For anyone interested in the early years of photography in China, the collection housed at The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles is not to be missed. The exhibition Brush and Shutter: Early Photography in China[1] and its catalogue provide a glimpse of the breadth and range of this important collection—which is what makes such an exhibition possible—and bring together works by both Chinese and Western photographers in meaningful ways to survey the beginnings and development of photography from the second half of the nineteenth century to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

The exhibition catalogue opens with an introduction by Chinese art historian Wu Hung, followed by five essays preceding the plates. While Wu Hung’s “Reading Early Photographs of China” does not provide an overview of the essays, the general reader will appreciate Wu’s introduction to the basic ways to examine the properties of a photograph in order to learn directly from the object its own history, and the history of which it was a part. This history of the early years of photography in China unfolds chronologically through the catalogue essays—with contributions by Edwin K. Lai, the curators of the exhibition Jeffrey W. Cody and Frances Terpak, Wu Hung, Sarah E. Fraser, and Wen-hsin Yeh—which are copiously illustrated with a total of over 70 figures, including relevant photographs from the Getty and other library and museum collections, along with period ephemera, studio advertisements, and more.

With “The History of the Camera Obscura and Early Photography in China,” Edwin Lai, who has published widely on the history of photography in Hong Kong, summarizes a legacy of Chinese experiments with pinhole optics, which underpins the principle of the photographic process. Despite this heritage, photography was seen as a Western import, and knowledge of the medium was disseminated in China primarily through the activities of commercial photographers working in the treaty ports during the1840s. From newspaper advertisements and business directories of the period, Lai identified some of those photographers and the fleeting existence of the first daguerreotype studios. Scenic photographs before 1858 were scarce, Lai notes, and he argues that the explanation lies not in technical limitations of the medium but in the issue of access, as foreigners were largely confined to the five treaty ports before the terms of their China residency were changed after the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858 and by China’s defeat in the Second Opium War (1856–60). Enterprising photographers immediately took their cameras to places previously beyond their reach and marketed these pictures to tourists and audiences back home. More Western photographers joined the competition for this profitable business, and they are credited with training the first generation of Chinese photographers—who often began their career in coastal cities as painters of Western-style pictures and portraits for the export market.

In “Through a Foreign Glass: The Art and Science of Photography in Late Qing China,” the editors Jeffrey Cody and Frances Terpak (senior project specialist in the Education Department at the Getty Conservation Institute and curator of photographs at the GRI, respectively) present a lively historical context for the perception of photography as both an artistic medium and a Western scientific technology during the 19th century. Against the backdrop of China’s Self-Strengthening Movement, begun in the 1860s and advocating mastery of foreign technology, the practice of photography was cultivated by Chinese reformers and elites as a documentary tool of science. Knowledge of the medium was further transmitted by publication of technical manuals in Chinese, such as the 1873 Tuoying qiguan 脫影奇觀 (On the principles and practices of photography) by the Protestant missionary doctor John Dudgeon. As photography sank its roots in the particular social and political milieu of late Qing China, it also stimulated new modes of visual expression, one of which embodied a hybrid aesthetic that brought to the photographic surface pictorial idioms of Chinese literati and ink painting. As Cody and Terpak ably demonstrated through this rich historical overview, “[p]hotography was a technology with particular cultural genes—part visual, part scientific, and part commercial—that resulted in complex dynamics of assimilation into Chinese society.” (45)

While the first two essays provide a history of early photography in China through a wide-angle lens, the next three examine more specific topics in close-up. Wu Hung’s “Inventing a ‘Chinese’ Portrait Style in Early Photography: The Case of Milton Miller” provokes a double take on some familiar images from the 1860s by this American portrait photographer. After establishing that Miller’s photographs of mandarins and their families are in fact staged costume portraits, Wu persuasively argues that Western photographers like Miller were responsible for the deliberate construction of a “Chinese” portrait style in photography. Miller reproduced conventions from the indigenous tradition of ancestor portrait painting by appropriating the same iconic, rigidly frontal pose of Chinese sitters dressed in official attire for this set of photographs. The strength of Wu’s argument is further supported by his observation of a glaring absence of discourse on this style in Chinese accounts, whereas commentary on the “peculiar” Chinese aesthetics of portrait photography was industriously circulated through Western reports made during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[2] Miller’s photographs catered to a Western audience hungry for “authentic Chinese images in both subject matter and style.” (85) Alternating their designs on one another, Chinese studios then appropriated “an already appropriated indigenous visual tradition,” thereby cooperating in the deft concealment of “the colonial intent in the initial construction of the style, translating a Western fetish into Chinese self-imagination.” (87)

Focusing on the shift in the representation of China in photographs taken between the Second Opium War (1856–80) and the Boxer Uprising (1900–1901), Sarah Fraser, a historian of Chinese art, shows “the ways in which photographic types referencing ethnographic genres formulated the concept of ‘China’ and developed a category of ‘the Chinese.’” (91) Her essay, “Chinese as Subject: Photographic Genres in the Nineteenth Century,” traces the trajectory from an early phase exemplified by William Saunders’s photographs of Chinese “types” from 1860s, which reinforced visual stereotypes of a timeless China already shaped and proliferated by 18th-century European engravings. At the turn of the century, American photographer James Ricalton turned the focus of his stereographic views to portray impoverished Chinese workers as a large group, and Fraser sensitively observes that in their modes of representation such photographs reflected concurrent international debates on race and the larger question on Chinese national character. The Chinese male subject was increasingly cast in a negative light in photographs and their discursive devices, to the point where essentially, “Chinese workers, military personnel, and criminals became conflated in the Western imaginary” (103) during the Boxer era; and wide circulation of images of public executions and of China as a land of violence and death perpetuated these stereotypes to a global audience through pictures taken by foreign photographers.

In the final essay, “Beyond the Frame: The Camera in Republican Shanghai and Wartime Chongqing,” Wen-hsin Yeh—a specialist on modern Chinese history—takes the reader past the time period covered by this exhibition to these two major periods in the 20th century. Through a stark comparison of the way photography was practiced in those locations, Yeh reminds the reader that photographs, and who gets to use the camera and for what purposes, are subject to the historical, political, and material conditions of the place where the images were taken. In 1930s Shanghai, urban wealth and the vibrant culture of the city fostered an environment conducive to the use of the camera as “a democratizing tool of middle-class consumerism, entertainment, and self-expression.” (118) In 1940s Chongqing—wartime capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government—public demand for news spurred the development of photojournalism there during the Sino-Japanese War, when photography was also pressed into the service of propaganda by the Nationalist government and the Communist Party. From Yeh’s analysis, it is clear that the dynamics of the site outside the frame profoundly influenced the role photography played in Shanghai and Chongqing—however, without illustrations, the essay leaves the reader desiring to see, even more, what was in the frame of those photographs.

The 59 plates—full-page reproductions of the highest quality, which faithfully capture the tone, color, and clarity of details found in the original—are not organized to mirror the thematic groupings used for the exhibition (the checklist can be found at the end of the book). Rather, their arrangement gives free play to the eyes of careful readers and invites us to consider the possible connections between the images printed on opposing pages. Whether through comparisons of subject matter, medium, genre, technique, or format, the images ultimately lead us to consider how those photographs constructed an image of late Qing China. The plates feature an even representation of works by both anonymous and well-known professional Chinese photographers and studios—including Lai Afong, See Tay, Kung Tai, Tong Chung, Yueh Chi, Wee Mew, Ye Chung—and an international cast of foreign amateur and business-minded photographers such as Giacamo Caneva, Felice Beato, Thomas Child, Phillipe Potteau, Paul Champion, William Saunders, and Milton Miller, whose photographs of people, places, and events disclose a spectrum of personal, commercial, and political agendas. Many of the images are reproduced here for the first time, including some of the colorful examples of Chinese export paintings by Tingqua (Guan Lianchang, brother of painter Lamqua), lent to the exhibition by The Kelton Foundation in Los Angeles.

The editors’ commitment to produce an exhibition catalogue that equally serves as a scholarly publication is revealed in the thoughtful grouping of essays by scholars who deploy the methods and forte of their discipline to extend the ways of using, understanding, and looking at the photographs. The editors’ commitment also is evident in the attention paid to the endnote sections, in which each title of a Chinese book, article, or journal and its author is given in Chinese, preceded by its translation and pinyin romanization. The same format is followed in the annotated bibliography accompanying this exhibition—which is not a part of the catalogue but available online (see link below)—listing primary and secondary sources published in Chinese and Western languages. The Chinese edition of Brush and Shutter will be published by Hong Kong University Press in July of 2012; the resulting expanded readership will encourage even more dialogues on the subject between scholarship in English and Chinese.

The growing repertoire of research on early photography in China is reassuring confirmation that the pulse of the field is strong and beating steadily. The first two—and the last two—U.S. exhibitions on photography in China of the period surveyed by Brush and Shutter took place three decades ago.[3] Research progress since then has allowed us to identify more photographers and studios operating in China during this early period, to challenge and confirm earlier attributions, and to develop a better understanding of a photographer or studio’s oeuvre through new discoveries in collections around the world. Brush and Shutter signals, and demonstrates, that as we continue to build on new and existing scholarship and a growing inventory of historic photographs of China, preparations are in place for planting new lines of inquiry within the field.

Reviewed by H. Tiffany Lee, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Art & Art History, Stanford University.


“History of Photography in China, 1839–ca. 1911: Selected Annotated Bibliography” is available online at:


Information on the exhibition and additional images can be found at:


A Chinese edition of Brush and Shutter: Early Photography in China 丹青和影像: 早期中國攝影 will be published by Hong Kong University Press in July of 2012


    1. The exhibition was on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum from February 8 through May 1, 2011.return to text

    2. Roberta Wue also discussed these accounts and made detailed analyses of other portraits by Miller in her “Essentially Chinese: The Chinese Portrait Subject in Nineteenth-Century Photography,” in Wu Hung and Katherine R. Tsiang, eds., Body and Face in Chinese Visual Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2005), 257–80.return to text

    3. The Face of China as Seen by Photographers and Travelers, 1860–1912 was a traveling exhibition first on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Imperial China: Photographs 1850–1912 was organized by Clark Worswick for the Asia House Gallery of the Asia Society and the American Federation of the Arts.return to text