History and Culture

China through the lens of photographer John Thomson

2018-04-16 14:49:00 (Beijing Time)         Global Times


The China and Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson exhibition in London (Photo: Sun Wei/GT)

The first London exhibition devoted to Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) and his photography in Asia opened to the public at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London on Friday.

The exhibition China and Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson features an impressive display of historical photos taken in China during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and Siam (today's Thailand) in the 19th century that vividly depict the landscapes, figures, buildings and streets of Beijing, the Fujian and Guangdong provinces and Bangkok. Clothing from the Qing Dynasty and the Siamese Royal collection are also on display.

"John Thompson is a key figure in 19th century travel and documentary photography and this exhibition, which is 10 years in the making, gives recognition to the international appeal of his work," Betty Yao, the curator of the exhibition, said at the opening ceremony.

Yao explained to the Global Times that the exhibition got its start after she came across three entire boxes worth of John Thompson's glass negatives in the Wellcome Library in London. The fortuitous discovery inspired Yao to share the Chinese history recorded by the great photographer with more people around the world.

According to Yao, after the First and Second Opium Wars (1840-42, 1856-60), China's image in the eyes of Westerners was quite negative, but Thompson's photography demonstrates the beauty of China at that time without any bias and prejudice.

The London exhibition, which will come to an end on June 23, is the latest stop on the exhibition's worldwide tour. So far, more than 20 exhibitions have been held across Asia, North America and Europe, allowing the photos to be viewed by more than 920,000 visitors.

Window to the past

The exhibition boasts 128 of Thomson's most representative photos taken during his travels in China and Siam during the late 19th century.

Yao said that the quality of Thomson's images, the breadth of subjects, the depth of content and the artistry on display were second to none at the time.

Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to not only see imperial officials and the royal family during China's last imperial dynasty, but also get a glimpse into the lives of ordinary citizens. More surprisingly, Thomson took a large number of photographs of women, which is something quite rare.

Thomson documented women's dress, hairstyles and jewelry, as well as their day-to-day lives in the beautiful yet claustrophobic back gardens of Chinese courtyard homes. These photos have served as valuable reference materials for the study of women's social status and clothing during the late Qing Dynasty.

During his stay in China, Thomson visited big cities as well as rural regions where the residents had probably never seen a white man before. Thomson encountered both hospitality and hostility on his travels as people were either very curious or suspicious of the strange contraption he kept pointing at people.

Despite encountering considerable difficulties, Thomson had a remarkable ability to develop a network of friends and contacts. This helped him access sites and people, and offered him adventures that few Westerners would have been able to experience at the time.

What is even more rare is that compared to other photographers visiting China during the time, Thomson was not a government official, nor a missionary but a professional photographer who was fascinated by Asia and its people. Thomson possessed an open mind and was sensitive to the lives and surroundings of his subjects, which when coupled with his objectivity and lack of prejudice led to the creation of numerous photographs that have proven extremely valuable for the study of modern Chinese history.

Foreign Affairs Minister Dong Xun (1810-92) (Photo: Sun Wei/GT)

Precursor to photojournalism

The Scottish photographer and writer set off for Asia in 1862. Over the next 10 years he undertook numerous journeys through places such as Siam, Cambodia and the various provinces of China.

In 1868 Thomson arrived in Hong Kong and from there made several trips to Guangdong Province. From 1870 to 1872, he entered Fujian Province from Guangdong, then traveled through East China and North China to arrive in Beijing and then moved south to the Yangtze River. During this period, he took a large number of photos of the country's aristocrats and common folk young and old, landscapes and cultural heritage.

According to Yao, the exhibition made use of the latest modern technology to enlarge Thomson's original photos. The method of taking photographs at the late 19th century was known as the wet collodion process, which involved using chemical solutions to produce a glass negative. This had to be done in complete darkness, on location, in a portable darkroom tent, thus Thomson had to travel with large number of crates, glass negatives and bottles of highly flammable chemicals.

"It's remarkable that Thomson was able to take photographs of such beauty and sensitivity. He captured the land, the people and their daily lives in very a natural way, achieving what we call today a 'photo-journalistic' style," Yao said.

His experiences taking photographs on the streets of China laid a solid foundation for Thomson's Street Life in London series, which he shot five years later.

This series helped establish Thomson as a pioneer in documentary photography and one of the most influential photographers of his era.

Thomson was the first photographer to record the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. These photos are also included in the exhibition.