Neither East Nor West: The Lafayette Collection: Asia in the Age of Monochrome
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Lucien de Guise, Neither East Nor West: The Lafayette Collection: Asia in the Age of Monochrome, ed. Amin Jaffer (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, 2007) 151 p. ISBN 978-983-43211-2-3.
The name “Lafayette” has a sophisticated ring to it, even in much of Europe, suggesting elegant Paris. Perhaps it was for that reason that the Lauder brothers named their Dublin and London photography firms “Lafayette Studio.” James Lauder, who founded the firm, had trained in Paris. Sophistication was no doubt a strong pull for the preferred patrons of the studio: the rich, the titled, and the socially prominent residents of or visitors to London, Dublin, and Belfast. The Lafayette Studio invited them all to sit for their portraits.
During its century of existence in several locations simultaneously, the Lafayette Studio (founded in Dublin in 1880 by James Lauder, based on his father’s photographic business dating from 1852) created iconic portrait photographs of “the names,”: famous or important people from the United Kingdom, its colonies, its possessions, its friends. Queen Victoria and other members of Britain’s Royal Family were often photographed by the studio, either in situ or at the studio’s premises. All others whose images were taken (and––¬¬through manipulation of costume and poses and retouching—created), at the studio were thus associated with British royalty in the popular imagination. But it was not only public perception that aligned many of Lafayette’s sitters with the Queen- Empress: any number of Lafayette’s foreign patrons were also colonial subjects and were photographed by the Studio while visiting London for celebrations, coronations, funerals, and to pay their respects to the Queen. And many others were, indeed, royal in their own foreign domains, such as the aged Sultan of Perak and the splendidly-attired Indian maharajahs and their consorts. Others were members of the diplomatic corps and posed for their portraits before or after presenting their credentials at the Court of St. James’s. The regalia and fancy attire worn at the court were dutifully preserved by Lafayette on glass plate negatives and paper prints that were presented to the sitters and also sold to the public as well as being reproduced in newspapers and magazines.
The portraits might have less to do with vanity and more to do with a real or fictive association with Britain’s royal family, particularly after Queen Victoria granted the studio a royal warrant that allowed it to use on its images and in its advertizing the style “Photographer Royal” (See “A Brief History of the Lafayette Photographic Studio,” by Jane Meadows: http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1158_lafayette/back_dev.php).
We might wince today at the portrait of Wellington Koo, China’s Ambassador, in the 1921 portrait showing him in breeches, knee socks, buckled shoes, and plumed hat, but at the time the photograph was made that apparently was appropriate costume to wear for presentation to the Queen. But at the same time we might be captivated by the portrait of his elegant wife, Hui-lan, daughter of Indonesia’s fabulously wealthy “Sugar King.”
When the Lafayette Studio’s London and suburban operations effectively closed down in 1952 (some business continued until 1962), Lafayette had been creating superb images for a century (the Dublin studio still operates, under a different proprietor). Lafayette’s archive of glass plate negatives was not passed on to another studio, was not sold, nor did it find a secure home in a library or private collection. The archive appeared to have been lost, if not forgotten, but in fact much of it later was found, quite by chance, although it was not immediately recognized for what it was and what it represented.
In 1968, a workman charged with clearing out a building in London was confronted with a pile of jumble in the attic: Lafayette’s glass negatives. Twenty years later, after the negatives were discovered in a props store, they were given to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which in its turn passed the bulk of them on to the National Portrait Gallery.
Neither East Nor West focuses on a selection of Lafayette’s portraits of Asians and is the catalog of an exhibition held at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in 2007. The next year the exhibition moved to the Asian Civilizations Museum in Singapore with the addition of a dozen portrait photos from the G. R. Lambert Studio, the most important photo studio in Southeast Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (The pairing of the Lafayette and Lambert images lent that exhibition a local flavor that could not have been obtained from showing only the London photos in the exhibition in Malaysia, as none of those included citizens of what became Singapore.) Although each of the portraits bears only a simple caption and a few lines of interpretive text supplied by the book’s editors, the textual prologue to the selection of portraits provides a broader context for the images of rich and prominent Asian men and women. Those elites included Japanese aristocrats and diplomats, Indian potentates, Malay sultans and rajahs, and elegant Asian women dressed in native or Western garb and glittering jewels.
Four chapters of text deal with matters relating to the content of the photographs: Asian Attire and the Lafayette Studio; Uniformity and the Middle Ground Between East and West; Conflict and Clothing; The Lafayette Studio – Linking the World to Asia. An introduction, “Asia in the Age of Monochrome” provides a succinct synopsis of photographic activities in pre-20th century Asia.
The book’s production is superb: fine coated paper; exquisite high-contrast, full-page reproductions; and excellent binding, all of which are reflected in the price, which, however, is not prohibitive.
Perhaps in order to highlight the individual images while also providing some context, the photographs are reproduced on black-bordered pages with accompanying text in silver print, an elegant display that makes the texts difficult to read.
The text would have benefitted from more careful editing so that errors could have been avoided. For example, the dates of China’s Qing dynasty are given as 1368-1911, but in fact were 1644-1911 (1368-1644 are the dates of the Ming dynasty). The last year of Japan’s Edo period is given as 1867, but it was 1868.
Entries in this catalog’s bibliography do not give publishers’ names and follow the British model of using initials in place of full names. Thus, for example, Hui-lan Koo is cited at “Koo, H.L.” and Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles as “Raffles, S.”
This is a book that can be read on several levels. One, of course, is the preservation and reproduction of exquisite examples of studio portrait photography. Another offers an historical dimension: changing tastes in photography and fashion, and changing appreciation of those; archives not valued and abandoned, rediscovered and valued perhaps even more than they were when they were produced. But, given the venue of the exhibition that resulted in the publication of this work, another level is post-Post-Colonial interest in the representation of a time when a commitment to Western styles and mores, as well as acceptance of or allegiance to colonial overlords, was the norm and was, perhaps, viewed more objectively than negatively. Thus, this fairly obscure publication offers a hint that in some circles the colonial legacy might well be on the verge of being re-evaluated. Or, perhaps, as often is the case with “reading” photographs, this might view might well be an over interpretation.
Reviewed by Raymond Lum, Librarian for Western Languages, Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University.