June 6 – September 11, 2016
Curators: Betty Yao and Michael Schuster
Exhibition Design: Lynne Najita
In cooperation with Wellcome Library, London
This is the first exhibition devoted to the images of China taken by the Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921). Thomson was a pioneer in photojournalism and one of the most influential photographers of his generation.
In 1862 he travelled to Asia and became interested in its culture and people. Between 1868 and 1872 he returned to the Far East and travelled across China, covering nearly 5000 miles. Here he combined his talents as a photographer of both portraits and landscapes.
He captured monuments and unfamiliar landscapes in his photographs, and was interested in the customs, occupation and appearance of the Chinese people – both rich and poor. Most Chinese people were still unfamiliar with photography, but Thomson was able to communicate with his subjects effectively. As a result, and in contrast to his contemporaries, he portrayed China and its people with sensitivity.
These were the early days of photography, when negatives were made on glass plates that had to be coated with emulsion before exposure. A cumbersome mass of equipment was required, but with perseverance and energy, Thomson captured a wide variety of images: landscapes, people, architecture, and domestic and street scenes. As a foreigner, his ability to gain access to photograph women was remarkable.
After returning to Britain, Thomson took up an active role informing the public about China through illustrated lectures and publications. In 1920, he wrote to Henry Wellcome, pharmacist, philanthropist, and collector, offering to sell his glass negatives. Thomson died before the transaction could be completed, and Wellcome bought the negatives from Thomson’s heirs in 1921. All images in the exhibition are from the Wellcome Library’s collection in London.
This exhibition seeks to show the great diversity of the photographs that Thomson took in China. What marked his work as special (portraits of the rich and famous aside) was the desire to present an accurate account of China and its people. Thomson wanted to show his audience the human aspects of life in China through his extensive record of everyday street scenes, rarely captured by other photographers of that era.