The photographer John Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1837, and first travelled to Asia in 1862. He was so won over by the culture that he returned in 1868, and spent the next four years travelling through China. A new exhibition of his photography, China through the Lens of John Thomson, is on now at the Burrell Collection. Located in the middle of Pollock Country Park, the whole thing is a visual delight. The photography is beautiful and evocative, and the history is painstakingly researched and presented in great detail. China through the Lens of John Thomson is undoubtedly a success.
The photographs, which include a range of formal portraits, candid street shots, and photos of landscapes, scenery, and monuments, are categorized by region. Of the dozens and dozens of photos included, every one has a multilingual label that includes its title, date, historical context, and significance. Many also include Thomson’s own writing. The degree of detail included is surprising but definitely appreciated; all of his work can be understood in context.
Despite the amount of both history and historiography expressed, this exploration of Victorian era photography is by far the most enlightening part of the exhibition.
The practice of photography was invented during Thomson’s lifetime, and as the exhibition notes, cameras were still unfamiliar to most Chinese people during Thomson’s time there. He was clearly a master of his craft, but part of what makes the photographs noteworthy to a modern viewer is what we would perceive as their imperfections. Photography as an art has changed drastically since Thomson’s time, and in the age of Photoshop, it would be completely unheard of to exhibit photographs that display the ink blots, severed edges and slight cracks that Thomson’s do. But there is also a purity and an artistry to his pictures, many of which are astonishingly beautiful.
The photographs of people are among his most striking. Thomson took many portraits, of both high-ranking officials and lower-level, more idiosyncratic professionals at work: blind musicians, a night watchman, a mender of broken dishes, a ‘dealer of curiosities’, and so on. Several are traditional Chinese portraits, where the subjects all face the viewer and the arrangement of figures is hierarchical. But in many more photos, Thomson’s composition makes a conscious break from tradition. He has his subjects face away from each other, or away from the camera. He also has many portraits of people of different social statuses standing side by side, and positions some portraits as stereoscopes. The result is personal and expressive, fulfilling Thomson’s stated goal of capturing his subjects ‘faithfully and with sensitivity.’
“The Lens of John Thomson” is an important inclusion in the exhibition’s title. In all the history and context provided, we are never once given the impression that this is anything but one person’s perception of a culture. The exhibition never glosses over the biases Thomson is bound to have had as a British Victorian; while his sympathy for the poor is noted, so is his distaste for beggars and his occasional racial generalizations. Rather than present a false image of the photographer as immune to the prejudices of his time, the exhibition is not afraid to depict Thomson honestly.
This is the first showing of the exhibition in Scotland, and is on loan from the Wellcome Library.
At a glance it’s easy to romanticize Thomson’s 19th century photographs as an ode to times past and yet his work is markedly different from any other early photographers’ I have seen. The black and white images, some with a faint fingerprint smear or note where the negative has been touched before exposure are an indication of the painstaking care with which these images were produced. Taken over 140 years ago using what would now be considered primitive equipment; the images are of remarkable quality even in the largest prints.
Certain images contain a distinct social commentary, likely posed in expression of Thomson’s own views of life in China at the time. The Manchu bride’s gaze, whose image advertises the exhibition, is cast forlornly away from the camera, perhaps representative of the fact that Thomson viewed the bride’s life prospects to be gloomy—his personal commentary below the photo states that he believed she was destined for a life akin to slavery. But while there is an element of historical insight that will surely be fascinating to anyone interested in this era—with images of emperors and colonial architecture—the majority of the exhibition is refreshingly not what you would find in a history textbook. It is, in essence, a human study of life and emotion that ignores all traditional class boundaries.
Manchu brides and feet binding may be things of the past, but Thomson’s street scenes and the photos taken in locals’ houses have a familiar feel about them largely owed to the fact that Thomson broke away from the traditional style of portraiture at the time through the desire to inject authenticity into his work. (In a return to tradition, he later became the official photographer of the British Royal family).
Having set up shop in Hong Kong enabled Thomson to take extensive trips throughout China where he befriended locals who allowed him an insight into their daily lives and homes, typically shielded from foreign eyes. It is no small feat that nearly a hundred and fifty years later the essence of human nature captured in Thomson’s work is not much changed and a credit to Thomson’s talents that he was able to capture the quintessence of human feeling so seamlessly. Whether it’s the locals jam-packed on a bridge to catch a glimpse of Thomson’s camera equipment or a group of young hooligans leaning against a doorframe, heads held high as if to challenge the camera and viewer, it is no stretch of the imagination to imagine similar scenes taking place today.
Through the Lens of John Thomson is a free exhibition, on display at the Burrell Collection until 12 June 2011.