Connected \\ November 15, 2022
PEM’s rare collection of photography from China reveals entwined history of art, politics and power
When the camera found its way to China in the 19th century, photographs of merchants, families, urban streetscapes, and busy ports made their way to the US…to become one of the most important and rare collections in the world. Many of these photographs were originally acquired as contemporary art by Massachusetts merchants who were conducting trade in China and are intimately connected to the institutional history of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). Long thought of as an attempt to document a faraway empire, these images are now being reexamined in the exhibition Power and Perspective: Early Photography in China.
With the collection at the center of an exhibition for the first time, visitors can see nearly 130 examples of early photography as PEM’s curators ask us to consider the possible agendas behind each image, as well as the roles the sitters and photo assistants played alongside the credited photographers.
“Photographs historically have been used to tell stories that privilege certain ways of seeing the world, and those stories are functions of power,” said Stephanie Hueon Tung, PEM’s Byrne Family Curator of Photography. “In this exhibition, we want to think a little bit more about how photographs are not neutral forms of documentation, but always the result of history, politics, and people coming together.”
John Thomson, (1837–1921). Curio Shop, 1868–1872, Albumen print. Peabody Essex Museum. Gift of George J. Harrington Jr., 1993, PH27.26.
Photography’s development as a new form of art and technology in the 19th century coincided with profound changes in the way China engaged with the world. The camera, then large and cumbersome, was introduced to China through war and trade with the West. Dramatic photographs of treaty ports on the edge of the Chinese Empire and a flurry of portraits of Chinese and Western merchants ensued. Collected almost entirely by foreigners, they reflect only a sliver of the 19th-century Chinese experience, said Karina Corrigan, PEM’s Associate Director - Collections and The H.A. Crosby Forbes Curator of Asian Export Art.
At the beginning of the exhibition, visitors can see the kind of large format camera that photographers lugged around China in the 19th century. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
“What’s missing gives us a sense of the focused nature of this collection,” said Corrigan. “It tells an important story, but it's not the whole story. These photographs are inextricably linked with the legacy of colonialism in China and not an objective depiction of reality. They are fundamentally about the desires and biases of the photographers and the people who bought these photographs, the people who made them, and the people who collected them.”
John Thomson, Portrait of a Woman, 1868–72. Albumen print. Peabody Essex Museum. Gift of George J. Harrington Jr., 1993. PH27.34.
Scottish-born photographer John Thomson ventured from his Hong Kong studio to photograph Fuzhou. Thomson marketed Foochow and the River Min as a luxury souvenir album to Fuzhou’s foreign residents. Of the original 46 copies of the album, only 10 survive, two of which are in PEM’s collection.