Wu Shao-tung began his lifelong affiliation with photography at twelve when he received a Kodak Baby Brownie camera. For most of his life, he earned his living as a professional photographer.
After he retired at 65, he inadvertently encountered a flock of red-crowned cranes (丹頂鶴). This fortuitous coincidence redirected his search for beauty, and he spent the next several decades capturing images of the crane.
While tracking the talon prints of the crane, Wu witnessed the grim and steady destruction of their roosting grounds. Bringing the plight of the bird to people's attention, his images capture the crane's primary habitat and ecological environment and provide a glimpse of the graceful elegance of the bird.
Golden Horse-winning photographer
Born in Guangdong Province but raised in Shanghai, Wu graduated from the Shanghai Chinese Vocational School of Journalism and came to Taiwan during the civil war in China in 1947, making the island his home ever since.
In 1961, he joined the film department of the Retired Servicemen Engineering Agency and began documenting large-scale engineering and construction projects. In recognition of his outstanding artistry in the documentary field, he received two Golden Horse Awards in 1978 and 1983.
He revisited the Amur River (黑龍江) in China in 1990 and unexpectedly trekked into the Crane Refuge of the Cha-lung Nature Reserve (札龍鶴鄉). For the first time in his life, he observed the red-crowned crane in the wild, free to wander about without shackles or leashes.
Here, Wu noticed for the first time the noble conviction and pure and handsome bearing of the bird, the bird's graceful expression of unconstrained freedom from vulgarity, and its astounding natural grace while in flight. The sight filled him with wonder and awe. When a crane raised its head to howl a long cry, Wu snapped his first image of the bird. Thus began a 17-year career in documenting the crane.
As a result, he discovered several common misconceptions surrounding the crane. For example, there is a poetic expression in Chinese describing 'a crane perched on a pine branch against the moon' (鹤立松梢月). But Wu discovered that a real Chinese crane cannot perch on a tree because its rear talon is not only too short, it is also higher than the front two talons — it has no way to grapple on to a tree limb.
Only two of the 15 known species, the African Black-crowned and Grey-crowned crane, can perch atop a tree. Moreover, because of their huge bodies and the open space they need to achieve flight, most cranes live on the wide plains of wet marshlands, not in pine forests.
17 years of trekking
Wu divided his 17 years of photographing cranes into three stages. The first stage lasted 6 years and involved 55 separate trips back and forth to China, and visiting 22 different crane reserves to photograph all eight species cranes indigenous to China.
Wu's second stage involved soliciting donations from artistic organizations and corporate foundations for the monetary assistance needed to photograph the world's entire 15 varieties of cranes in their native habitats. With funding secured, he traveled throughout Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Australia, covering five continents and 14 countries over 45 separate occasions.
The third stage of Wu's plan began in 2004 when he estimated he would need 6 years to record the complete life cycle of all 15 varieties of cranes, including their kinship, mating, and migration. However, he was unable to complete his collection, "The Life of the Crane.”
The elderly Wu has paid a heavy toll physically to pursue his hazardous avocation. He lost partial use of his right arm from failing to receive prompt medical attention after an accident in the wilderness; he also experiences blurred vision caused by macular degeneration.
Even though his deteriorating eyesight will no longer allow him to photograph the flighty and nimble crane, he already has another photographic subject in mind — the slow-moving camel. Now in his 80s, he is ready to embark on yet another photographic mission.