“…journey to undiscovered countries, and boldly go where few have gone before.” A Review of Tom Carter’s China, Portrait of a People

Tom Carter’s photography book CHINA: Portrait of a People (second printing 2013, Blacksmith Books) is a remarkable photo-essay of China today, broad in scope and comprehensive of subject. Even when contrasted with the work of his predecessors, discussed below, there is something more about this book: a remarkable depth of insight, understanding, and feeling that Carter (1973-), an indigent wanderer from San Francisco, acquired for a people whose language he knew only slightly at the time he took the photos. Anyone able to overcome barriers to communication without knowing the language is an extraordinary person.

Of the 100+ reviews on Amazon already posted, many readers regard Carter’s Portrait as a surprising view into a “rapidly disappearing” China as the country dynamically thrusts forward into the new millennia. However, as the photos of John Thompson, Felice Beato, and other photographers of the 19th century are my point of departure, their work compared to Portrait illustrates substantially greater changes in China than any since 1949. Memory of more recent changes seems concentrated in metropolitan areas and along the coastlands rather than in the hinterland traipsed by Carter; perhaps such changes appear weighty because of a foreshortened time scale and accelerated development.

It is unusual for a book to be a revelation for such a broad spectrum of readers as CHINA, Portrait of a People has been: besides travelers who have never been to China, and expat residents proud of their knowledge of the country yet unfamiliar with the greater landscape, the book has revealed to native Chinese much of their own country they knew little about. The book expands boundaries, reveals “undiscovered countries,” and is likely to rouse from their indifference to China almost anyone who looks through these photos.

Carter’s Portrait shows that “China is not just one place, one people, but 33 distinct regions populated by 56 different ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs and lifestyles.” We are told that the author backpacked 56,000 miles and visited over 200 cities and villages to gather material for this book, suffering privation, discomfort, and disease to complete this essay. The final result obviously made every step of his journey worthwhile.

Tom Carter’s Predecessors

There are many pictures of old China that have been passed down over the decades, but the best known are those of John Thomson and Felice Beato (other photographers then in China are noted in Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor’s European Palaces, by Regine Thiriez). Their pictures are regarded as primary source material for academic studies of the period, as well as for novels set in 1860s China.

John Thomson (1837-1921) was a Scot born in Edinburgh whose earliest experience with photography was in the Far East, arriving in Hong Kong in 1868 and traveling through Mainland China for four years. He conducted studies of all classes of Chinese and of many locations in China, lugging about heavy wooden cameras, large glass plates, and dangerous chemicals, together with his faithful dog Spot. Thomson printed several volumes of photographs, even one entitled Through China with a Camera (A. Constable & Co., Westminster, 1898). Many of Thomson’s photographs also appear in the Dover reprint of his Illustrations of China and its People (Sampson Low, et al, London, Vols I-IV, 1873/1874).

Felice Beato (1832-1909) was an Italian born in Venice and is regarded as one of the first war photographers in part because of his extensive photographic coverage of the Crimean War in 1855, the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, and the Second China War in 1860. His photographs of the destruction of the Taku Forts, and the Summer Palace just before it was burned by the British and French, are classics. In later years Beato perfected techniques for panorama images, and for hand-coloring photographs. Evidently Beato did not himself publish, but his work is available in later collections, such as Of Battle and Beauty: Felice Beato’s Photographs of China (2000), and Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road (2010). Some of his recently auctioned pictures of Beijing sold for over $200,000.

Frederick Wakeman Jr. evaluated the work of these two men in a 1979 review for The New York Review of Books of two other collections of 19th century photographs, writing “Beato and Thomson…covered a much wider territorial expanse than most visitors with a single-lens reflex camera today. They also captured a much more varied cast of social types. Thomson in particular had a Dickensian interest in the people of the city streets, and the portraits which he made during the 1860s included pictures of a soup vendor, fortune teller, barber, wood turner, camel tender, petty officer, spinner, bannerman gate porter, and even a chiropodist.”

The range of subjects, and the photographer’s treatment of them are particularly interesting when compared. While Carter’s Portrait contains many pictures of things that are changing, nearly all of Thomson’s photographs are of things long gone – the Summer Palace, the Nanking Arsenal, Manchu bannermen, opium addiction, and more.

Of especial interest is an online audio discussion of Thomson’s work in which informed 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.

The Cameras

Tom Carter, who has gone on record multiple times as saying he is just a hobbyist as opposed to a professional photographer, made his entire collection with a simple 4-megapixel digital point-and-shoot, an Olympus C4000, equipped with a 6.5mm-19.5mm f2.8 lens with 3X optical zoom lens. This camera has manual settings with individual controls for aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual operation with manual shutter speeds ranging from 16 to 1/1,000 of a second.

John Thomson, on the other hand, used the wet plate collodion process for his photos in China, which required a large box camera the size of a small suitcase, a portable darkroom, heavy glass photographic plates, bottles of dangerous chemicals, and glassware. “He needed the assistance of ten porters to carry instruments, chemical supplies and…a portable darkroom, across 5,000 miles.” Hostility to foreigners, unruly bearers, and superstitious fear of his camera were the least of Thomson’s worries. The process itself was and risky and complicated, requiring glass plates be coated with a mixture of collodion, sulfuric or acetic acid, and ethel ether, placed into the camera in total darkness, the glass plate exposed, and the photograph developed and fixed while the chemicals on the glass were still wet. On one occasion, cold weather froze the coating into icicles on a glass plate that had to be warmed over a campfire.

The Book and the Pictures

Bookended by renowned writers – a foreword by Anchee Min (Red Azalea), and an epilogue by Mian Mian (Candy) – Carter’s Portrait is presented in 33 chapters, one for each of today’s provinces, and grouped by region (north, south, etc.). A convenient reference map of all the provinces precedes the chapters, and most of the individual photos have the name of the town in the province in which they were taken (readers can practice up on learning their Chinese provinces at The Owl and Mouse). A short essay of historical or personal anecdotes introduces each province’s chapter of photos; Tianjin is introduced by a businessman telling of his life there; in Heilongjiang, Carter tells of being wrapped in People’s Liberation Army coats by two elderly Manchurian women when he was freezing on a bus; the Widow Shen introduces Jiangsu with the tale of her 88 or so years living in “South of the River;” poems describe the virtues of Zhejiang, and Shaanxi; the Fujian essay includes details of the Hakka and their unique tulou 土樓 houses; a 30-year-old clothing outlet manager starts us off into Guangdong with his story; Hubei presents a Day in the Life of Wuhan from early dawn to late night; 10-year-old Xiao Zhuo Ma tells of her life in remote Quinghai; Tibet is introduced by Carter’s journal of his journey on the Friendship Highway, a two-day kora around a sacred mountain that almost killed him, and being stranded in a high mountain pass.

Carter’s photos include a variety of subjects: architecture, authorities, beggars, holidays, landscapes, lovers kissing, markets, nightlife, old and new, portraits, sleeping on the street, tourist sites, work, youth, and the “unusual.” There are also a number of uncaptioned photos.

As with any rich fare, these images are best taken in small bites, to prolong the enjoyment, and to focus on each image.

The “Unusual”

Perhaps the most telling among the “unusual” examples is a photo of the “faceless past” from Jiangxi (page 339) – wooden statues of Imperial figures with their faces cut off when, during the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao ordered the Red Guards to remove all the heads and faces of monarchs, and religious and imperial images, as if that would somehow sever modern China from its Imperial past. This is fine photo, extraordinary for its poignant symbolism; a tolerably rigorous Google search finds none like it.

Other extraordinary photos by Carter of the “unusual” include the scorpion and seahorse kabob vender in Beijing, a street cleaner in orange safety vest sweeping up shreds of exploded firecracker paper in Heilongjiang, and a Buddha the size of a building sculptured in ice in Harbin. The longevity and lovers padlocks on Mount Lao in Shandong are unique, as is the image of tourists in Jiangsu pressing the gigantic bronze palm of Buddha for luck (and no doubt recalling how Monkey could jump from the palm of Buddha for thousands of miles yet never leave Buddha’s palm).

In Shanghai, taijiquan has probably been practiced on the Bund for hundreds of years, but it is not usual to see a disabled young girl writing with chalk the story of her life on a sidewalk in flawless calligraphy, as Carter has captured. In Zhejiang, a 70-year-old puppet master performs a shadow play – one can hope he has disciples to pass along the tradition. In Fujian, rules of conduct under the new regime in 1958 were written on the wall of a house in Kanxiacun – the rules sound very much like those set forth by the Christian Taiping in the 1850s: everything is public, obey your leaders, no flirting with women, no complaining. By contrast, in Hong Kong’s Wanchai district there is a poster listing the prices for prostitutes – HKD 590 for a Russian girl, 250 for a Chinese girl, 200 for a Malaysian girl.

On Hainan Island, a Sanya fisherman who has no boat swims out into the ocean with his nets. In Hubei, there is an Yichang bookstore with shelves and shelves of Little Red Books and other collectable memorabilia from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and these days trackers on the Long River pull boats upstream only for tourists. In Henan’s Luoyang, a local woman sheds her shirt and lies down for a nap in the middle of a busy street. A Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim family of six rests from the making of 400 koras around Sezhi Monastery on the south side of Langmusi in Sichuan, and on Emei Shan a beggar monkey faces off with man trying to have a quiet lunch. The door gods in Tibet are not what we usually see guarding Chinese temples – at the entrance to Sakya Monastery is the fearsome black face of Nagpo Chenpo (The Great Black One) surrounded by his halo of human skulls.

The Shocking

Only twenty-six pages into the book, the reader will be astounded, if not shocked, at the horrible disfigurement of a severely burned electrical worker-turned-beggar in Beijing. Another such photo is of an armless boy begging on the street in Guangdong. Some may question the taste of including such images in a travel essay but, if nothing else, they are a startling token of things to come in this book.

Typical Tourist Sites

There are, refreshingly, only a few of the typical tourist sites represented, such as the Temple of Heaven and Beijing’s Great Wall – photos of which have been de rigueur since the earliest photographers and appear in all the narratives of the Second China War in 1860. Neither are we overloaded with photos of nightlife (only a few bars and nightclubs, prostitutes in Macao, a Wanchai nightclub, and “pink-light district” xiaojie in a Nanchang salon doorway – such girls are called “porcelain with cracks” locally), holidays (a New Year’s lantern display in Beijing), or street markets (Chaoyang handicrafts in Beijing, antiques in Tianjin, a vegetable vender in Shanghai and, in Xinjiang, nan bread in the market stalls of Kashgar).

Youth

Photos of young people, and lovers kissing on the street, which would raise no brows elsewhere, do illuminate the urban scene in China. In Fujian, we see teens with “featPunk Chinese s_c03_0000005aher-duster hair,” nose rings, and lip studs. Even in backwaters like Hunan and Sichuan, we have teens decked out in the uniforms of hip youth, and cool kids cruising in Changsha. The uncaptioned photo of a hip girl in Chengdu (page 523) is conspicuous, as are Carter’s photos from Xinjiang of modern Muslim girls in Hotan.

Sleeping in the Street

People sleeping on the street apparently are quite common. In Beijing, a migrant worker sleeps on a train station floor (like we see in American airports these days), and two migrant workers stretch out atop a long low wall. In Guangzhou (Guangdong), porters sleep in their carts, a man rest in his pajamas on the sidewalk, and Carter clicked a montage of men napping on park benches along the Pearl River.

The Authorities

A little more unusual are the photos captured of confrontations with the authorities. Beginning with the relatively gentle scolding of an “expat brat” by a guard in Beijing, the images escalate to an irate investor restrained by security guards at Shanghai stock exchange, a small street altercation in Jiangxi interrupted by officer on motorcycle, and a noisy argument in Yueyang, Hunan, that erupted into a riot squelched only when police arrived.

Tom tells us his camera was often confiscated by security men (no doubt there were also instances where authorities were considerate and helpful, which I too have experienced, but those photos, if any exist, didn’t make the short list), an experience borne out by Newsweek photographer Charlie Cole, who relates how careful even photographers for major publications had to be to get their photos of the Beijing Tank Man out of their hotel.

Another striking image of police authority in Liaoning is the menacing Dalian female mounted policeperson, badge #202559, in a scarlet tunic aboard her horse (although this one could easily be included in the “pretty girls” category). The mounted unit can be seen in motion in this South China Morning Post video – curiously, their fate may hang on the outcome of Bo Hsi-lai’s prosecution, as Bo sponsored these mounted policewomen. “The mounted police unit, modeled after Canada’s iconic Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was formed in December 1994 and spearheaded by then-mayor Bo, in what was an attempt to spice up the city’s image with more pomp.”

Portraits

There are many portraits in Carter’s Portrait, beginning with the mysterious cover girl – her uncaptioned photo appears inside, too. Noteworthy among the many studies of faces are Jilin autoworkers, Heihe (Heilongjiang) Russian merchants, pale blond Russian girls in parkas, and the man in a cap of dog fur, a white-bearded Taoist monk in Erenhot (Inner Mongolia), a Mongolian cowboy and a bare-chested sumu-size wrestler in Gegentala (Inner Mongolia), a Chinese Catholic in Gulangyu, Fujian, weeping before a statue of the Blessed Virgin, Hunan Miao women wearing traditional indigo-blue turbans in Fanghuang, and a Taoist priest on Wudang Mountain, and in Kashgar, Xinjiang, “Uyghur women at opposite ends of life.” In Zhouzhuang, Jiangsu, another Taoist priest – after several photos of Taoist and Buddhist priests one begins to recall being told religions were wiped out by the Communists when they came to power, but apparently that is not so. There also is an interesting study of an aged, wrinkled hand of a man holding a small brass pipe in Jilin. And how can we pass over the photos of Carter’s first class of exuberant English students in a Shandong primary school, the kids climbing all over each other to welcome their first yingwen laoshi, English teacher?

Working Life

Working life is represented by making pottery at famous Jingdezhen in Jiangxi, selling sugar cane along the Wu River in Guizhou, a welder in Taiyuan, Shanxi, using a makeshift visor from cardboard and sunglasses, baskets of roosters brought to town from countryside of Chongqing on a shoulder pole, biandan 扁担, a Kashgari, Xinjiang, man mixing huge vats of what look to be peanuts (uncaptioned), Kashgar street barbers, and several more.

Landscapes

Landscapes abound: rice paddies, terraced hillsides, mountain villages, water towns. Prominent among these are the Yao minority Nanggang village among the karst pinnacles of Guangdong, the old bridge and 300-year-old drum tower at Zengchong, Guizhou, and a photo of the entire village of Zengchong, surrounded by streams; in Hunan the rock pinnacles in Wulingyuan National Park, and riverside houses clustered together on stilts (page 368), and in Ningxia the panorama of Langmusi, a town divided between Gansu and Sichuan. Along the line of landscapes are many photos contrasting old and new, a familiar theme in China these days with many examples. There’s the huge Beijing Nat’l Stadium next to the tiny Ming Dynasty Beidingniangniang Temple, and a high rise towering over a Dongcheng stone house; similar views of high rises looming over old buildings occur in Tianjin, Liaoning, Shanghai, Hubei, and Chongqing.

Architecture

Architecture is so well represented in Portrait that there’s a spinoff of sorts – a YouTube video survey of Chinese architecture shown in photos from Carter’s book that includes new and old, modern and traditional, mainstream and minority (this video, together with a number of other presentations on the subject, make a quite comprehensive archive that can be viewed in my YouTube playlist). Several water towns are depicted: Jiangsu’s Zhouzhuang water town, Zhejiang’s Wuzhen water town. Photos of the tulou structures of the Hakka in Fujian show the inside of a 700-year-old tulou in Yuchanglou, tulou clusters in Tianluokeng, and in Guangdong there is another Hakka tulou village, and the 400-year-old houses of Yangchigucun.

In Jiangxi there are stone-and-slate Qing Dynasty homes at Sixi village, with centuries-old elaborate wood carvings on the facades of private homes, and on page 336 there is an exhibit of old doorways. Old two-story buildings of plaster-covered adobe with slate tile roofs are reflected in an Anhui rice paddy (page 367), in Hebei there are the old walls of Chengde, and in Yunnan the rooftops and flying eaves of 800-year-old village of Lijiang. Particularly interesting are the Ming homes built with stone and wood in the diaojiaolou 吊脚楼 style (hanging attic building) in Chongqing – homes probably under the Yangtze River now.

Tulou Communities

The Hakka tulou Carter photographed are fascinating and deserving of more than a squib in a book review. How are they built, and how do folks live in the hive-like strongholds? Carter’s photo in Portrait of the interior of a 700-year-old tulou in Yuchanglou, Fujian, looks much more intimate than any apartment building – with the rooms of the several stories all in a circle so that your neighbors, lots of them, are staring in through your doors and windows! And the acoustics must make the inside very noisy. Tulou, the epitome in communal living, have been written about, photographed, and videoed widely, so it was not difficult to patch together an addendum for this review, to satisfy curiosity about these unique dwellings, called Tulou 土樓 Communities, “Closed Outside, Open Inside” – a Variety of Chinese Courtyard Architecture.

Uncaptioned Photos

Several uncaptioned photos want an explanation. On page 46, who is the paint-splattered fellow in Tianjin City sitting in a window with a bare-bosomed statue to one side? Then there’s the last photo in the Inner Mongolia section, the iconic photo of young girl in elaborate headdress of what appears to be coral and turquoise beads and red stones – what is the headdress made of and what is its formal significance in the community? Some uncaptioned photos don’t require comment, as with the pussycat lying on a fishing net in Shandong, Dongying, waiting for the next catch to arrive, or bulging-bosomed “hairdressers” in a Shanghai beauty salon. However, at the end of Jiangxi (page 342) there are two women with suffering expressions, in front of a door with a happy chunlian 春聯 that welcomes spring and the god of wealth – opposite is a silhouette of a farmer carrying buckets with a biandan 扁担 that needs no caption, but what was on the minds of those ladies, and what they were watching? And in Xinjiang there is that Kashgar man mixing huge vats of…what, peanuts?

Carter and Thomson

Tom Carter has an eye for what stands out, at least as much as his groundbreaking, 19th century predecessors John Thompson and Felix Beato. Carter’s scope is easily as large and more diverse than Thomson’s, having touched on every province and included photos of many minorities (albeit Thomson was able to photograph aborigines in Taiwan). Of course, the work of Thomson and Beato still has unparalleled historical significance, but Thomson and Beato did stage many photos of Chinese life in studios. And Carter’s numerous pictures of pretty girls and prostitutes are justified considering Thomson also took a lot of pictures of Chinese women, as well as street gambling and opium addicts.

Beato’s photographs, however, were taken in north China during the Anglo-French advance on Peking; his scope was circumscribed by the war and he paints on a smaller canvas. His images are stark and full of the tragic moment inevitable in wartime. They are unlike those of any other photographer of that day except, perhaps, the Civil War battlefield photographs of Matthew Brady.

Carter and Johnson followed a different compass, yet their work is remarkably similar in both concept and execution, and in large part achieves surprisingly congruent results. They each travelled great distances through China over a number of years, enduring privation, hardship and danger in order to capture in hundreds of photographs the character of the country. Their work demarks a 150 year stretch of change in China.

Wen Hsiang, Li Hung-chang, and other grandees of his day sat before Thomson’s huge camera, but Thomson was able to visit only with Pepohoan aborigines. Carter with some apprehension quietly photographed confrontations with Chinese authorities, but wandered through the lands of numerous ethnic minorities and recorded their lives. As Frederick Wakeman Jr. noted above, John Thomson took pictures of a “soup vendor, fortune teller, barber, wood turner, camel tender, petty officer, spinner, bannerman gate porter, and even a chiropodist.” Tom Carter took pictures of a bicycle repairman, migrant workers, coal miners, waitresses, farmers, an opera singer, pedicab drivers, a welder, and thousands more. Each photographer was limited by circumstance in the selection of subject, but overall the same impartial spirit comes across in their work.

Probably the greatest difference between Carter and Thomson is the narrative accompanying their photos. The captions and short essays introducing Carter’s photos of each province are smoothly written, with many nice turns of phrase, and his provincial introductions sometimes veer off into the personal, as when he looks down the barrel of a Korean sub-machine gun (several articles about places he visited can still be read on his blog at the Red Room – links are at the end of the References below). Carter’s skill as a writer comes through, reflecting his experience before becoming an indigent wanderer in China, and foreshadowing his second book, a collection of short stories about expat life in China titled Unsavory Elements (2013).

Thomson published long, journalistic accounts of the places where he traveled, with descriptions that vary from 200 to 1500 words (including 8000 words of journal for his trip up the Yangtze), on subjects such as Hong Kong, Macao, Canton, Shanghai and other cities, sedan chairs, schroffing dollars (assaying purity), ladies’ cosmetics, opium smoking, tea and silk. His account of the Pepohoan aborigines of Taiwan provides a unique ethnographical source for academic study today.

What was left out of his photo essays? What aspects of Chinese life are not depicted? In modern China, notables like Hu Jin-tao and Wen Jia-bao, businesses, manufacturing, missionaries, the military, and life aboard river and ocean-going boats. In Old China, Thomson has notables like Wen Xiang and Li Hung-zhang, boat girls and trading junks, and some Manchu bannermen, but foreigners are missing, especially the British, who were very much a part of the Chinese scene in Thomson’s day – the lords of Hong Kong and Shanghai.

What’s in a Photograph?

“Johnny,” commenting in a Lost Laowai review, complained that Carter’s Portrait is, “full of very poorly taken photographs, often over-exposed and/or containing dire, trite content which sheds little fresh light on the monumental complexity of modern China. Gives you very scarce insight into actual lives. He never appears to be anything other than a tourist. …Perhaps we simply view photo books differently. To me, they should be revealing, challenging and informative. To you, perhaps, they should inspire and simply provide a record.”

Carter rejoined in a follow-up comment “…a majority of my photos were shot spur of the moment whilst interacting with my subjects. I am not a professional photographer, just a dusty backpacker (or, as you said, “anything other than a tourist”) traveling across Asia. I am entirely self-taught in photography and have absolutely no technical skill. I shoot with my heart, not my equipment.”

Turned out that “Johnny” was at a disadvantage, having looked only at a few photos online, and had not seen all the photos in the book. Still, his comment does open up a hornet’s nest about meaning. In photography, an image may contain meaning indiscernible to an observer. Then, too, the same image can have many different meanings depending upon the experience of the observer. And of course many photos are just pretty pictures without any meaning. So what, then, do photographs have to show in order to have meaning? Revealing “monumental complexity” seems a lot to ask from a picture book, and probably no photographer would even consider it – such a book would need volumes. “Trite content” – that is, subjects we have seen over and over again – loses meaning with repetition and, while a clichéd subject is not always evident when the photo is taken, it certainly should be removed during editing. “Dire” content, too – if we have seen the same horror too often (is there room for another Vietnamese child fleeing napalm?)

Insight into actual lives – that seems a legitimate purpose. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men comes to mind, the influential photo study of the dreary thirties that gained renown for showing the desperate lives of Alabama tenant farmers. Agee’s prose and Evans’ photographs delve into the lives of Southern sharecroppers, the filthy shacks they lived in, the grueling work picking cotton, what passed for education, and how a family of six subsisted on $10 a month rations money from the farm owner, which had to pay for food, shelter, clothing and doctor bills, but before that had to pay a share of the cost of fertilizer, feed and seed. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men isn’t just a book of photographs, nor even an essay; it is a study of some length undertaken over months living among only three families. Still, the pathos of Evans’ photographs has set a standard that other photographers strive to achieve.

Photo-essays like those of Tom Carter and John Thomson are more like surveys, broad examinations of a wide range of interests, to which a different standard applies, such as being comprehensive of a variety of subjects. These are not expected to have the depth of detailed study. It’s the same as the difference between the Best Seller List, a survey of books, and a review, an in-depth look at what’s in a book. One cannot complain that a Corvette isn’t a Freightliner 18-wheeler – there’s a place for both.

That being said, I would point out several photos in Carter’s Portrait that to me, at least, say a lot. (1) One is the photo of the “faceless past” from Jiangxi (page 339) – wooden statues of Imperial figures with their faces cut off, which says much about a tragic passage in modern China. (2) Another is at the end of Jiangxi (page 342), the photo of two women with suffering expressions, in front of a door with a happy chunlian 春聯 that welcomes spring and the god of wealth – the irony by itself is remarkable, but the expressions on these women’s faces leave me wondering what they were seeing. (3) The image of tourists in Jiangsu pressing the gigantic bronze palm of Buddha for luck is a kick if you know the story of Monkey trying to jump from the palm of Buddha. (4) The photo of a disabled young girl writing with chalk the story of her life on a sidewalk in flawless calligraphy – I want to read the story. And had it been within the scope of the Portrait essay, this girl would have been a good subject for a more detailed study (assuming she agreed) with additional photos; there are a good many other photos in Portrait that could be explored to greater depth. (5) The disfigurement of the severely burned Beijing electrical worker shows what we rarely see – how terrible burns can be – and we wonder how can this man live like that, and perhaps recall the life of the Elephant Man.

Many reviewers (including myself) insist that seeing these photos makes them want to travel to the same places and see the same sights and, as the backwaters of China most likely will not recede any time soon, no more than they have for hundreds of years, it seems not unlikely that such travels will still be possible for some time to come, at least for the intrepid.

References (and more photos from Portrait at the end of the review)

China, Portrait of a People by Tom Carter
http://www.amazon.com/CHINA-Portrait-People-Tom-Carter/dp/9889979942

Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor’s European Palaces by Regine Thiriez
http://www.amazon.com/Barbarian-Lens-Photographers-Qianlong-Documenting/dp/9057005190

John Thomson http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Thomson_(photographer)

Through China with a Camera by John Thomson (A. Constable & Co., Westminster, 1898)http://www.amazon.co.uk/Through-China-Camera-John-Thomson/dp/1144007887

John Thomson: China and its People in Early Photographs (originally Illustrations of China and its People (Sampson Low, et al, London, Vols I-IV, 1873/1874; Dover reprint)http://www.amazon.com/China-Its-People-Early-Photographs/dp/0486243931

Of Battle and Beauty: Felice Beato’s Photographs of China 2000 http://www.amazon.com/Battle-Beauty-Felice-Beatos-Photographs/dp/0899511007

Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road 2010
http://www.amazon.com/Felice-Beato-Photographer-Eastern-Road/dp/160606035X

“Lost China,” by Frederic Wakeman Jr., New York Review of Books, February 8, 1979 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1979/feb/08/lost-china/?pagination=false

John Thomson Photographs Discussed in Online Audio http://oldchinabooks.com/YangShen_eBook_Blog/2013/05/16/john-thompson-photographs-discussed-in-online-audio/

Olympus C4000 http://www.olympusamerica.com/cpg_section/cpg_archived_product_details.asp?id=869&fl=4

The Wet Plate Collodion Process http://www.npg.si.edu/exh/brady/animate/intro.html

China through the Lens of John Thomson 1868 1872 at the Chester Beatty Library http://artdaily.com/news/51893/-China-through-the-Lens-of-John-Thomson-1868-1872–at-the-Chester-Beatty-Library

The Owl and Mouse http://www.yourchildlearns.com/mappuzzle/China-puzzle.html

The Monkey King and Buddha by Prof. Michael O’Rourke
http://mysite.pratt.edu/~morourke/dda514/stories/MonkeyKingBuddha.2.htm

Behind the Scenes: Tank Man of Tiananmen http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/behind-the-scenes-tank-man-of-tiananmen/?_r=0

Will New Generations Ever Learn About Tiananmen? http://oldchinabooks.com/YangShen_eBook_Blog/2013/06/04/will-new-generations-ever-learn-about-tiananmen/

“Mounted policwoman: a unique sight in Dalian” http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200704/12/eng20070412_365883.html

“Dalian may disband Bo Xilai’s mounted policewomen unit”
http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1247287/dalian-may-nix-bo-xilais-mounted-policewomen-unit

Jingdezhen ware http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jingdezhen_ware

Zengchong, a beautiful village http://www.china.org.cn/english/travel/227533.htm

Wulingyuan National Park http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wulingyuan

Fujian Tulou http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fujian_Tulou

Video Survey of Chinese Architecture http://oldchinabooks.com/YangShen_eBook_Blog/2013/07/30/video-survey-of-chinese-architecture/

Tulou 土樓 Communities, “Closed Outside, Open Inside” – a Variety of Chinese Courtyard Architecture
http://oldchinabooks.com/YangShen_eBook_Blog/2013/09/02/tulou-%e5%9c%9f%e6%a8%93-communities-closed-outside-open-inside-a-variety-of-chinese-courtyard-architecture/

Lost Laowai review of China: Portrait of a People http://www.lostlaowai.com/blog/ae/reviews/a-review-of-china-portrait-of-a-people-by-tom-carter/

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
http://www.amazon.com/Let-Now-Praise-Famous-Men/dp/0618127496

“Top 10 photography books about China”
http://www.chinawhisper.com/top-10-photography-books-about-china/

Tom Carter Articles

Sacrificed to the River God: China submerges 1,700-year-old village http://redroom.com/member/tom-carter/writing/sacrificed-to-the-river-god-china-submerges-1700-year-old-village

The Pilgrims of Langmusi: a day in the life of a Tibetan Buddhist http://redroom.com/member/tom-carter/writing/the-pilgrims-of-langmusi-a-day-in-the-life-of-a-tibetan-buddhist

From the Earth: Tulou earth villages of the Fujian Hakka http://redroom.com/member/tom-carter/writing/from-the-earth-tulou-earth-villages-of-the-fujian-hakka

More photos from Tom Carter’s China, Portrait of a People

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Writer's Corner and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Did you like this post?