First Photographs of Hong Kong, 1858-1875=香港最早期照片1858-1875. Foreword by Jean-Noel Jeanneney, essays by Edwin K. Lai, Régine Thiriez, and Ko Tim-Keung. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press (China), 2011. 198 p. ISBN 978-0-19-396642-0.
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More than a century and a half after the earliest photos in this volume were made, Hong Kong continues to be visually stunning. It is a place that has reinvented itself many times, most noticeably in the built environment. Today’s visitors and residents alike will barely recognize the island and mainland parts of this former British colony from the photographs in this exhibition catalog, except, perhaps for one geographical feature: the hills on both sides of Hong Kong Harbour. Using the silhouettes of those hills as reference points, viewers will almost always know in which direction they are looking, even though higher and higher buildings near the Harbour and those crawling up the hillsides might soon obliterate all views of those once-barren outcrops. Land reclamation continues to obscure the distance between Kowloon on the mainland and Hong Kong Island. Victoria Peak (even its name evokes early Hong Kong history) can no longer be seen from every place in Hong Kong.
The two cursory introductory essays in this exhibition catalog are complementary but different and both are written by leading experts of the study of photography in East Asia. Edwin Lai’s essay on “Pioneers of Photography in Hong Kong” draws from his many writings on photography in Hong Kong. He notes the role of itinerant photographers who passed through Hong Kong en route to their careers, and also makes mention of little-known Chinese photographers, including the almost unknown Kai Sack. One has to turn to his more extensive essay, “The Beginnings of Hong Kong Photography” in Picturing Hong Kong: Photography 1855-1910. to more fully understand the historical context of the photos reproduced in this book. Lai makes good use of early advertisements to identify early photographers in Hong Kong, both those who merely passed through and those who established studios there. He also notes that a number of studios operated by Chinese photographers began life as painting studios and “took up photography as a complementary service or used it [i.e., photography] as a replacement for their not so flourishing painting businesses.” (12)
Regine Thiriez’s essay, “Photography in Hong Kong, the Formative Years (1858-1875)” provides more historical grounding than does Lai’s and more information on Hong Kong photographers. She situates the Hong Kong photographs in the wider view of the development of photography in China, which of course preceded its introduction into Hong Kong following the cession of the island to Great Britain and the subsequent influx of foreigners into Hong Kong. Thiriez traces the development of photography in both China and Hong Kong through her fleeting mention of individual photographers. Her comment that “Photography is a reflection of the place where it is practiced ” segues into Ko Tim-keung’s elegantly-written essay “Hong Kong: 1841-1890,” which describes the city and its Chinese and non-Chinese inhabitants and their lack of social interaction. All in all, the three essays are complementary and very educational in contextualizing early Hong Kong and the photographic records of the time.
But neither Lai nor Thiriez convincingly explains why the formative period of photography in Hong Kong has been defined by the years 1858-1875.
At least one of the photos in this book was published earlier in Picturing Hong Kong. It is, appropriately, an image of The Hong Kong Photographic Rooms, the establishment of the photographer Emile Rusfeldt (active in Hong Kong in the 1870s and 1880s), although it was meant primarily to show Hong Kong’s Germanic Club at Wellington and Wyndham Streets. The reproduction of that photograph in First Photographs (101) and in Picturing Hong Kong (60) are the same and yet quite different. They differ in size, in sharpness, in their sepia treatment, and the one in Picturing Hong Kong is much crisper. The differences in the reproduced images, as well as their similarities, tell us that in looking at reproductions we are not necessarily looking at what photographers intended us to see. Later manipulations and unintended distortions distance us from the original images and, perhaps, affect our appreciation of the talents and legacies of the photographers. The selection of a photographer’s work to include in an exhibition or a book such as this one further influences our understanding of a particular photographer’s ouvre. Of course, the two otherwise identical images might have been printed from what the glossary calls “variants” of the same image.
Although we are not told how the images in the book were selected for the exhibition or for inclusion in the catalog, all of the photographs included are important in their selective portrayal of Hong Kong and are well documented with titles, dates, dimensions, names of photographers where known, and simple annotation in Chinese and English. The use of the two languages throughout the book ensures that the catalog is available to a wide audience.
One of the special delights of this volume is a chapter on the hand-tinted cartes-de-visite by W. P. Floyd. Perhaps one day someone will conduct comprehensive research on the coloring of photographs in China and Hong Kong, the use of watercolor and opaque gouache. Who were the colorists? How were they trained? How inventive and imaginative was their work? Were the tinted images mass-produced as colored photographs? Those are questions raised by viewing the images here but are beyond the scope of this book.
Scattered throughout this book are other gems, such as views of the verso of some images, an album page showing multiple photo portraits, and one stereocard from which an image has been enlarged. The glossary of terms used in the text is complemented by notes on individual photographers and studios. The inclusion of two full-color 19th century maps of Hong Kong provides the reader with some sense of Hong Kong locales as they existed when the book’s photos were made.
The images in this and in many other books of photographs are disembodied. We do not see the albums from which they were taken or the cards on which they were mounted, although a photograph of a carved wood cover, in Chinese design, of an album of John Thomson’s photos is included (17). Card mounts often contain critical information on photographers, just as hand-written inscriptions provide contexts. One could wish for more focus on the information on the verso of the cartes-de-visite, where often the location of studios is recorded, often along with elegant designs and inscriptions that reveal personal relationships. Likewise, the designs on the fronts of the cartes-de-visite also are revealing of changing tastes and attitudes and are worthy of further study.
The bibliography is useful but selective and the format is inconsistent. The books by Edward Stokes are not included but they provide us with more recent photographic views of Hong Kong that are useful for comparison in looking at the physical development of Hong Kong. Even more glaring is the omission of the several well-produced books of early Hong Kong photographs published by Hong Kong’s FormAsia Books Limited.
This book is a welcome addition to the still-small body of publications about the history of photography in East Asia, but with some caveats. Tighter editing would have improved the book overall. The reproduction of the images is not of the highest quality; if there is a reason for that, it should have been noted in the text, but is not. The book was printed in very limited quantities (1000 copies) and not widely distributed. In fact, it is very difficult to acquire a copy.
One suspects that a great deal remains to be discovered about early photography in Hong Kong and that Lai and Thiriez will be among those making the discoveries.
Raymond Lum is Librarian for Western Languages and Curator of Historical Photographs, Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University.