History of Photography in China, 1842-1860
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Terry Bennett, History of Photography in China, 1842-1860 (London: Bernard Quaritch, 2009). 242 pp. ISBN: 978-0-9563012-0-8
Academic interest in the history of photography was noticeably overdue by 1900. Alfred Lichtwark, the influential director of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle, believed in the need “to devote to photography a special detailed chapter,” but he proposed it to be inscribed within any new discussion of nineteenth century painting. Publishing on the history of photography soon began to accelerate during the twentieth century, but not for another decade or two did common conceptions of photography shun dependence on Lichtwark’s and others’ analogies with painting. An even longer time would elapse before scholarly attention anywhere turned to the history of photography outside Europe and America. This volume by Terry Bennett is a welcome addition to the discussion of photography as both practice and collective artifact situated beyond the familiar metropolitan circuits of the West.
The early idea that photography should be historically embedded within criticism of more senior representational practices (as well as some junior ones like the moving image) today seems beside the point, but the ambition deserves recall. Even now, it asserts a valid retrospective aim to grasp new nineteenth-century categories of optical enhancement and epistemological renewal, within both of which photography was by no means the singular and triumphant medium that so much popular and informed opinion has often claimed. The early era of photography reveals worldwide persistent attempts to distinguish the medium both ontologically and functionally from painting and other representational media. I raise this point early on, because it is worth emphasizing against the period of Bennett’s coverage, the same twenty years following the public announcement of photography’s discovery in Paris in 1839. These are the decades of the most radical alterity of the technology of photography, during which a process of multiple reproduction (the negative-positive transfer of Fox Talbot and others) eventually superseded the Daguerreotype process of a single image whose logic of production was limited to the exposure of a sensitized plate in the camera and subsequent development of that plate, nothing more. These alternatives deeply affected definitions and metaphors of the image. Their technological possibilities and limits also categorized variant potentials for the use of photographic images in secondary reprographic media, such as books and newspapers. Many of the Chinese objects of Bennett’s research belong to this period, and his previous publications on Japan and Korea prove that he possesses a massive competence in relating early photographic productions in the larger East Asian region to the visually and commercially extensive circuits of book and newspaper illustration and the popular consumption of albums. The painstaking work in his Japan and the Illustrated London News (2006) is an excellent example. Nevertheless, readers who know Bennett’s previous work will find that he makes these links across visual media less explicit.
Any volume on photography in China is welcome, since at present so little is available to satisfy curiosity on the content, form, consumption and circulation of photographic images in China, particularly during the first century following the Paris announcement in 1839. Much of the evocative visual material filling this richly illustrated volume comprises original images that the author has collected and published for the first time on behalf of a narrative of the first two decades in China in China. This long collecting effort and a correspondingly impressive tour of archives and collections in East Asia, Europe, and North America dictate largely the structure of what Bennett’s History of Photography in China offers. The structure is biographical, even though Bennett early on remarks that his arrangement is not “photographer-centric” (vii-viii). Also puzzling is his claim to have rejected a regional approach, since successive chapters deal with photographs taken in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and the larger Northern zone of Allied troop movements during the Second Opium War (1856-60). Bennett discusses his material in chronological order, and he promises to publish another volume that will present material and research concerning the period after 1860.
Although Bennett’s History is situated in China, it is a history of Westerners’ photography, and as such it reiterates historical and visual knowledge of China exclusively from the perspective of the Western archive. Truly, any other perspective is difficult to manage, since many photographs of China are preserved and classified in institutions and private hands outside the country. Whatever is still lodged in China can seldom be retrieved without long application and effort. China has no major institution tasked to develop the history and critique of the photographic image. The situation bears no comparison with Japan, which boasts a national museum of photography as well as a provincial network of publicly-accessible exhibition centres and archives devoted to the history of the photographic industry, photographic publishing, and demonstrations of historical and contemporary technology in Japan. The earliest Japanese-made photographs are literally enshrined, and Japanese museum curators need no convincing that photography is art. China has no national museum of photography, and, in whatever institutions house them, photographs are invariably classed as historical documents. Although this sensitive status precludes that photographs may be casually or systematically inspected by researchers, it is also the other side of a coin whose value is redeemed through the manifest enthusiasm for photography as a visual mode of history. The popular journal Old Photographs (Lao zhaopian 老照片, first issued in 1996) solicits readers’ photographs and recollections that recount and visualize some of the most fascinating personal experiences published anywhere since 1949. An exhibition of early photographs (significantly described as “historical photographs”) at the Shanghai Library in 2007 drew blockbuster levels of visitors. Throughout the country the collector’s market for old photographic images of Chinese content is hot, and it is quite likely that future attempts to create a more systematic archive of Chinese as well as Western authored work lie in the hands of collectors.
These conditions justify to some extent the minimal attention that Bennett pays to indigenous Chinese engagements with photography. Yet some of his arguments for not scrutinising the Chinese story are off target. To claim that “photographic activity in China before 1861 was conducted almost exclusively by foreigners” (ix) is true only in as far as it refers to photographic activity that is known about. A vast army of Chinese assistants, trainees and experimenters left no records of their activities. And, in chapter 1, Bennett attenuates his initial claim by honouring one of the earliest experimenters, Zou Boqi, the distinguished Cantonese mathematician and astronomer who wrote on the technology of photography, and may have produced his own portrait on a glass plate now located in the Guangzhou City Museum (a verifiable location that deserves accurate citation). Zou’s position in the history of photography is significant, because he belongs to a small group of pioneering savants outside the main circuits of Western science and academe. He demands attention in the same way as does his contemporary, the French artist Hercules Florence, who completed another system of photography (before 1839) hundreds of miles up the forest tracks of Brazil. Zou is significant, moreover, because of his efforts to harmonise ancient Chinese and Western epistemes in physics—in this case optics—and to perpetuate what Benjamin Elman in his research on science in China has convincingly argued was throughout the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) a common political tactic of unifying Chinese and Western knowledge. The few facts of Zou’s life in southern China are easier to retrieve than those of other Chinese individuals who witnessed the emergence of photography in China and took photographs, but this fortunate condition should not sustain any impression that he existed entirely alone. Contrary to what Bennett says, contemporary Chinese written sources are not scarce. They simply await more integral exploitation. By contrast Bennett’s ability as a collector to uncover visual sources is second to none, evidenced in this early chapter by his inclusion of a hitherto unknown image showing, perhaps, Zhou Boqi posed for a carte de visite portrait issued by the Pun Lun Studio in Hong Kong.
Bennett’s biographical approach to photographers who visited China and furthermore moved in wider circles through Japan and other countries provides valuable detail towards understanding a more successfully totalized history of the medium practised in Western hands throughout East Asia. This attention—to which Bennett’s other volumes on Japan and Korea contribute substantially—is certainly an achievement, one that may hopefully shift present scholarly attention away from engagements with visual anthropology and art history that are excessively determined by the boundaries between modern nation states. But, stimulated precisely by the larger regional view, I would be interested to know Bennett’s opinion concerning why research on photography in China still lags behind what has been a much more robust publishing venture for as well as from Japan. Aside from structural differences already mentioned, is it because Japan had state institutions that procedurally and ideologically staked far more in the visual image—especially the image of photographic authenticity—than was the case in China? (If China had won her disastrous war with Japan in 1895, might a different history of photography in China have emerged?) Or has Japan enjoyed more attention thanks to an earlier investment in journals and popular press devoted to the history and technology of photography? Aside from a plethora of new journals in the 1920s, publishers in Tokyo produced monthly trade journals and magazines from the early 1880s, and even these are predated by a short-lived series run in 1874. In China, aside from the translation of manuals and essays by translators, such as John Fryer and Xu Shou, a periodical literature on photography did not emerge until much later.
The photography of war (chapters 8, 9, 10 & 12) raises other questions in another transnational dimension. Since this history privileges the Western gaze, and since some of its subjects’ military careers led them first to the Crimean War (1854-56)—for example, John Wotherspoon, pp. 103-106—Bennett could have inserted images of war and campaign in China, including Felix Beato’s famous photographs of the Second Opium War (1856-60), within the context of recent and imminent theatres of conflict. The slain defenders in Beato’s images of the gruesome aftermath at the Dagu forts, which the Western Allies stormed in August 1860, signify toleration for such a literal report of violence that was perhaps unprecedented. In the Crimea, not much earlier, the celebrated photographer James Robertson, whose eye apparently flinched the least, had restricted his record to material rather than human carnage. Nevertheless, Robertson’s images may have provided the key samples with which Beato fulfilled growing expectations of the visual experience of distant battlefields, at the same time deepening the genre with the mangled corpses of Qing soldiers. Beato’s work marked the moment when the international phenomenon of war reporting reached a new and shocking degree of graphic realism. Barely some months later, amid the American Civil War and within a new arrangement of the photographic image’s circulation and consumption now uncomfortably closer to home, the nineteenth-century photography’s most eloquent theorist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, intuited the American public’s own confrontation with “wrecks of manhood.... too vividly represented. “
Besides ordering the chapters of History of Photography chronologically, Bennett also groups the life histories of his subjects under categories, such as “itinerant photographers,” those “passing through,” “amateurs.” The usefulness of these is questionable. Were some photographers’ lives more itinerant than those of others? The presence of the “itinerants” in chapter 3 signals that their heyday was early, and it suggests that they may have ambitioned eventually to graduate to higher things, perhaps to settle down and draw the steady income of a solid studio business—see ‘First Shanghai Studios’ (chapter 4), albeit pursued by ‘Passing Through’ (chapter 5). In fact, the decades following the two to which this volume is devoted soon witnessed that itinerant daring was one of the most celebrated virtues of an East Asian career in photography, paralleled or even submerged in other pursuits, such as geographical exploration, early forms of ethnographical surveying, missionary work, and plant hunting. Although I quibble with some of Bennett’s groupings defined by vocation or profession, I note others that are far more convincing. For example, the collective remarks on behalf of photographer-soldiers of the Royal Engineers, a regiment that adopted photography as part of military training, are fascinating. This singular British outfit deserves a study in itself, not least in order to link the Engineers’ tactics of vision with the rich documentation of Western soldiers’ experiences in wars in China.
Still, beyond institutional certainties like army life, how easy is it to define “amateur” in the case of men—no female photographers feature in this volume—who worked in a period when a career in photography had few if any ancestral origins, except in commitments to the senior graphic forms of painting and engraving? The division between amateur and professional is at this date often highly porous. Some photographers, hampered by too few opportunities and guided by prudence, moved into their careers via cautious outward grope. Some maintained a broad engagement across several reprographic technologies. A typical example whom Bennett cites is Eliphalet Brown who joined Commodore Perry’s famous visits to Japan (1852-54) and also took photographs in China. Bennett states that it is “surprising” that Perry recruited him as the expedition’s official photographer, since he was better know as an artist and lithographer (page 43). It is not at all surprising. Perry—and several other officers—had ambitious publishing plans up their sleeves before they had even crossed the Pacific westwards. Central to these plans (no doubt also to their retirement hopes) was the labour of turning photographic views into images suitable for lithographic reproduction within the covers of their future narratives and memoirs. The sum of visual recording work undertaken during the Perry embassies to Japan comprised not only photography but also the tried and tested methods of at least one century of Western naval experience of visual documentation.
The same problems of the status of early photographers are evident in the careers of many other subjects included in this survey of the first two decades of photography’s history. Many of them were entrepreneurs whose involvement with photography was brief and sometimes quite tangential to their engagements with a wide range of business ventures. This makes them no less interesting. The French photographer Legrand is a good example of how photograph-making individuals chose their position at will and varied it according to circumstances and necessity (pp 29-38). Despite even the excellent research of Régine Thiriez, Legrand remains a somewhat shadowy figure. He completed a set of views which sold commercially; according to military reports, he also accompanied French forces to North China in 1860, but gave up the exertions of trying to be a war correspondent, probably because he discovered that active service involves sitting around playing endless hands of briscola and wondering when something may happen, followed by flashes of action that happen too quickly for any possibility of photographing them. Wisely and more profitably, he turned to supplying the troops with drinks. Finally, Bennett observes, in 1865 Legrand appears in a French novel La tasse à thé whose author A Kaempfer (also known as Henri Este) borrows him as a factual stand-in for a traveller’s meeting with a photographer in that period. Now, he is a violinist residing in Shanghai, making maquettes and taking photographs in his spare time—a pairing of two highly mimetic representational arts that might be worth exploring further. Whether Legrand ever played the violin is probably immaterial. The novel reflects a credible European attitude set in an exotic (for European readers) location in which the hierarchy of vocation and leisure (coterminous here with the European exports of Art and Technology) favour photography as no more than a pastime. In short, Legrand and those who pulled his strings adopted various social roles for him, in any of which a whole and committed engagement to photography is hard to discern.
Because he does subscribe to a structure featuring only the major regional gateways of Western imperialist penetration, Bennett dispenses with a chance to look beyond the familiar image of a nineteenth-century China in which the historical roles of the most famous treaty port––Hong Kong and Shanghai––tend to be over-determined in defining the content and pace of social and cultural change. A case presented by Bennett is the American entrepreneur Orrin Freeman who arrived in Shanghai early in 1859, and worked not only there but also in Suzhou and Yokohama until he gave up photography in 1860. (Once more, careers in photography during this period were often short.) Bennett comments rightly that Freeman’s early departure to Suzhou to run a photographic business there for some months in 1859 is a rarely documented fact, and it probably qualifies Freeman as the first Western photographer to have worked there, albeit for only a short period—the Taiping armies’ thrust towards Suzhou later in 1859 may have forced him to return to Shanghai. The larger point, however, is that, even while nothing precise is known of Freeman’s activities in Suzhou, his brief sojourn in the city hints emphatically at a new and more nuanced art history of the Lower Yangzi region in mid-century. The usual interpretations suppose that the Taping army razed Suzhou soon after its richest and most educated inhabitants had fled to Shanghai and restarted Suzhou culture in that rapidly growing city fifty miles away on a tidal estuary. In the rich topsoil of this economic and cultural shift, photography was soon rooted with all the success to be a expected on behalf of a displaced clientele still besotted with theatrical spectacle, social performance, aesthetic connoisseurship, the visual arts, urban views, female bodies, all supported by a complex array of media and the means of image circulation. To anyone familiar with even some of the recent publishing on Shanghai history, all of this contributes to the usual picture of the port city as both guardian of established cultural norms and gatekeeper to new imports from the West. Instead, Freeman’s business in Suzhou suggests how a talented Western opportunist engaged with the visual economy of an older city. Here, amid the more resistant temporality of China’s interior, he matched technological innovation with the cultural norms and artistic priorities still practised in the traditional fountainhead of their standardisation and canonical sanction. It is equally interesting in this context that the protagonist of Kaempfer’s novel, constantly hungry for visual exotica throughout his sojourn in Shanghai, hankers above all to visit Ningbo.
Bennett’s exhaustive citation of primary sources creates occasional repetitions, but it does not mar his volume’s readability. Only a few small errors are noticeable:
Lo Yuanyou should be spelled Luo Yuanyou; the pagoda in fig. 19 is identifiable as the Leifeng pagoda in Hangzhou, a famous structure that collapsed in 1924; Guangzhou’s Governor Ye, who ended his days under house arrest in Calcutta, was named Mingchen not Mingshen; Zou Boqi did indeed leave behind a manuscript on photography, but that object has not survived, even though the text is preserved in a printed collection of Zou’s works.
Bennett does his readers an unparalleled service in providing the dates, itineraries and career paths yielded through the biographical approach that he exercises for each subject of his enquiry. The amount that Bennett has collected from all his sources is unprecedented for its comprehension and in its varied levels of content and aesthetic standard. His illustrations reproduce photographs to a rarely rewarded degree of accuracy in terms of both tone and grain, enhanced in many cases by full-page reproductions and double openings for some of the panoramic views, whose unpopulated stillness, sometimes further emptied of clouds and moving water, projects the eerie beauty of fabric that has likewise long since vanished. These new images and what Bennett reveals concerning their authors’ careers comprise what will be a lasting and influential addition to the Chinese field of photography studies as well as nineteenth-century history.
Reviewed by Oliver Moore, who teaches art and material culture of China at the Department of Chinese Studies, Leiden University. Moore is currently engaged in writing a history of the first century of photography in China.