Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 11, 2011
Anne Lacoste Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010. 208 pp.; 168 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9781606060353)
Exhibition schedule: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, December 7, 2010–April 4, 2011

The exhibition catalogue Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road celebrates a 2007 gift from the Wilson Centre for Photography to the J. Paul Getty Museum of more than eight hundred photographs by the Italian-born photographer Felice Beato. The gift tripled the size of the Getty’s Beato holdings, making it the world’s largest institutional collection of his photographs, which almost exclusively depict subjects in Asia and the Near East. The exhibition catalogue features 120 of these photographs, organized chronologically to showcase Beato’s long and productive career. Framing this work are informed and thoughtful commentary by Anne Lacoste, assistant curator in the Department of Photographs at the Getty, and Fred Ritchin, professor of photography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a well-known photography critic.

Lacoste’s essay provides a survey of Beato’s career, beginning with photographs from 1856 and 1857 of the Crimean War, the Holy Land, Egypt, and Greece. In 1858, Beato traveled to India, primarily to record the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, but his extensive journeys on the subcontinent yielded a large portfolio of architectural views and panoramas. British military personnel stationed in India comprised Beato’s primary market, and the relationships he developed there with the officer corps garnered an invitation in 1869 to photograph the final campaign of the Second Opium War, an Anglo-French assault of Peking. Following business protocols he developed in India, Beato supplemented his China campaign coverage with architectural views, panoramas, and portraits, which he sold to British officers and enlisted men. Returning to England in 1861 to exhibit his India and China portfolios, Beato arranged for London photographer Henry Hering to market his photographs by subscription. Lacoste provides facsimiles of Hering’s catalogue in the appendix.

At the invitation of Charles Wirgman, a correspondent for the Illustrated London News whom Beato met during the China campaign, Beato traveled to Japan in 1863 to photograph Western military reprisals against renegade provincial domains intent on ridding Japan of foreigners. Western interest in Japan was growing rapidly at the time, enticing Beato to open a commercial studio in Yokohama when the hostilities ended. For the next fourteen years, Beato ran the most successful commercial photography studio in Japan, selling photographs and albums to treaty port residents and tourists who, with the advent of globetrotter travel in the early 1870s, began visiting Japan in ever-increasing numbers. In 1871, Beato added to his repertoire of war photographs when he undertook a commission from the American government to document a punitive mission to Korea. Beato sold his studio to a competitor in 1877 but remained in Japan until 1884. After years of business failures and poor investments, he returned to the Middle East in 1885 intending to document the Anglo-Sudanese war, but he arrived too late for the actual conflict. A year of futile attempts to market his Sudan photographs in London led Beato to return to Asia, this time to Burma where he operated a successful studio until 1907. He died in Florence, Italy, in 1909.

Supported by eighty of Beato’s best photographs, Lacoste’s succinct and well-researched essay provides much more than a survey of his career; it also captures the entrepreneurial spirit of commercial photography in late nineteenth-century Asia. Three inserts focusing on Beato’s audience, his panoramas, and his Japanese albums demonstrate the manner in which he cultivated markets for his photographs by developing product lines and business protocols specific to the places and contexts in which he worked. Lacoste supplements this important aspect of Beato’s life and career with documentation of his business trips to Europe and his productive relationship with the Illustrated London News. Quotations from contemporary publications flesh out Beato’s personal character while further demonstrating his business acumen. A fourth insert utilizes a lecture Beato gave to the London and Provincial Photographic Society in 1866 to explain the technologies he employed throughout his career.

Whereas Lacoste’s essay is intended to introduce Beato’s oeuvre and provide a contextual framework for the exhibition, Ritchin’s contribution is meant to provoke reflection on Beato’s war photography and the genre as a whole. Titled “Felice Beato and the Photography of War,” his essay positions Beato’s campaign photographs in a longer historical continuum of war documentation running from Roger Fenton’s images of the Crimean War through Robert Capra’s signature photographs of the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam War imagery and even photographic practices employed in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beato photographed the Crimean, Indian, and China campaigns using the albumen negative process common in the 1850s. This technology required exposure times of several minutes, making it impossible to capture battlefield action. After his arrival in Japan and during the Korean campaign, he converted to the wet collodion process, which shortened exposure times to a few seconds and seemed to offer a less mediated form of representation. Still, the glass-plate negatives it yielded had to be developed immediately after exposure; his equipment was cumbersome and his labor intensive and slow.

As Ritchin points out, Beato was thus always and inevitably a step removed from the actual hostilities, his photographs documenting war’s aftermath and not its action. This is particularly so for the Indian Mutiny, since Beato arrived well after the rebellion had ceased. For perhaps his most memorable image, a scene of the interior of the Secundra Bagh where a pitched battle yielded a resounding British victory, Beato scattered disinterred skeletal remains in front of an architectural façade pockmarked by bullet and cannon rounds (plate 88). Because he traveled with the troops during the China campaign, Beato managed to photograph corpses on the battlefield (plates 104 and 106), but even these contrast with his carefully considered compositions of the Korean conflict rendered by the wet collodion process (fig. 7, p. 127 and plate 119). While Beato’s war photographs lack the urgency and immediacy of later and more recent examples of the genre, and probably appear staid in the eyes of contemporary viewers, Ritchin suggests that they still convey the grotesque horror of war. He argues that their theatricality, necessitated in part by the technologies Beato employed, opens up a gap between the action and aftermath of battle that requires viewers to reflect on the broader causes and consequences of military conflict more so than they might with later war imagery.

Accuracy is a general hallmark of this publication, but there are some minor problems in the text that historians of Asian art and culture will recognize and that the authors could have easily avoided. Colonial-era renderings of Asian place names inevitably present problems, and the inconsistencies in Beato’s captions complicate matters further. Lacoste makes an earnest attempt to sort these out in a note to the reader (vii), but the result is more inconsistency. She focuses only on Chinese place names, comparing in table format Beato’s terminology to that adopted throughout the text and to the more common modern (i.e., Pinyin) usage. For example, Beato used “Pekin” or “Peking” when referring to China’s national capital. The catalogue uses the latter, and the table provides its current form: Beijing. For some reason, Lacoste did not extend this effort to other countries where Beato worked. Captions for his Japan and India photographs are just as inconsistent as those from China. “Yedo” is an older Romanization for “Edo,” Japan’s early modern capital, which was renamed “Tokyo” in 1869. Similarly, the present and preferred Romanization of Qutab Minaret in Delhi is “Qutb.” There are historical inaccuracies in the catalogue as well. Beato’s birth date is now widely accepted to be 1833–34 (not the published 1832) based on a passport application he filed prior to his trip to India in 1858. The Qutb Minaret cannot be a significant monument of the Mughal Dynasty (6) as it was erected several centuries before the dynasty was founded. Although many foreigners thought that Pappenberg Island (not “Islands”) was the site of Christian persecutions (15), this was a tale originated by Sherard Osborne in the late 1850s and subsequently dismissed by the late 1880s.

Specialists in early Asian photography are unlikely to find much new in this publication, but the catalogue as a whole captures the diverse nuances of Beato’s career and conveniently gathers representative images of each phase into a single volume. The notes, bibliography, and index make the catalogue a highly useful research and teaching resource. As someone who regularly teaches nineteenth-century Asian photography, I can attest that both essays in the volume will henceforth become required reading in my courses. Academic libraries would do well to invest in this publication.

Allen Hockley
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Dartmouth College