John Thomson Photographs Discussed in Online Audio

 Manchu Bride, by John ThompsonJust happened upon an interesting and detailed talk on the 19th century photographs of John Thomson. The audio discussion at KERA ListenLive, features host Krys Boyd talking with organizer of the exhibit Betty Yao, MBE of Credential International Arts Management in London, and Amy Hofland, Executive Director at the Crow Collection of Asian Art. The photos were exhibited by the Crow Collection of Asian Art in a program “China Through the Lens of John Thomson 1868-1872,” which concluded its run May 05, 2013.                         Manchu Bride, John Thompson

We were pleased to come upon a discussion like this – a rare opportunity to hear folks knowledgeable in the arts weigh in on 19th century photography in China. First, because James Lande is formulating his review of Tom Carter‘s China: Portrait of a People partly in the context of earlier photographers of life in China, especially John Thomson, and secondly, because such photographs are a primary source for novels set in that era.

It is instructive to compare today’s approaches to making pictures with how it was in Thomson’s day, beginning with the obvious – the cameras. Tom carried a small digital camera on his two-year trek through China, while Thomson had to carry huge bulky box cameras and glass plates that must have presented serious logistical challenges. From there, the differences mushroom.

In the KERA audio discussion, we hear the participants offer their value judgments on the merit of the content of Thomson’s pictures, widening our scope of understanding of what makes a good picture. The talk also provides context for some of the argument about the comparative value of casual photographs of street people, posed studio photographs, and candid photographs that capture the drama and tragedy of real life.

As an aside, Ms Yao’s book China: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1868-1872) mentions that Yang Fang 楊坊, the Shanghai banker who financed the Ever Victorious Army, was an acquaintance of John Thomson and an amateur photographer himself. Also, according to Ms Yao, Thomson was introduced to Yang by one Dr. John Dudgeon, later a professor of anatomy and physiology at the Tongwenguan, who also was an amateur photographer – who photographed Yang Fang in his capacity as a Manchu official.

We are eagerly running down these tidbits of information so that, if the dates conform, readers of Yang Shen and Yankee Mandarin may discover John Thomson among the visitors to Yang Fang’s home during the time Fletcher is there recuperating from the musket ball he will take through his jaw at the battle of Qingpu in August of 1860.

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One Response to John Thomson Photographs Discussed in Online Audio

  1. James Lande says:

    The Yang Fang mentioned in this post turns out to be a man living in Peking in 1871 – he was an amateur photographer who wanted Thompson to photograph him, his wife, and his five concubines. The resulting photo is well known and shows the mandarin seated at the entrance to a two-story house with all the women lined up on the balcony above. This Yang, reputed to be a mandarin and a pawnbroker, was said to have been one of the three wealthiest men in Peking at the time. The info comes from Brush and Shutter: Early Photography in China, edited by Jeffrey W. Cody and Frances Terpak, Getty Research Institute, 2011, p. 41.

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