An exhibition at the Shanghai Center of Photography presents kaleidoscopic manifestations of love and relationships in China in various times. Featuring four distinctive sets of photographic works, “Summer of Love” explores “the emotional expression of love” and raises the eternal question: What is love?

Photographer Liu Heung Shing, founder of SCOP, believes the topic can better relate to a younger audience, and shows a wider range of photography art, this time “as a language or tool,” Liu noted.

A dozen of his works are showcased. Entitled “Love in Spring,” the series gives a glimpse of Chinese romance in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a turning point in history when the country embraced openness, new cultures and lifestyles.

That generation of people has limited space of their own, Liu observed. “Sometimes they had to kill, like on the Bund, to have a space on the bench so they could sit down and chat,” Liu recalled. “Therefore, public space like a park became not only a place for leisure. It could also be very private.”

Mostly taken between 1978 and 1981, this set of daily life images shows how love was discreetly yet temptingly expressed in public: young lovers sitting together with an old man at the side, watching; couples in love hugging and whispering to each other in hidden corners of a park or along the Bund.

“I always feel daily life can tell more about the people, the country and the society than an approach of focusing on some particular social issues,” said Liu. “Daily life kind of democratizes everything.”

Maleonn Ma, another Shanghai-based photographer whose works are on display, described his works as “amusing trailers.”

The advertising director-turned-visual-artist launched a project called “My Mobile Photo Studio” in 2012. Traveling to 54 cities in China, he took photos of some 1,600 people.

Ma talked to people who came to the studio and provided them with a stage — he discussed plots with them, made the backdrop, provided them with costumes and props and captured their moments in the spotlight. Selected works from the project are on display as part of the exhibition, which runs through August 9.

“The idea of ‘love in China’ never occurred to me at that time, but I did want to showcase something beautiful, something about love,” Ma told Shanghai Daily.

“Many people came to me to take photos for their wedding anniversaries, or lovers for memories. It surely is important to show the joy of love,” he added.

“I hope to present their happiness, how hard they live and how seriously in love. I was pretty impressed at that time that most people were excellent in camera, so much confidence and so deep in love.”

In contrast to Ma’s works, Olivia Martin-McGuire documents behind-the-scenes images of wedding photo shoots in China.

“If it’s safe to say that I use absurdity to praise the reality, then she uses absurdity to criticize the reality,” Ma commented. “It’s interesting to juxtapose these two series.”

Interested as a foreigner “to see from other angles to a very complex country that’s changing rapidly,” Martin-McGuire aims to explore more about individuals, about “love and romance in China through all the generations.”

Inspired by running into a wedding photo shoot on the Bund in Shanghai, Martin-McGuire focuses on the country’s booming wedding industry in her “China Love” series.

In the photos, the Australian photojournalist and filmmaker captures the unfitting details for a perfect wedding photo, such as the ill-matched outfits, the anxiety in waiting and the awkwardness in dressing up and having to repeatedly strike poses at the photographer’s command. A documentary film of the same name was screened in Australia in 2018.