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. 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.
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. Carbon print. Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives, 1972.