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It is not a coincidence that these three recent publications on photography in China all begin with a lament on the obstacles involved with studying this subject. Indeed, since there is rarely a concentrated archive of photo studios or photographers in China, information can only be gleaned from newspaper advertisements, travel writing, correspondence, and ephemera. Actual photographs are not abundant either, as political chaos over the past century resulted in their significant loss and destruction. The extant photographic materials in Chinese public collections are generally inaccessible; those in private collections are increasingly visible, thanks to the popular Old Photographs series and internet fan forums, but they have yet to be included in academic studies. Euro-American collections, therefore, have formed the foundation of the scholarship, as demonstrated by two groundbreaking exhibition catalogues published in 1978: Imperial China: Photographs 1850–1912 (New York: Pennwick) and The Face of China as Seen by Photographers and Travelers (Millerton, NY: Aperture). Although preliminary, the accounts offered by these catalogues have remained the staple literature on early photography in China with the exception of Hong Kong photography, which received in-depth study in the exhibition and catalogue Picturing Hong Kong: Photography 1855–1910 (New York: Asia Society, 1997). And so a handful of publications comprise the main body of work on photography in China, with a survey history of the topic yet to exist in the English language.
This “uncharted territory,” a phrase frequently used in the description of Chinese photographic history, welcomes the contribution of the three substantial books considered in this review. Terry Bennett, a prominent collector and independent scholar, offers readers a glimpse into his own collection in his series, History of Photography in China. Jeffrey W. Cody and Frances Terpak, together with a group of art historians and historians, introduce the impressive new acquisitions of photography in China by the Getty Research Institute, which resulted in the catalogue and exhibition Brush and Shutter: Early Photography in China. While Bennett’s histories incorporate impressive archival discoveries into a heroic narrative that valorizes early pioneers of photography, the contributors to Brush and Shutter expand their investigation to address issues such as the cultural meanings of photography and the colonial imagination of China through photography. Despite their many differences, these publications share difficulties in defining a conceptual position for “China” in the history of photography. That the titles of all three books contain the phrase “photography in China,” instead of “Chinese photography,” indicates an awareness of the limitations of a national framework for understanding photographic history. It remains a challenge to acknowledge simultaneously the global nature of the production and consumption of photography, and the local agency of the practice and practitioner.
A collector for over twenty-five years, Bennett amassed an impressive private collection of East Asian photography and published a few volumes on early photography in Japan and Korea prior to his histories of photography in China. As revealed in his prefaces, Bennett originally intended to cover the period between 1842, the entry of photography in China, and 1911, the end of the imperial Qing dynasty. He soon recognized that the grand scope of the project would require multiple volumes. Thus, the first volume stops at 1860, the end of the Second Opium War, while the second narrows its coverage to Western photographers working between 1861 and 1879.
In Bennett’s first volume, each of the chapters is structured chronologically and focuses on the life stories of the photographers (with the exception of chapter 8, which provides a brief account of the Second Opium War, 1856–1860). He introduces readers to an impressive range of forty-five photographers, from well-known figures such as Felix Beato, to unknown photographers whose relationship with China would have been lost without Bennett’s archival research. These biographies are grouped into chapters based on the nature of each photographer’s practice or the region of his activity. The volume as a whole outlines a slow and uneven development of photographic practices in China, starting from Macau, Hong Kong, and Guangdong, the earliest entry points of Western economic and military forces following the First Opium War (1839–1842), northward to Shanghai, and eventually to Beijing, largely due to the military expedition during the Second Opium War. It ends with a chapter on the biographies of two commercial photographers in Hong Kong, anticipating the boom of photographic studios that becomes the focus of the second volume.
The second volume covers the decades between 1861 and 1879, the era right after the Second Opium War; this is also the period right before the widespread adoption of the dry-plate process, as Bennett claims to be more interested in photographers who worked with the technically demanding wet-plate process. He adds an explicit regional dimension to this volume by grouping photographers’ biographies on the basis of the location of their practices. The first three chapters focus on photographers active in Hong Kong, Beijing, and the treaty ports Shanghai, Fuzhou, Hankou, Ningbo, Xiamen, and Guangzhou. In the fourth chapter, Bennett discusses a long list of itinerant photographers, including the well-studied John Thomson. Chapter 5 focuses on the photographers who shot the ruins of the European palaces in the Old Summer Palace. The last chapter introduces the first two Chinese periodicals containing photographs, The China Magazine (1868–1870) and The Far East (1870–1878).
Both of Bennett’s volumes are generously illustrated with high-quality reproductions of photographs, newspaper advertisements, and engravings from a large number of private and public collections, including Bennett’s own. In addition to the highly informative notes and bibliographies, the supplementary materials will prove to be helpful sources for future research. For example, Bennett compiles a list of photographic terms, a chronology of Chinese photography, a chronology of regional photography in China, and an index of photographers in China. The primary materials included in the many appendices will also enable scholars to address a number of exciting research questions. The appendices of early stereoviews of China offer the most comprehensive inventory to date and provide a glimpse into how China was seen through stereoscopy. Reviews on the photographic portfolio of Hong Kong by William Floyd and John Thomson, published in China Mail, provide ample evidence of what nineteenth-century viewers expected from the photographic medium and how they looked at, evaluated, and discussed photographs of China.
Bennett’s own approach is strictly biographical, which results in the most comprehensive compendium of early Western photographers in China; at the same time, his is a historical narrative susceptible to methodological and historiographic challenges. He utilizes a wide range of sources, such as birth certificates, invoices of business transactions, newspaper articles, and census records to meticulously piece together each identifiable Western photographer’s family background, early training, experience with China, and life after returning home, when applicable. This astounding amount of information helps Bennett attribute previously anonymous images to specific photographers and to correct misattributions in museum records. For instance, in the first volume, Bennett convincingly points out that the group of photographs of Guangdong in the National Army Museum, which used to be attributed to Beato, is the work of the lesser known Corporal John Wotherspoon (104). Bennett rightly reminds readers that attribution is “a necessary precursor to any attempts by photographic and art historians to conduct any meaningful commentary,” and provides the only means for social historians to investigate the motivation and context of photographic productions (vii).
Bennett’s focus on the life stories of photographers helps illuminate the trajectories of these globetrotters, which could otherwise be fragmented in studies strictly organized by region. China was often just one hasty stop in photographers’ journeys, which may have started in Europe or America, and stretched to Mexico and Australia. Their photographic activities marked a special moment in the global movement of technique, skill, image, and knowledge. Bennett’s scrupulous reconstruction of early photographers invites more attention to the networks rather than territories of early photographic history, the transnational nature of which has yet to be fully explored.
While the strength of Bennett’s research results from his rigorous focus on photographers’ life stories, his strict biographical approach prevents him from engaging with broader socio-historical developments in photographic practices and culture. Bennett pays much attention to identifying a series of “firsts”: the photographer who first took photographs in China, the photographer who became the first commercial photographer, the photographer who opened the first commercial studio, and so on. It is unclear how these “firsts,” mostly due to idiosyncratic circumstances, enrich our understanding of photography’s history in China. As demonstrated by many studies of cultural encounter, the process of dissemination and integration offers more insight into both the host and the guest culture than the origin of contact. More importantly, Bennett’s hagiographic approach to photographers propels us to ask how we as researchers should tackle the entangled histories of the dissemination of photographic techniques and the expansion of imperial power. Bennett’s admiration of the “talented operators” from the West is so palpable that the detailed stories occasionally read as moral tales of heroic personalities, whose masterful handling of the technically demanding daguerreotype and wet-plate process was supplemented by astute entrepreneur intuition and resilient personality. While a researcher can have empathy for his subjects, Bennett problematically eschews any discussion of the relationship between photography and colonial power; most photographers gained access to China, after all, as a result of intensified imperial military and economic infringement. For instance, in the first volume, Bennett describes Charles Dupin, a French colonel who participated with exceptional brutality in France’s imperial expeditions, as “a fine sportsman and a more than competent photographer” who “received an extensive and varied education,” and was conversant with “the theory and practice of warfare.” Although he mentions “the brutal side to his character,” Bennett reminds readers of Dupin’s “robust physical condition” and “refined manners.” Dupin’s stereographs, including chilling images of French soldiers lined up in a garden in Shanghai during the French occupation, are dubbed an “enduring photographic legacy” (102). Bennett is certainly not obliged to focus on exposing the imperial agenda in his study of photography, but a celebration of Western photographers and their legacy, untroubled by historical and political contexts, resonates too readily with nineteenth-century discourses of seeing, conquering, and possessing the other.
Parallel to the problem of narrating Western photographers’ experiences in China is how to develop a more organic history through which photographers and consumers of various cultural and ethnic backgrounds can be integrated. Bennett promises a third volume specifically on Chinese photographers, and limits the second volume to Western photographers, explaining that the inclusion of Chinese photographers “would complicate a story that already contained too many plots, sub-plots, characters and scenes” (viii). However, a clear demarcation between “Western” and “Chinese” photographic practices risks distorting the picture of early photography in China, which is indeed messy and resistant to reductive categorization. The working condition of early photographic studios, especially in cosmopolitan environments like Hong Kong and Shanghai, determined that the livelihoods and daily practices of Chinese and non-Chinese photographers were tightly woven together. As Bennett himself demonstrates in volume two, the famous Lai Afong worked for the Silveira studio, a business first established by a Portuguese man, José Joaquim Alves Silveira, and later sold to a British photographer William Floyd (5), while a little-known Shanghai studio owned by A. de Encarnação also had a Chinese assistant named Lee Ching (138). This solid evidence, mostly from newspaper advertisements, supports the speculation of scholars that Western studios employed local assistants, many of whom later grew into independent photographers and studio owners themselves.
Bennett’s Western focus also leads him to reiterate a long held myth: that the Chinese initially rejected photography because they “were superstitious, afraid, or simply disinclined to subject themselves to this alien technology” (ix). Later, however, Bennett quotes extensively from Journal d’un voyage en Chine (1848) by Alphonse Eugène Jules Itier, whose daguerreotypes are the first known extant photographic images of China, in which Itier repeatedly mentions the curiosity and enthusiasm for photography by both Chinese viewers and sitters. In fact, Itier’s only complaint is toward a group of Chinese who agreed to pose for him, as their “astonishment was not, however, profound” (4). Itier’s accounts fade in Bennett’s history while those highlighting the Chinese people’s open hostility toward photography persist, although both represent no more than a small sample from the spectrum of reception in China. This reception, moreover, which ranged from eager pursuit to resolute rejection, differed very little from the initial reception of photography in the West.
If approached with the expectation of a new and complete history, Bennett’s volumes will puzzle readers with their lack of critical framework, overwhelming array of undigested primary materials, and a biased focus on Western photographers. But for specialists and collectors, these two volumes are simply indispensible references for any serious scholarship on early photography in China. Despite my reservations about Bennett’s approach, his dedication to and erudition of the subject is admirable.
For those looking for a well-rounded introduction to the early history of photography in China, Brush and Shutter: Early Photography in China stands out as the best available publication, and will probably remain so until a survey history finally appears in the English language. This handsomely produced catalogue enables those who missed the Getty exhibition to have a glimpse of its exceptionally high quality and breadth. Unlike the plates in previous catalogues on early photography in China, Brush and Shutter presents photographs with their material integrity, including the verso of cartes de viste, fabric mounting of panoramic photographs, and so on. Accompanying the plates is an introductory essay by Wu Hung followed by five informative essays on a wide range of topics. The catalogue also includes a bilingual glossary of early studio names, which is a helpful tool for researchers because the English and Chinese name of a studio can be difficult to match, especially in the absence of the physical photographs that bear both names on their verso or mounting.
Juxtaposing “brush” and “shutter,” the title of the catalogue accentuates the relationship between two means of image production. Contributors to the catalogue differ in their opinions on how the painting tradition in China affected photography, and how indigenous practitioners shaped photographic practices. For instance, “Through a Foreign Glass” by Cody and Terpak, curators of the exhibition, emphasizes the Western origins of photography in China. Although the authors use a set of scenic views and a panorama of Tung Hing, a Fuzhou-based studio, to illustrate the influence on photography of literati aesthetics and traditional landscape painting, they also stress that the new medium’s Western origins registered prominently in photographic discourse in late nineteenth-century China. The Chinese emphasis on the “Western” identity of photography lent it a special claim to modernity, which helped its rapid assimilation into Chinese society especially after the ruling elites were convinced of the necessity to learn from the West. In contrast to Cody and Terpak’s point of view, Edward K. Lai advocates a Chinese genealogy of photography. Lai provides a synthetic account of early photography in Hong Kong, drawing upon his decades-long research that dramatically advanced our knowledge of photography in the region. Lai emphasizes optical knowledge in pre-modern China and credits Zou Boqi, who arguably experimented with the wet-plate process on his own, as an indigenous inventor of photography. Western photographers’ activities are therefore bracketed between an indigenous origin of photography and the booming of local studios. Despite their apparent contradiction, these two essays ultimately complement one other: they point to the tension of different cultural claims persistently manifested in the practice and discourse of photography.
By shifting to the reception of photographic images, Sarah E. Fraser adds another angle to the tension between a haunting Western origin and an anxious indigenous adoption. Fraser aims to examine how the “Chinese character” was constructed in the Western imagination, thus approaching photographs of China as a part of imperialist discourse. Her essay provides an ambitious overview of an era framed by the Second Opium War and the Boxer Uprising (1900–1901), which, according to Fraser, witnessed a transformation in Chinese subjects from “abstract genre categories of quintessential ‘native types’” (91) to larger groups of impoverished laborers or unruly troublemakers; the latter contributed to the increasingly negative Western image of China, fueled in part by the intensified exploitation of overseas Chinese labor. Fraser supports this hypothesis through close readings of photographic tropes, including types of trade, coolies, and images of punishment and death.
Brush and Shutter demonstrates a candid awareness of the differences in its contributors’ methodologies, and concomitantly encourages explicit discussion of such. In his introductory essay, Wu proposes a new methodology that stems from the workshop organized by the exhibition’s curatorial team at an early stage in their preparation. A group of scholars interested in Chinese photography was invited to examine a selection of objects from the Getty’s recent acquisitions of photography in China. The purpose of the workshop was to focus on the objects themselves without disciplinary bias. Framing this collaboration as a success, Wu argues for the potential of “internal evidence” in the photographs to redeem the lack of “external evidence” (1). He offers a helpful introduction to the material culture of early photography, encouraging readers to pay attention to the physical forms of photographs as much as the images they bear.
Wu’s thematic essay, a reexamination of portrait photographs by Milton Miller, provides the most compelling demonstration of the value of this approach. Miller, who had a productive career as a commercial photographer in Hong Kong between 1860 and 1863, has been long considered the finest portrait photographer in the region by collectors and researchers alike. His portrayals of Chinese officials and merchants are believed to reveal the sitters’ inner character in spite of the formulaic postures—the frontal view, stiff position, and expressionless decorum claimed to be favored by Chinese sitters. Miller’s photographs of the Chinese have been widely published and discussed, which makes Wu’s observations all the more striking: he convincingly argues that these photographs should be understood not as portraits but as “a loosely ‘defined’ project” of types (70). The same figures appear as characters of different social standing within different family groupings; the very same robe, likely a costume, is shown on different “officials.” These details indicate that the photographs staged pseudo-ethnographic types that met the Euro-American demand for glimpses of China, belonging to the same category as the one comprised of staged views of various trades and domestic rituals. Wu does not merely “correct” the function and category of Miller’s photographs of Chinese sitters. Instead, he contextualizes them in the curiously “abrupt split between practice and discourse” of early Chinese photography—that is, the products of Chinese and Western studios could look similar, but Western accounts insisted on “Chinese peculiarity” (81). Miller’s works are therefore read as expressing a colonial desire to secure the difference between the West and the other in the photographic medium that threatens to render its subjects with a dangerous sense of sameness. This constructed difference consolidated the notion of “Chineseness” in photography, whose prevalence in historiography has helped to conceal its own construction. Wu’s insightful rereading of Miller’s works challenges no less than the binary of Western versus Chinese, which has haunted studies of early photography in China.
While Wu emphasizes the necessity of reading the photographs themselves, Wen-hsin Yeh reminds us, as the title of her article suggests, of what is “beyond the frame.” Yeh compares the photographic practices in Shanghai to those in Chongqing during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The former provides a more familiar narrative of photography’s integration into the city’s consumerism, and Yeh’s account of the latter creates a vivid outline, despite a lack of images, of an intense war of propaganda carried out through photography.
A few factual errors are worth mentioning here, although these do not detract from the overall quality of the catalogue. The Sze-Yuen Ming studio, the Chinese title of which is listed as unknown, should be the famous Yaohua studio (xi). Cody and Terpak mistake a photograph from a much later date as “taken in the Forbidden City for court purpose in 1851,” and posit it as evidence of the early presence of photography in the Qing court (59). Although many members of the royal family were photographed as early as 1860, photography did not enter the inner court until the turn of the twentieth century.
As acknowledged by Wu’s introduction, the essays in Brush and Shutter demonstrate different opinions and “eschew a quick generalization of these visual materials based on popular theoretical models” (2). However, readers could not help but notice that a grand narrative of early photography in China emerges from this collective intake. How does this narrative in China confirm, contradict, or complicate the history of photography, which is still largely based on the Euro-American experience? What are the similarities and differences between photography in China and other regions of the world traditionally marginalized in the historiography of photography, such as Japan or Mexico? This exciting conversation begins to seem possible, thanks to the lucid overview and methodological openness offered by Brush and Shutter, and the more in-depth endeavors it will surely foster.
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, University of Toronto