The periodicals and prints in this exhibition date from those decades in the nineteenth century when photography in China was mainly the province of Westerners visiting or working in that country. These works reveal the kinds of subjects that appealed most strongly to foreign visitors in what they considered an “exotic” land. They also reveal the ways in which the impressions they took away were disseminated to a Western public eager for knowledge of the long-inaccessible Celestial Empire.
Upon the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842, the victorious British forced upon the humiliated Chinese government the Treaty of Nanjing, which opened six coastal ports to Western trade and ceded Hong Kong to British control. In December of that year, the British Foreign Office engaged the London calotypist Henry Collen to produce photographic facsimiles of the Chinese-language version of the treaty. According to Collen, one of these copies was meant to be forwarded to the Chinese government with the expectation that this example of Western technical ingenuity would “astonish the natives.” The copy on view here, from the George Eastman House Collection, is the only known surviving example.
Until late in the nineteenth century, photography seems to have been largely confined to China’s coastal cities. Only after the Second Opium War of 1856–60 did imperial officials grant permission for foreigners to range freely throughout all of China. Whether it was because they were seen as the advance guard of Western powers or as practitioners of an occult art, early photographic travelers often met with open hostility. The Scot John Thomson described running from mobs of angry townspeople in his book, Through China with a Camera (1898).
Another emigrant Scot, J.B. Black, started the lavishly illustrated periodical The Far East (“A Magazine on the Orient for European Eyes”) in Japan in 1870, and expanded the journal’s scope to include China in 1876. He apparently found the Chinese more difficult to penetrate and warier of foreigners than the Japanese, yet striking portraits and fascinating street scenes—all albumen prints tipped into the pages of the publication—can be discovered in the pages of the journal.
Other foreign photographers, such as Thomas Child, an English gas engineer employed in Beijing, concentrated on the grand architecture of China. The Englishman William Saunders became one of the best-known portrait photographers of late nineteenth-century Shanghai, photographing Chinese of all social levels, from aristocrats to actors. These Western photographers active in China often employed Chinese assistants, who eventually went on to open their own studios and establish their own clientele. From the dawn of the twentieth century on, the history of photography in China would finally belong to the Chinese.
Phillips, ICP Curator
Vanessa Rocco, ICP Assistant Curator
This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, and is the seventh in the series "New Histories of Photography." It is made possible by the generous support of The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.