Behold the Photographs of John Thomson, the First Western Photographer to Travel Widely Through China (1870s)

In the ear­ly 1860s, a few West­ern­ers had seen Chi­na — but near­ly all of them had seen it for them­selves. The still-new medi­um of pho­tog­ra­phy had yet to make images of every­where avail­able to view­ers every­where else, which meant an oppor­tu­ni­ty for trav­el­ing prac­ti­tion­ers like John Thom­son. “The son of a tobac­co spin­ner and shop­keep­er,” says, ” he was appren­ticed to an Edin­burgh opti­cal and sci­en­tif­ic instru­ment man­u­fac­tur­er where he learned the basics of pho­tog­ra­phy.”

In 1862 Thom­son sailed from Lei­th “with a cam­era and a portable dark room. He set up in Sin­ga­pore before explor­ing the ancient civ­i­liza­tions of Chi­na, Thai­land — then known as Siam — and Cam­bo­dia.” It is for his exten­sive pho­tog­ra­phy of Chi­na in the late 1860s and ear­ly 1870s that he’s best known today.

First lav­ish­ly pub­lished in a series of books titled Illus­tra­tions of Chi­na and Its Peo­ple (now avail­able to read free online at the Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Library: vol­ume one, vol­ume two, vol­ume three, vol­ume four), they now con­sti­tute some of the ear­li­est and rich­est direct visu­al records of Chi­nese land­scapes, cityscapes, and soci­ety as they were in the late 19th cen­tu­ry.

“The first West­ern pho­tog­ra­ph­er to trav­el wide­ly through the length and breadth of Chi­na,” Thom­son brought his cam­era on jour­neys “far more exten­sive than those under­tak­en by most West­ern­ers of his gen­er­a­tion,” extend­ing “beyond the rel­a­tive com­fort and safe­ty of the coastal treaty ports.” Those words come from schol­ar of the 19th-cen­tu­ry Allen Hock­ley, whose five-part visu­al essay “John Thom­son’s Chi­na” at MIT Visu­al­iz­ing Cul­tures pro­vides a detailed overview and his­tor­i­cal con­tex­tu­al­iza­tion of Thom­son’s work in Asia.

Thom­son’s pho­tographs, writes Hock­ley, “fall into two broad cat­e­gories: scenic views and types. Views encom­passed both nat­ur­al land­scapes and built envi­ron­ments. They could be panoram­ic, tak­ing in large swaths of scenery, or they might high­light spe­cif­ic nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na or indi­vid­ual struc­tures.”

Types “focused on the man­ners and cus­toms of Chi­nese peo­ple and tend­ed to high­light the defin­ing fea­tures of gen­der, age, class, eth­nic­i­ty, and occu­pa­tion.” A cen­tu­ry and a half lat­er, both Thom­son’s views and types have giv­en schol­ars in a vari­ety of dis­ci­plines much to dis­cuss.

“It is clear from his com­men­tary to Illus­tra­tions of Chi­na that, how­ev­er sym­pa­thet­ic he was towards Chi­nese peo­ple, he could often be supe­ri­or and high-hand­ed,” writes Andrew Hiller at Visu­al­iz­ing Chi­na. “If Thom­son nev­er sought to ques­tion the valid­i­ty of Britain’s pres­ence, his atti­tude towards Chi­na was ambiva­lent. Whilst crit­i­cal of what he saw as the cor­rup­tion and obfus­ca­tion of Qing offi­cials, he nev­er­the­less could see the country’s poten­tial.”

Thom­son also helped oth­ers to see that poten­tial — or at least those who could afford to buy his books, whose prices matched the qual­i­ty of their pro­duc­tion. But today, thanks to online archives like His­tor­i­cal Pho­tographs of Chi­na and Well­come Col­lec­tion, they’re free for every­one to behold. Chi­na itself has become much more acces­si­ble since Thom­son’s day, of course, but it’s famous­ly a much dif­fer­ent place than it was 25 years ago, let alone 150 years ago. The land through which he trav­eled — and of which he took so many of the very ear­li­est pho­tographs — is now infi­nite­ly less acces­si­ble to us than it ever was to his fel­low West­ern­ers of the 19th cen­tu­ry.

Hear a lec­ture on Thom­son’s pho­tog­ra­phy in Chi­na from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don here.

via Flash­bak

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Col­or­ful Wood Block Prints from the Chi­nese Rev­o­lu­tion of 1911: A Gallery of Artis­tic Pro­pa­gan­da Posters

The World’s Old­est Mul­ti­col­or Book, a 1633 Chi­nese Cal­lig­ra­phy & Paint­ing Man­u­al, Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online

Hand-Col­ored Pho­tographs from 19th Cen­tu­ry Japan: 110 Images Cap­ture the Wan­ing Days of Tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese Soci­ety

How Vivid­ly Col­orized Pho­tos Helped Intro­duce Japan to the World in the 19th Cen­tu­ry

1850s Japan Comes to Life in 3D, Col­or Pho­tos: See the Stereo­scop­ic Pho­tog­ra­phy of T. Ena­mi

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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