Over the years, Xu’s focus has changed. What began as a search for images of his hometown has turned into a hope for a photography exhibition—in China.
“I always want to see what China looked like when I was younger,” says Xu, who immigrated to the United States in 1990 and became a citizen in 2000. “The country’s ancient structures were greatly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. There’s a lot of new construction. We can’t go back too far, but with the declassified films we can go back to the years when I was growing up. For example, I’ve always been fascinated by the city wall of Beijing. It was built about 500 years ago, and while much of it was torn down, sections remained. But during the Cultural Revolution, around 1967, they tore down most of what remained. The wall and a moat can be clearly seen on the U-2 photo. I’d like the Chinese to see what the country looked like before the Cultural Revolution.
“On the Chinese side,” he continues, “they put a tremendous amount of effort into bringing down those spyplanes. But they never saw the photos that were taken. Naturally, they’re interested in seeing what the U-2s were photographing, how their MiGs were chasing it, and where their missiles were firing.”
Asked to estimate how much time he’s spent on the project, Xu hesitates. “A hobby is a hobby,” he finally says. “Between driving eight hours to [Maryland], and looking at the film…I have no idea. In the past three years it has been a large amount of time.”
His most recent project involves people, not celluloid: Xu would like to introduce the Taiwanese U-2 pilots to the mainland Chinese operators of surface-to-air missiles who tried to shoot them down. “As far as I know, it hasn’t been done before. I’ll try my best,” he says.
You wouldn’t expect anything less from the man who has carefully scrutinized hundreds of miles of film, one frame at a time.
Rebecca Maksel is an Air & Space associate editor.