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Welcome to the spring 2019 issue of the Trans Asia Photography Review. In this issue we take on the circulation of photographs, past and present, within and between nations. How do photographs circulate? How do their meanings and uses change as they travel?
Beginning in the nineteenth century, photographs in Asia were often made by Europeans and then preserved in European collections. Thus, early photographs of Asia have circulated more outside of Asia than within its boundaries. In her review of Joachim Bautze’s Unseen Siam: Early Photography 1860–1910, Leslie Castro-Woodhouse discusses this imbalance, and points out that this book will now make many early photographs newly accessible to Thai scholars as well as international readers.
Life and Dreams: Contemporary Chinese Photography and Media, edited by Christopher Phillips and Wu Hung and reviewed here by Christine I. Ho, showcases work from the Walther Collection. In this case the artists are all Chinese, working in the period beginning in the late 1980s, when photographic works made in China began to travel in global art circuits. Though their work has found its way to a European collection, they are full participants in this process.
Photobooks are an increasingly important vehicle for circulation. Russet Lederman talks with three contemporary photobook consultants — Iona Fergusson, Amanda Ning-Ling Lo, and Miwa Susuda — about photobooks made by women artists in East, South, and Southeast Asia. Their conversation explores the vibrant experimentation of these women’s work, the networks that are growing for photobook circulation, and the challenges that remain for making this work more visible. All the photobooks discussed are featured in a “book about books” entitled How We See: Photobooks by Women, produced by the 10x10 Photobooks project.
In addition to books, exhibitions have historically been crucial to the circulation of photographs and ideas. In his essay on the development of photomontage in Japan in the 1930s, Kevin Michael Smith cites the important influence of the German exhibition Film und Foto, which was shown in Japan in 1931. Smith looks at the circulation of ideas about photomontage: how concepts from Germany and the Soviet Union influenced Japanese artists, who then developed photomontage to serve their own artistic and political ends.
Clare Harris describes another kind of transnational interaction that took place in the making of the exhibition Performing Tibetan Identities, at the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford University). In response to colonial-era portraits of Tibetans made by British photographers, the Tibetan photographer Nyema Droma made double portraits of contemporary Tibetans, picturing them in both “modern” and “traditional” dress. Her large-scale color portraits were juxtaposed with positive and negative versions of the black-and-white portraits made more than a century earlier, enabling a circulation of ideas in time as well as space.
But circulation also has its constraints. Two recent exhibitions in Beijing, both of which brought to light little-known histories of Chinese photography, are discussed by their curators — Chen Shuxia, Zhou Dengyan, and Shi Zhimin. One exhibition was a lifetime survey of the work of Shi Shaohua, who documented the Communist revolution from the inside and continued to devote his work to the circulation of revolutionary ideals for more than forty years, though he was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and his contributions were obscured. His trajectory suggests the complex, shifting role of government ideology in determining which images can circulate at a particular time. The second exhibition concentrated on just three years (1977–80), during which an informal, private group calling itself the Friday Salon began to open up the practices of Chinese photography to a wider range of influences and ideas. These two exhibitions represent opposing but overlapping modes of circulation.
Even during the revolutionary period in China, photographs circulated through a variety of media. Yiwen Liu examines postmortem portraits of the influential writer Lu Xun, who died in 1936, and the ways these images circulated in newspapers and as woodcuts and ink drawings. All of these different but connected representations reinforced one another, serving to make Lu Xun into a powerful political icon.
Scott Dietrich and Michael R. Dietrich also discuss the commemoration of a figure but in this case the figure is an American who photographed in western China at the turn of the twentieth century. Ernest Wilson’s photos first circulated in the United States, then found their way back to Sichuan province 100 years later, where they were enlisted by the Chinese to promote cultural pride, environmental protection, and eco-tourism. The Dietrichs introduce us to the city of Songpan and the unusual monument that has been created in Wilson’s honor there as his photographs came full circle.
Let us not forget the postcard as a vehicle for the circulation of photographs. Stephen Hughes and Emily Stevenson have collected a significant sample of the billions of postcards made and circulated in colonial India (and abroad) in the early part of the twentieth century. They write about the complex meanings generated by these circulating photo/text combinations, which seem to prefigure today’s social media, and continue to circulate as contemporary scholars “unpack” them.
Finally, in her extensive discussion of the elaborate photo albums gifted by the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II to the United States and the United Kingdom, Erin Hyde Nolan presents a fascinating case of failed circulation. Although it was the sultan’s intention to distribute these images — which celebrate the accomplishments of his empire — to Western seats of power, apparently the albums languished, unseen, in British and American archives. “What happens when photographs circulate but are not viewed?” Nolan asks.
In this issue, we come to understand that photos are very portable and malleable objects, constantly in motion and making themselves useful wherever they go. Surprisingly (or not), none of the present authors has written about the phenomenal circulation of photographs on the Internet. This will remain a topic for future discussion, but in the meantime, the Trans Asia Photography Review is participating in this mode of circulation by bringing the spring 2019 issue to you online, available all over the globe at no charge. Please browse (also at our Facebook page), read, think, and look at the photos freely!
With all good wishes,
Sandra Matthews, Editor