Connected \\ June 19, 2019

A river runs through it

As far as travel souvenirs go, few can beat John Thomson’s leather-bound photo album Foochow and the River Min. From 1870 to 1871, the Scottish-born photographer traveled 160 miles up the River Min to document the area in and around the city of Fuzhou (Foochow), an important center of international trade and one of the most picturesque provinces in China. Thomson sold his book by advance subscription to the foreign residents of Fuzhou — tea planters, merchants, missionaries and government officials — who wanted a way to share their experiences with friends and family back home.

Fewer than 10 of the original 46 copies of this album survived, and the Peabody Essex Museum is privileged to own two of them. A Lasting Memento: John Thomson’s Photographs Along the River Min presents this rare collection of photographs for the first time at PEM. The exhibition also features 10 works by contemporary Chinese photographer Luo Dan.

John Thomson, Foochow and the River Min, 1870-1871

John Thomson, Foochow and the River Min, 1870-1871. Leather and paper. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola.

"Because we have two copies of the album, we are fortunate to be able to show it both bound and unbound,” said Sarah Kennel, PEM’s Byrne Family Curator of Photography.

This is really an opportunity to show off one of the great treasures of our collection.

Kennel recently spoke with us about Thomson’s journey and the power of photography to transport us to places far away.

John Thomson, A Small Temple at Ku-Shan, 1870-1871

John Thomson, A Small Temple at Ku-Shan, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

John Thomson, Yuen-Fu Rapid, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

Q: What sorts of scenes will people encounter?

A: We are following his journey up a river, from the city of Fuzhou to Nanping. You will see Thomson’s extraordinary gifts as a photographer with incredible compositions, including his famous one of the floating island pagoda. You can look at these as these merely beautiful pictures, but if you unlock them a little bit they tell the story of an important moment of economic trade, cultural exchange and political tension, and they’re both fulfilling stereotypes about China but also breaking them down. They’re complicated in that way.

Q: What were his working conditions like?

A: He wrote about the difficulty of using the glass-plate negative process. In order to make his pictures, he set up a large camera on a tripod and prepared the plate on the spot, dipping it into light-sensitive chemicals in a makeshift darkroom, putting it in a plate holder and making the exposure within five minutes. He’s doing this while traveling by boat, and some photographs were made after ascending very steep hills. Of course, he was not the one carrying it all by hand. He traveled with a coterie of Chinese employees who not only hauled his equipment, but also sometimes carried Thomson himself up those steep hills. He really relied on both his missionary and business colleagues for introductions and Chinese employees to help him navigate the country and facilitate his access, especially to make portraits.

John Thomson, A Military Mandarin (detail), 1873

John Thomson, A Military Mandarin (detail), 1873. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives, 1972.

Q: Are there any images that you identify as a personal favorite?

A: There’s a whole series on the Yuen Fu monastery that are extraordinary. I also love some of the quieter moments, a photograph of some of the rocks in the river. There’s a strain of romanticism to his work, particularly in photographs that make use of a single figure turned away, as if to invite us to imagine ourselves in the landscape. Of course, that also points to a kind of privilege, the privilege not only of looking but imagining the land as yours for the taking. The other thing that’s alluring about these photos is that they’re made using the carbon printing process which gives the prints an amazing richness. They retain a tonal vibrancy and don’t have that yellowish tint that many 19th-century photographs have.

John Thomson, *Hired Laborers, 1870-1871

John Thomson, *Hired Laborers, 1870-1871. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

Q: Why was it important for you to include the works of contemporary photographer Luo Dan?

A: We could look at Thomson’s work as a treasure of 19th-century photography, but that sets its importance only as a marker of the past. Luo Dan is a Chinese artist who’s been doing a lot of photography and thinking about modernization and globalization in China and its impact. He became fascinated with Thomson’s work and drawn to the 19th-century process, the way each negative is handmade. By drawing on the past, Luo is making Thomson’s work relevant to the present.  

For his Simple Song series (10 works are on view at PEM), Luo traveled to the remote Nu River Valley in southwestern China where he lived with and photographed the Lisu and Nu Christian ethnic minority communities for nearly two years. He was especially interested in what he perceived as the villagers’ connection to local cultural traditions. What’s interesting is how Luo Dan’s work complicates this issue of who’s the insider and who’s the outsider.

Q: What do you hope people think about when they leave the gallery?

A: Many people have a conception of China as very industrialized and modern, even sterile, but these images complicate that notion and reveal the incredible beauty and gorgeous landscapes found within the country. Roots of that modernization go back to the 19th century and a larger part of a larger history of maritime culture, trade and globalization that are at the core of PEM’s DNA. It’s also affirms how photography can bring us back to another place in time and can change the way we see the world and other people. It can falsify, but also shed light.

Interview conducted by Susan Flynn and condensed for publication.

TOP IMAGE: John Thomson, The Island Pagoda, 1873. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. © Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

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