Early Photographs of China


A new exhibition at the Peabody Essex (PEM) explores the idea of how the camera transformed the way we imagine China in the West. Photography’s development as a new form of art and technology in the 19th century coincided with profound changes in the way China engaged with the world. The medium evolved in response to war, trade, travel, and a desire for knowledge about an unfamiliar place. The exhibition features 130 photographs in dialogue with paintings, decorative arts, and prints drawn largely from PEM’s own collections, as well as several loans from public and private collections.

This visual account of the exchanges between photographers, artists, patrons and subjects in treaty-port China, offers a reassessment of the colonial legacy of the medium of photography by drawing attention to the power dynamics at play at the time. While the legacies of photography and imperialism are without a doubt intertwined, this exhibition considers the relationship between images and power in order to understand how photographs have shaped our view of the past.

Images of China for Export Before Photography

Before the invention of photography in the first quarter of the 19th century, images of China for export were depicted in a number of ways: in oil paintings, popular oil and gouache paintings, on porcelain and in export wallpapers. Following the Opium Wars, foreigners were granted unprecedented rights to live and trade in designated treaty ports like Shanghai and Guangzhou. These cities, which were under Chinese control but administered by foreign-led municipal councils, were shaped architecturally, culturally, and socially by the arrival of foreigners. These regions became economic hubs and fertile ground for new ideas and technologies, including the establishment of China’s first photography studios

Many of these works on paper came from the workshops in the port of Canton (modern-day Guangzhou), in Southern China. The export trade typically depict contemporaneous life in China, often illustrating the various trades, activities, costumes, boats, birds, insects and plants – all with the aim of satisfying foreign customers and their curiosity about China. It offered a limited repertoire of subjects—tea gardens, pagodas, and fanciful rural scenes – allowing a stereotype of China to emerge that was often repeated by photographers, who found a ready market among Western buyers, Other genres, such as the landscape oil paintings depicted the harbours, cargo ships, the trading factories and the ports open for trading with foreigners.

The Chinese Painter Lamqua

In November 1844, the Cantonese oil painter known to foreigners as Lamqua, visited the foreign settlement in Guangzhou expressly to see a new wonder: the daguerreotype camera brought to China by French customs official Jules Itier (1802-1877). Lamqua requested a demonstration and Itier obliged, making a daguerreotype portrait of the painter and sharing it with him. One week later, Lamqua returned with a gift for Itier: a miniature self-portrait on ivory, which Lamqua had carefully painted after his photographic likeness. Karina H Corrigan, exhibition co-curator and PEM’s Associate Director – Collections, The HA Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art explains, the image, ‘Lamqua and Itier’s moment of artistic exchange marks the introduction of photography in China and demonstrates how Chinese artists adopted and adapted this new form of art and technology into a vibrant existing practice.’

At first, the photographers were following a tradition in the West of reproducing stereotypical images of China. Early photographs of China reached an international audience in the form of photo albums, visiting cards, stereographs, postcards, and photographs for the newspapers and other press. The dawn of commercial photography broke this link between this idealised Western idea of China and associated mythical ‘Oriental’ scenes by capturing on-the-ground ’real life’ images that were published globally. These images surprised Western audience and steadily changed the streotypical idea of the country that had been entrenched for centuries by the decorative arts.

Images by Chinese Photographers

Images produced by Chinese photographers also became popular and led to a blossoming of commercial photographic studios and press agencies in several major Chinese cities. The first photographers in China created extraordinary images that often reinforced Western interests and claims of authority. Chinese artists and patrons also adopted the medium, expanding the practice of photography to serve their own creative purposes.

This burgeoning of photography coincided with the expansion of Western power and commercial interests in China after the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856–60, giving rise to the treaty-port system which enabled the export trade to flourish alongside the decline and fall of the Qing dynasty in the latter half of the 19th century, culminating in the dynasty’s demise in 1911.

These studio, war and landscape photographs feed the growing curiosity about China in the West that resulted in the establishment of photographic studios to meet the demand, along with the publication of images taken by foreigners living or travelling in China. However, during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and the Civil War (1945-49), both the Chinese and Japanese colonial governments censored photography. After 1949, China’s Communist Party, which controlled the publishing industry as a part of the state-controlled media, mostly produced political propaganda to motivate the masses to participate energetically in the creation of a new socialist culture.

The Photography of John Thomson

In this exhibition, the photographs on show are all taken in these complex contact zones that often reflected their layered, hybrid, culture. For example, in John Thomson’s Curio Shop, a shopkeeper holds a Chinese fan toward the camera that is inscribed with a 16th-century poem, Longtan Night Sitting by Wang Yangming, that evokes a landscape far from the bustling streets of the city. Prominently placed in Thomson’s photograph, this historic poem about trying to find solace in the midst of political conflict, would have been easily recognisable to literate Chinese viewers, but would have been enigmatic to foreign viewers.

John Thomson (1837-1921), the celebrated photographer, was born in Edinburgh two years before the invention of the daguerreotype was announced to the world in 1839. This discovery was the beginning of photography. That same year Fox Talbot introduced the calotype process, and with this new medium David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, two remarkable Scottish photographers living in Edinburgh, produced nearly 3,000 images, including city views, landscapes and scenes of everyday life. Their work undoubtedly had a profound influence on Thomson. In the years leading up to Thomson becoming a professional photographer, the technology of photography also developed at an incredible speed.

Invention of Wet-Collodian Process

The invention of the wet-collodian process in 1850 is regarded as the watershed: it reduced the exposure time and the cost of making photographs; it also produced sharper images. The wet-collodian process quickly replaced daguerreotype and calotype. As Thomson remarked: ‘the detail in wet-collodian negatives was of microscopic minuteness whilst presenting the finest gradation and printing quality which had never indeed been surpassed by any known method’. But this in itself added to his difficulties: it was necessary to make the negatives on glass plates that had to be coated with wet-collodian emulsion before the exposure was made, thus there was a large amount of cumbersome equipment that had to be carried from place to place.

In 1862, Thomson left Edinburgh for Singapore, starting a 10-year period spent periodically travelling around the Far East. During his second trip to Asia, Thomson based himself in the then thriving British Crown Colony of Hong Kong in 1868. There he studied Chinese and Chinese culture while making a few short trips into Guangdong. Thomson’s major China expedition began in 1870. For two years he travelled extensively from Guangdong to Fujian, and then to eastern and northern China, including the imperial capital Beijing, before heading down to the River Yangtse, altogether covering nearly 5000 miles. In China, Thomson excelled as a photographer in quality, depth and breadth, and also in artistic sensibility. The experience he gained, and the techniques he developed, on the streets of Beijing laid the foundation for his Street Life in London, compiled five years later. This established him as the pioneer of photojournalism and one of the most influential photographers of his generation.

After returning to Britain, Thomson took up an active role informing the public about China. Besides giving illustrated presentations, he continuously published photographic and written works on China. He sensed that a profound transformation was taking place in the world, and ‘through the agency of steam and telegraphy, [China] is being brought day by day into closer relationship with ourselves … China cannot much longer lie undisturbed in statii quo.’ Undoubtedly his photographs contributed greatly to 19th-century Europe’s view of Asia and filled the visual gap between East and West. Through his efforts, he became known in the West as ‘China’ Thomson. And these early photographs of China became better known to the wider public.

Yet what marked Thomson’s work out was not simply the massive amount of visual information he offered. His uniqueness was his zeal to present a faithful and precise, though not always agreeable, account of China and Chinese people. He wanted his audiences to witness China’s floods, famines, pestilences and civil wars; but even more so, he wanted share them the human aspect of life in China. He wanted his work to transcend that of the casual illustration of idiosyncratic types, to portray human beings as individuals full of peculiarities.

Chinese Landscape Photographs

The photographs Thomson took in Fujian and Guangdong are his strongest series of landscapes. But they also show his sensitivity. The human aspect of his work was even more evident in his photos of the poor. In Guangdong and Fujian, he became increasingly concerned with the lives and conditions of ordinary Chinese. As he travelled further, this concern developed. In the imperial capital of Beijing, Thomson not only displayed his talent as professional portrait photographer, his street scenes of Beijing showed that he was ahead of his time. These deeply moving images are sometimes compared to street photographs by the great 20th-century masters like Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. But more importantly, they remain as incredibly valuable historical material for anyone wishing to understand 19th-century China and its people in their struggle to become modern.

The photographer Felice Beato was working in the city of Canton in the 1860s during the Opium Wars, not only as a war photographer, but also a dedicated recorder of local cultures. His works are amongst the earliest images taken by a European photographer in China. Beato was a British photographer, but we now know that his origins were Venetian, born in 1832 from a wealthy family transferred to Corfu Island, then a British protectorate, when he was a child. His grave was only discovered in 2012 by an official of the City of Florence interested in his story

Milton Miller

The American photographer Milton Miller (1830-1899) was considered one of the best portrait photographers at the time, although he only worked in China for a limited time span. After learning his trade in San Francisco, he travelled to China in 1860 to assist the photographers Howard and Weed. By 1861, he was running his own photography studio in Hong Kong and Guangzhou specialising in portraits of influential Chinese businessmen, officials, and women, as well as portraits of foreigners living in the trade concessions. However, just two years later, he had returned to the US , and abandoned his career as a photographer for other ventures.

The co-curator of the exhibition, Stephanie Hueon Tung, PEM’s Byrne Family Curator of Photography, says of these early photographs of China, and the exhibition, ‘The premise of Power and Perspective is that making a photograph is a social process. A photograph demands the engagement of many people – some willing, some less so – whose presence always rests outside the frame, and yet they make the event of photography possible. Photography has never been a neutral technology of documentation; who and what gets captured and the stories that these photographs tell is a function of power’.

Showing the difference between perceiving photography as a subject of study and as a technique to produce historical records, the exhibition not only explores the history of photography and the interpretation of history through these early photographs of China, but also allows the viewer to explore the finer details of life and society, as well landscape and an era of commerce and trade that can no longer exist today.

Power and Perspective, Early Photography in China runs until 2 April, 2023, at Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, pem.org