becomes fluid.

Economic analysts, writers, and photographers have described or recorded China’s meteoric rise over the past decade. Contributing to this reportage are Rittermann’s panoramas, which accomplish something the others do not: visually, they conflate industrial scale with human scale. We see China’s enormous industry and daily life from street level. Through Rittermann’s lens, placed shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese, we are literally on the street looking out, up, and across vast, flat vistas and down into canals and fish markets or straight into hutongs (ancient residential alleyways, primarily in Beijing) surrounded by unparalleled vertical construction and human movement. The images encircle and excavate architectural ruins that seem to rise and fall in unison. Europe’s romantic notion of the ruin has no hold in China, because “people who are constantly moving are constantly arriving in landscapes that do not hold their past,” writes Rebecca Solnit. “A city without ruins and traces of age is like a mind without memories.”1 China is in a state of forgetting, of reimagining itself. In the state’s man- made rearrange ment of roads and terrain, it reorganizes its own history and the trajectory of people’s lives. Rittermann’s panoramic technique briefly reclaims and reassembles these forces in mosaics of time.

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  1. Rebecca Solnit, “The Ruins of Memory,” in After the Ruins, 1906 and 2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, by Mark Klett (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 20.



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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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