John Thompson: Seeing through China

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    In 1848, Karl Marx predicted that a flow of cheap commodities would be the heavy artillery which would batter down all Chinese walls and open up the country to the west (Marx, 1978, p. 477). The Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) was both chronicler of and participant in the early moments of this process. Thomson was a commercial photographer who first arrived in the Far East in 1862. He earned the moniker of 'China' in a decade-long stay during which he photographed what he considered to be the key aspects of its culture and landscape. In this body of work, Illustrations of China and its People (first published in 1874) is perhaps the most comprehensive. It explores, through two hundred photographs and accompanying texts, a series of phenomena from the macro-scale of landscape, infrastructure and industry to the smaller scales of streetscapes, domestic spaces, individual portraits, and other details of everyday life. Despite his own description of the volumes as encyclopedic, Illustrations is geographically quite limited. Thomson's explorations into the hinterland proceed up the country’s principal rivers from those coastal ports which had already been wrested into western hands during the Opium Wars (of the 1840s) and subsequently opened up to trade. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Illustrations has been described as an explicitly colonial text, a guide-book for the prospective settler whose content offered the strategic knowledge of land, culture and natural resources necessary if the territorial advantages of the coastal periphery were to extended to the interior (Jeffrey, 1981, p. 64). It can also be argued, however, that Thomson’s volume offered justification for a potential colonial presence. Faced with a civilization whose history was as sophisticated as the west, it depicts a culture that is static and moribund, its addiction to traditional values an impediment to progress. While this is perhaps most explicit in the texts of Illustrations of China, it can also be seen in the images whose uniform chemical rendering also serves to make an essentially diverse culture seem homogenous. Yet it is these images that distinguish Illustrations from previous attempts to collate China’s culture and landscape. Here, the mechanical precision of his camera captures a reality that often subverts the colonial narrative, confounding stereotypes as Thomson’s mass-produced images allow another China to emerge.
    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages10
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2007
    EventGlobal Photographies - institute of Art and Design, Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, Ireland
    Duration: 14 Jun 200716 Jun 2007


    ConferenceGlobal Photographies

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