Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China, Western Photographers 1861-1879 (London: Bernard Quaritch, 2010) 419 p. ISBN: 978-0-9563012-1-5
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Terry Bennett’s History of Photography in China, Western Photographers 1861-1879 is the second installment in a projected three-part history of photography in China in the nineteenth century. This second volume focuses specifically on the activities of Western photographers in the third and fourth decades of photography’s presence in China, decades marked by the firm establishment of commercial photography, the arrival of a second generation of photographers from Europe and the United States, and the continued dominance of wet-collodion technology (just prior to the arrival of game-changing dry-collodion photography in the 1880s). Terry Bennett, a collector, dealer, and historian of East Asian photography of longstanding, has written extensively on historical photography in Japan, China, and Korea, and his broad knowledge of these photographers and their works is demonstrated on every page of this substantial contribution. As anyone who has ever looked into the history of early China photography knows, it is a difficult topic to tackle because the evidence is so fractured, incomplete, and elusive: images are widely scattered, often unpublished and difficult to access, facts on both photographs and photographers are hard to come by, and there are few signposts offering any kind of guide to this confusing terrain. Generously illustrated and documented, Bennett’s book offers an indispensable introduction and overview.
Bennett is extremely careful to outline the parameters of his book; in the preface, the author defines his goal as one of providing a cohesive narrative that connects specific individuals to specific images, dates and places. The book is, indeed, largely organized by the guiding themes of geography, chronology, and biography, with nine chapters, each focused on one city (Hong Kong, Beijing, and seven treaty ports) and its associated photographers. Photographers who roamed from place to place, including John Thomson and D. K. Griffith, are given their own chapters, with another chapter devoted to photographers of the symbolically redolent ruins of Yuanmingyuan, the old Summer Palace destroyed in 1860 by French and British forces during the Second Opium War. The final chapter addresses two contemporary periodicals containing photographic images of China: China Magazine and The Far East. In general, Bennett’s careful tracking of photography’s interactions with the mass media conveys strongly how these images spread and created an image of China for a foreign audience. The hefty appendices that follow record a variety of documents, ranging from full texts of early reviews and articles and a record of early stereoview series of China to reconstructions of the respective inventories of William Saunders, Thomas Child, and William Floyd. This painstakingly gathered archival material is complemented by the many maps, advertisements, citations from business directories, excerpts from letters and articles, studio labels, and contemporary published illustrations based on photographs that saturate the main text itself; thus, much of the material on which our knowledge of these photographers is based is reproduced here. A significant proportion of this material is published here for the first time, along with meticulously-researched biographies of each photographer mentioned, and numerous images that have not been seen previously, the majority drawn from the author’s collection. The quantity of research is truly impressive, evidence of years spent searching libraries and archives and collecting images, all brought together into one coherent and organized overview.
This book provides an evenhanded and clear presentation of its subject, showcasing the works and identities of many photographers about whom little is known otherwise. By gathering their most characteristic works, mapping out their lives, detailing their professional connections, and placing them in a particular context of time and place, the book fills in numerous gaps in our knowledge of the period. Bennett, for example, clarifies the complicated movement of personnel and negatives between the many studios active in Hong Kong in this period; identifies precisely the identity of the Canton-based studio partners of Dutton and Michaels; traces the complex path of the peripatetic British photographer D. K. Griffith from Cambridgeshire to Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong; elucidates just how many photographers passed through out-of-the-way Ningbo (Bennett lists Louis Legrand, William Saunders, Paul Champion, John Dudgeon, John Thomson, and J.C. Watson); and establishes the activities of photographers working in Beijing, including the somewhat mysterious Dr. John Dudgeon, author of perhaps the first photography manual written in Chinese, Tuoying qiguan 脱 影 奇 觀 (1873), and the productive Thomas Child, creator of the most extensive early photographic record of the capital.
Bennett’s approach to the material is always resolutely factual, with a disciplined refusal to speculate or offer interpretations that are not grounded in solid documentation. Yet, in view of Bennett’s probably unmatched knowledge of these images and their makers, his insights into the nature of these pictures would have been very welcome. Bennett states that “any meaningful commentary” on these works must await first securing firm attributions for the many anonymous surviving photographs (vii), but his informed opinion on the photographs themselves, whether in terms of themes, uses, audiences, or regional differences, would have been helpful in making sense of the fascinating, even bewildering, variety of styles and subjects displayed in the illustrations.
However, the book’s primary shortcoming may be the decision to omit Chinese photographers from the current discussion. To be fair, Bennett is never less than clear on his intentions and approach, and he promises the third volume in his series will focus on Chinese photographers active through the 1870s. He attributes his bisected approach to both a lack of space and the complexity of the story at hand. Admittedly, the decision to focus this study from the outside and from the West, as it were, is understandable, as much of what is now known about early China photography relies heavily on the holdings of Euro-American archives and collections, inevitably skewing the researcher’s attention toward Western photographers and their activities. Nevertheless, Bennett’s choice of excluding Chinese photographers and patronage from this volume remains problematic, leaving a doubtless unintentional impression of silent pictures of China and largely anonymous Chinese subjects juxtaposed with extensive discussion of individual European and American photographers. It is hard not to see this as a missed opportunity to examine the history of China photography in an integrated manner and to address its marked and curious hybridity. It is precisely because of our enormous ignorance of early Chinese photography practices (for reasons discussed by Oliver Moore in his review in this journal of the first volume of Bennett’s series) that an even preliminary attempt at documenting the heterogeneous mix of photographers, subjects, and clientele at work in China is so badly needed. The possibilities can be spotted here and there in this volume; for example, the frequent appearance of Lai Afong, colleague and employer of John Thomson, Emil Rusfeldt, and D.K. Griffith, among others; mention of the nearly unknown Tung Hing and his fine images of Fuzhou; or a reference to the contributions of the Shanghai photographer Kung Tai to The Far East (which included an unusual portrait taken of the circuit intendant of Anqing, Anhui, and his family, hinting at specifically Chinese uses of photography).
One intriguing glimpse into a transnational history was made possible by Bennett’s revelations on the life and work of the American photographer L.F. Fisler. In his text, Bennett recovers Fisler’s first name (Lorenzo), his Camden, New Jersey, origins, his multiple Shanghai addresses, and his marriage to a Chinese woman, Alena; he also reunites Fisler with a group of striking hand-colored cartes de visite (CDV). These rare images of reclining women and costumed actors from the 1870s are markedly different from the usual images made for foreign tourists. It seems probable that Fisler’s CDVs were produced for Chinese patrons and tastes, most likely for courtesans, known to have been early adopters of the new technology who used photographs for gifts and self-advertising from at least the 1870s (one wonders if the actor shots served a similar function). Because of the solid attribution to Fisler, this employment of photography by members of Shanghai’s booming entertainment industries can now be linked not only to a specific photographer but also fleshed out with a particular iconography and images.
Nevertheless, even with this caveat, the author is too modest in his concluding remarks when he calls his book a “work in progress” and a “transitional guide” (314). New images and information are sure to resurface in the future that will doubtless transform our understanding of early China photography and its history. However, this labor of love and dedication is a work of lasting importance. Its scope and clarity, staggering amount of new research and reproduction of magnificent images, so many previously unknown, are a true gift to an area of study still in its early stages and, simply put, make this information and these images accessible for the first time. Together with its companion volume and the anticipated final volume, this is a series that offers an unprecedented guide to early China photography.
Roberta Wue is Assistant Professor of Art History, School of Humanities, University of California, Irvine. Among her publications is Picturing Hong Kong: Photography 1855-1910 (New York: Asia Society Galleries and George Braziller, 1997), with Joanna Waley-Cohen and Edwin K. Lai; and “Selling the Artist: Advertising, Art and Audience in Later Nineteenth Century Shanghai,” Art Bulletin, XCI/4 (December 2009), 464-481.