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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Audrey Ronning Topping

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-11

Audrey Ronning Topping has many eyes.

There's the eye for spirituality, a generational gift that she traces to her grandparents, the Rev. Halvor Ronning and Hannah Rorem. They established the first Norwegian Lutheran mission in China in 1891.

There's the eye for culture and diplomacy, another generational gift. She attributes this to her father, the famous Canadian envoy Chester Ronning.

Then there's her eye for societal details, which she ascribes to the long years that she spent traveling the world with her husband Seymour Topping, one of the most acclaimed American foreign correspondents of the last century.

There's her eye for observing motion and movement, which she says comes from having five daughters, six grandchildren, one great grandchild, and a huge menagerie of animals in her various homes over the years.

And finally there's her eye for what Mrs. Topping calls the "defining moment."

"It's the snap of the shutter - that exquisite moment when all your senses, training and sensibilities converge to capture a picture," Mrs. Topping said. "You have to have it in you to feel that 'defining moment.' You cannot learn it. It's the artistic eye, a sense of composition."

She has been capturing pictures as a photojournalist since 1950, when she began taking pictures in Indo-China, where her husband was stationed for The Associated Press. In a career that included a decade at National Geographic, Mrs. Topping has written five books and published in most of the major magazines, and has produced documentaries. Her work has won awards.

She has also put on nearly a dozen shows featuring her photography.

The newest of her shows opens Wednesday at the Art Gallery of The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Fifth Avenue and 34th street. Titled "An Asian Odyssey," its 100 photographs offer her interpretation of contemporary Bhutan, China, Tibet and Vietnam.

"These are very upbeat photographs. They convey my own view of life, which is very positive and optimistic," Ms. Topping said. "They have vibrant colors, which I love. So many photojournalists concentrate on shock value. I concentrate on beauty and spirituality. When I'm traveling, I shoot and shoot. I try and stay away from the political aspect of societies and focus instead on the cultural aspect. I don't take beggars on the street. I follow my instincts. A good photographer has to be prepared to capture the moment. I can't bear to leave those countries behind. So I bring them in my camera."

In keeping with her professional ethos, Mrs. Topping did not necessarily set out to take pictures that had a narrative theme.

Rather, the theme - the spiritual connection between the cultures of the four countries - emerged as Mrs. Topping worked on the post production stage of her picture taking.

"I found that all of these countries were connected by at least some aspect of Buddhism," she said. "I chose pictures for the show from hundreds that had appealed to me from the artistic point of view - and because of the story they told. All my pictures have a story behind them. That story is mostly about the mystical and spiritual aspects of a culture. I have always been fascinated by those aspects."

Her fascination with Asian societies dates back to 1946, when she attended Nanking University in China. A member of her family has been in China during every important event since the Ching Dynasty in the late 19th century. Mrs. Topping's father was born in Hupeh province in central China, and returned to China as a Canadian diplomat. The Rev. Ronning and family were forced to flee China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, when the Empress Dowager commanded indigenous religious fanatics to drive away Christian missionaries and other foreigners from the country.

Mrs. Topping was in China at the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
"The main reason I was able to take the pictures I did was that I had special access - first on account of my father in China, and later when my husband was based in Southeast Asia, Moscow and Berlin," she said. "That's why when I go to these countries, I don't feel like a foreigner. People in Asia may see that I look different - but I'm accepted. That helps me to take pictures in a friendly way. In earlier days, I would take my young children with me on photo assignments - especially in Russia. Russians love children, and that helped me gain special access."

That special access enabled her to get close to the Dalai Lama, for example, and various high monks in Bhutan and elsewhere. The High Lama of Bhutan's Gangteng Monastery invited Mrs. Topping to visit his monastery in the Himalayan mountains and photograph a sacred Lama dance festival.

"I found myself right in the middle of it all," Mrs. Topping said, smiling. "I have a way of getting into situations where I don't have much competition, photographically speaking."

Photographically, her new show - which runs July 12 through August 17 - represents a new technical phase for Mrs. Topping.

"I switched from film to taking digital pictures," she said. "I evolved from being a photojournalist to a photographer."

That has meant scanning slides from her pre-digital period, and printing out pictures on archival ink that's guaranteed to last 85 years under museum light conditions.

"I love printing my own pictures and turning them into works of art," Mrs. Topping said. "As a photojournalist I have sought to record graphically what I observed - but I have also used artistic licence to create art work of poetical fantasy - part memory, part dream, and part nightmare - that embodied for me the essence of these spiritual and mystical abodes."

She has involved herself in the display of these pictures at the art gallery, working in tandem with the show's curator Diane Kelder, the art gallery director Ray Ring, and Jesus Juarez. Mrs. Topping got Jean-Denise Marzi of Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to frame her pictures in nonglare vision glass.

Her pictures have come to CUNY because of the enthusiasm of veteran businessman Albert Bildner and his wife Lin. Their support ensured that "An Asian Odyssey" was put together in three months, a record time for a major art show.

"My granddaughter Rachel Topping and I were walking into the gallery the other day, and Rachel - who's studying photography - pointed to a display of my name in the window. She asked, 'Why you? How did a girl born in Camrose, Alberta, find her way to a major art show in Midtown Manhattan?'" Mrs. Topping said. "I told Rachel, 'It's easy. All you have to do is to take the old Silk Road through China, Tibet, Bhutan and Southeast Asia - that's the way you get here.'"

And, of course, it helps to possess many eyes.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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