Sheryl Sinkow

Last September photographer Sheryl Sinkow had the opportunity to travel to China for the first time. Friends from Ithaca were living and teaching there, so she had a place to stay for much of the visit, and a chance to see parts of China with people who know it.But she was not walking in entirely unfamiliar footsteps. In the early 1970s, her parents had been among the first Americans to explore parts of China. Her father’s love for the country and the photos he brought back inspired her wish to see some of the places he’d seen and described. “It was an emotional journey,” Sinkow said. “It felt overwhelming.’’

Photographs Sinkow took on this trip are at the core of “Bend Like the Willow,” opening at the State of the Art Gallery, 9120 West State Street, Ithaca in July, with a reception Friday July 6 from 5 to 8 p.m. Many explore the country’s contrasts, the differences between today’s landscapes and the country her father saw; the uneasy compromises between ancient customs and modern life.

Shanghai in September was “hot, muggy, crowded and polluted, but the people I met were wonderful and inviting,” she said. The pollution turned everything gray; even the light was gray, she said, and at times she wondered how she’d even be able to take pictures. But in the very early morning, when she joined her friends for tai ch’i in a nearby park, it was also magical. “And you can’t always have California sunlight,” she added.

Having partially acquainted herself with the country through her parents’ stories and pictures, “I wanted to try to see some of the places they saw,” she said. Wherever she looked, the changing times were apparent. For instance, a picture taken by her father many years ago shows soldiers and citizens in indigo Mao jackets on the Great Wall; when Sinkow visited, she saw tourists from around the world.

The timeless vista of an old house, with the elderly owner smoking a leisurely pipe on a bench outside the front door, is contradicted by the presence of a shiny motorbike parked in the courtyard. People would freely talk with Sinkow and her friends, then catch sight of an official and become taciturn and frightened.

Some of her experiences were startling, others were poignant, some disturbing. Sinkow said she had mixed feelings about visiting China, because of its history of human rights violations. She saw some Tibetans in traditional dress on the streets, and reported, “They did not look happy.” But she also found an old synagogue, built when China offered a refuge to Jews fleeing the holocaust in Europe. It had been turned into a museum after the refugees moved on to Israel.

Visiting Beijing with a Chinese friend, she was about to check into a hotel room, but when the clerk caught sight of the tall, Western-looking Sinkow, she was abruptly refused a room because she was “non-Chinese.” Street scenes were compelling, from farmers’ markets to grandparents tenderly looking after grandchildren. But of both tourists and locals she said, “It was a little disturbing to see everyone with a camera in front of their face, instead of experiencing where they were. I’d rather lose the photo than lose the moment.”

Luckily, her artist’s eye allows us to experience both. Sinkow was selective about the photos she took, even more so when it came to choosing ones for the exhibit. “I shoot raw, then I process every image on my computer. My process is intuitive,” she said. Some photos require minimal work; others take longer to edit to her exacting standards. Then Sinkow prints the photos on special paper, using a large format printer before having them professionally framed.

Sinkow’s parents have passed away, but she said she felt their presence wherever she went in China. Her father, who began a business importing Chinese medical supplies to the United States, often talked about the patience, perseverance and positive thinking required by anyone seeking to forge a business relationship with the Chinese. He told his daughter many times about the need for flexibility when interacting with people from another culture. The title for the exhibition, “Bend Like the Willow,” is both a saying her father often quoted, and an inspiration that came to Sinkow while planning this exhibit and, months later, taking photos amid the beautiful willows of Stewart Park.

Most memorable were the images of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion. Sinkow visited the sacred island of Putuoshan, whose many temples are dedicated to the goddess. It was an emotional journey, and a reminder “we’re all connected, the good, bad and ugly. I hope the pictures will tell enough of the story so people will be curious,” she said.

The exhibit at the State of the Art Gallery may be seen through July, Wednesday through Friday 12-6 pm, Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 pm. For more information call the gallery at 607/277-1626 or contact Sinkow at 607/257-5423.

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