At a time when neither Leicas nor iPhones existed yet and photography was quite a serious affair involving assistants, coolies and fragile heavy equipment, you’d think photojournalism would be impossible. Yet it was in those early years when a Scottish photographer – John Thomson (1837-1921) – laid the foundations of photojournalism with the social documentary work he did in China in the 1860s. His photographs from those years can be now seen in their first exhibition ever at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas.
It is an exceptional exhibition on so many levels. Of course, the first appeal is the chance to see what China was really like in an era when cameras didn’t roam its lands – the great diversity of peoples, life and traditions, many of which are now extinct. And Thomson pointed his camera to street porters and high-rank officials, rejected ethnic minorities and respected monks alike.
The most compelling feature of his photography though was his cultural sensitivity and his poignantly humanistic approach as an observer and a photographer at a time of which we are used to expect cultural paternalism and a focus on the exotic. While looking at a reality and people so different from his own, he saw not just types but their distinct personalities. When witnessing social phenomena dramatically different from what he knew, he didn’t point at their weirdness but found parallels with those at home. And he did it through photographic means.
As an example, he regarded the life of the poor in Hong Kong as not dissimilar to the life of the poor in Britain. All negative comments about the way of life in China were accompanied by a comparison to similar traits of life back home. Or, he was not relishing in the primitive conditions of the Pepo aborigines he photographed in Taiwan, but sympathetically remarked on the better sanitation of their domestic life compared to the Chinese mainstream. In his cross-cultural parallels, he even came to believe that Buddhism and Catholicism shared certain characteristics. In his photographs, the poor are endowed with beauty and dignity, women engaged in small talk and Buddhist priests are shown in their particular personal characters, avoiding stereotypes.
One of the most powerful images in the exhibit is of the ruins of the church of a Catholic nun order, burned down during an episode of local unrest a year before Thomson’s arrival. The majestic structure is shot in a way that displays its quiet dignity, yet the inclusion of the lone figure of a local resident modifies its essence. It now looks like a particular case of cultural appropriation and is still beautiful and eerie, but without any judgment of anyone.
And for a later photo of another church, “Exteriors of Nothre Dame des Victoires” (1871), Thomson makes a comment that illuminates his insight on the topic: “The only striking building in the city – and a dreadful eyesore to the natives, towering as it did high above any of their most sacred buildings, and drawing down evil influences from the sky”. With these words, the majestic buildings of spirituality are placed in a visual and cultural context that explains the local resentment and makes us understand that world in a truly multi-dimensional way.
My only regret for this exhibition is that unfortunately, the copies shown are not darkroom prints but digitized scans of his plates. What a great occasion was missed for a real appreciation of a significant historic document in its full-body experience. But otherwise, a must-see!