By the early 1860s, a few Westerners had seen China – but almost everyone had seen it for themselves. The ever-new photography medium had not yet made images of everywhere available to viewers everywhere else, which meant an opportunity for traveling GPs like John Thomson. “The son of a tobacco spinner and shopkeeper,” says BBC.com, “he was apprenticed to a manufacturer of optical and scientific instruments in Edinburgh, where he learned the basics of photography.”
In 1862, Thomson sailed from Leith “with a camera and a portable dark room. He established himself 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 is best known today.
First lavishly published in a number of books with the title Illustrations of China and its people (now available to read for free online at Yale University Library: Volume One, Volume Two, Volume Three, Volume Four), they now constitute some of the earliest and richest direct visual recordings of Chinese landscapes, cityscapes, and communities as they were at the end. of the 1800s.
“The first Western photographer to travel far and wide in China’s length and breadth,” Thomson brought his camera on travels “far more extensively than those made by most Westerners of his generation,” and extends “beyond it relative comfort and safety in coastal ports. ”These words come from 19th-century scholar Allen Hockley, whose five-part visual essay“ John Thomson’s China ”provides a detailed overview and historical contextualization of Thomson’s work in Asia. .
Thomson’s photographs, Hockley writes, “fall into two broad categories: scenic views and types. Views included both natural landscapes and built environments. They can be panoramic views and occupy large areas of scenery, or they can highlight specific natural phenomena or individual structures. ”
Types “focused on the manners and customs of Chinese people and tended to highlight the characteristics of gender, age, class, ethnicity, and occupation.” One and a half centuries later, both Thomson’s views and types have given researchers in a variety of disciplines much to discuss.
“It is clear from his comment to Illustrations of China that no matter how sympathetic he was to the Chinese, 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 position on China was ambivalent. Although he was critical of what he saw as the corruption and disguise of Qing officials, he could nevertheless see the potential of the country. ”
Thomson also helped others see the 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 the Historical Photographs of China and the Wellcome Collection, they are free for all to see. China itself has obviously become much more accessible since Thomson’s time, but it’s famously somewhere very different than it was 25 years ago, let alone 150 years ago. The land he traveled through – and from which he took so many of the very first photographs – is now infinitely less accessible to us than it ever was to his 19th-century fellow West.
Hear a lecture on Thomson’s photography in China from the University of London here.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcaststs about cities, languages and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Journey Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in the cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.