March 28, 2013

John Thompson: China antique photos 1868-1872 at the Crow Collection of Asian Art, Dallas

China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872. The vanished world of Imperial China
Crow Collection of Asian Art, Dallas, USA
Through May 5, 2013

JOHN THOMSON, Manchu Bride, Peking, Penchilie province, China 
Photo Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872. The vanished world of Imperial China is startlingly revealed at the Crow Collection of Asian Art through May 5, 2013 during an exhibition of photography captured on glass plates by photographer JOHN THOMSON over a five year period, beginning in 1868. 

In a time where some feared that having their picture made could take vital essences from their body, intrepid photographer John Thomson bravely travelled throughout China winning the confidence of people from all walks of life. In John Thomson’s stunning photographs, he portrayed everyone from humble flower sellers and knife-grinders to beautiful brides and powerful Mandarin bureaucrats; often posing before backdrops of palaces, monasteries, pagodas, streets and back yards. 

Scottish photographer JOHN THOMSON was born in Edinburgh two years before the invention of the daguerreotype and the birth of photography. John Thomson first travelled to Asia in 1862, where he set up a professional photographic studio. Fascinated by local cultures, Thomson returned in 1868 and settled in Hong Kong. Over the next four years he made extensive trips to Guangdong, Fujian, Beijing, China’s north-east and down the great river Yangzi. China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872 is drawn from his time in these regions. 

These were the early days of photography, when negatives were made on glass plates that had to be coated with emulsion before exposure. A cumbersome mass of equipment was required, but with perseverance and energy, John Thomson captured a wide variety of images: landscapes, people, architecture, and domestic and street scenes. As a foreigner, his ability to gain access to photograph women was particularly remarkable - an opulently-dressed bride smiles shyly, a lady is seen after having her face painted, a government minister contentedly smokes his pipe and a smartly-dressed schoolboy carries his book and slate; John Thomson brilliantly catches the humanity of his sitters who wear traditional working clothes or finery at a key period when China was increasing its links with the West. He provides a wonderful historical record of costumes and hairstyles as well as iconic landscapes including stone animals, a large Junk sailing ship on the South China Sea, the Great Sacrifice Hall containing Ming tombs and a chapel destroyed by rioters, among others.

Curator of China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872 Betty Yao MBE, of Credential International Arts Management in London, England, says: “This exhibition seeks to show the great diversity of the photographs that Thomson took in China. What marked his work as special (portraits of the rich and famous aside) was the desire to present a faithful account of China and its people. Thomson wanted to show his audience the human aspects of life in China through his extensive record of everyday street scenes—rarely captured by other photographers of that era.” Thomson’s excellent work in China established him as a serious pioneer of photojournalism and one of the most influential photographers of his generation. Thomson amassed 650 glass plates before returning to Britain where he published many photographic and written works on China. 

Although he was not the first European photographer to visit the country, John Thomson was the first to travel extensively and produce works informing Western audiences about China the country. The plates were purchased by the Wellcome Library in London after John Thomson’s death and in 2008 the glass negatives, which were made ca. 1869-1872, were scanned into enormous digital files. From these files, inkjet prints were produced in 2008-2009. These very high-resolution inkjet prints are the ones being exhibited in Dallas. Most have never been displayed in United States.

As a result of the high resolution of the scans, we in the 21st century can now see in John Thomson's photographs things which he could never have seen himself. Thus the 49 photographs in the exhibition enable us to transcend the technology available to John Thomson himself (formidable though that was) and to see his China with a new eye.

Also on view at the Crow Collection in Dallas is (among others) an exhibition about Southeast Antique Asian Art

Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art Website: