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photographers in 19th century Asia...

In the decades following the invention of photography in 1839, European photographers traveled to Asia, documenting cultures and landscapes with a realism previously unknown. Employing cumbersome large format cameras and delicate paper or glass plate negatives, these intrepid photographers captured the first images of Japan after it had been closed to the West for over 200 years; the first images of the forbidding Himalayan Mountain passes; the first images of bound-footed women and of grand golden temples.

The 19th century travel photograph provides a singular historical record, cataloguing not only cultures and landscapes that have been radically altered by development and modernization, but also witnessing the immense creative effort of these early expeditionary and travel photographers. The images attest to the remarkable technical skills they formulated, coercing the nascent medium to fit their needs--whether braving the heat of the desert plains, the humidity of the tropical rain forest, or the bitter cold of the world's highest mountains.

These artists also helped to generate the aesthetic standard in a world that had never before known photographs. Untethered by convention, they were free to develop their own vision, bound only by the dimensions of their camera's negative. Viewing these images now, we are privileged to experience through their eyes some of those magical initial moments when West encountered East.

Europe in the 19th century was enthralled by the cultural differences found in Asia, evident in lifestyle, in occupation, in religion. Photographers were called upon to log a variety of discoveries new to Europeans: botanical novelties, abandoned temples swallowed by the jungle, landscapes both odd and familiar, ethnic dress and indigenous customs. They registered the artistic and technological glories of the Eastern civilizations, and recorded the industrial innovations instigated by the West.

Many of the significant photographers working in Asia during the 1800s are represented in this exhibition: Captain Linnaeus Tripe, Samuel Bourne and John Burke in India; Felice Beato and Philip Klier in Burma; Charles Scowen, W. L. H. Skeen and Joseph Lawton in Ceylon; John Thomson, William Saunders and Milton Miller in China. These men were revolutionary: explorers, technicians, chemists and businessmen, surely--but more than that, they were artists. Each rose above his assigned task to imbue his subject with individuality, dignity and beauty. Each broke ground, and because of photography's unique attributes, each brought a piece of that ground back--carried first to Europe, then through history--entrapped in a skin of silver on paper.

making the photographs: the studio portrait as example...

While most 19th century photographs of Asia have a story to tell of the times and of a way of life, the images refer as well to the life and work of the man behind the camera. Of course, each image gives testament to a photographer's aesthetic, but in this era it was rare for a photographer to sign his work, making a certain attribution difficult. As valuable stock, glass negatives were purchased along with the other photographic equipment when a studio business was bought by a new owner. The current proprietor then reprinted these negatives as his own, further complicating the attribution process.

Careful study of the background in a studio portrait can offer some telling clues to substantiate a particular image as the work of a given photographer and also hint at the photographer's act as he went about his work over a century ago. Some ateliers used one setting repeatedly, offering historians an invaluable lead in piecing together an artist's catalog. A carpet of distinct pattern, a recognizable painted backdrop, a prop that was reused in multiple images--all can help suggest the photograph's maker through a process of visual analysis and attentive comparison.

The long exposures necessitated by the cameras and negatives of the times demanded utter stillness by the portrait subject. Photographers employed supports as steadying aids and as many as three mechanical arms could grasp the unfortunate sitter from behind. Occasionally, parts of these stands are visible in the finished image.

No doubt meant to be cropped out later, the edges of a painted backdrop also can be clearly seen in some studio portraits. Traveling photographers would have a limited supply of these backdrops. Sometimes the painted cloth was too small, other times it was simply incongruous: a fierce Dyak warrior stands with spear raised, seemingly in front of a bucolic English scene, for example.

Periodically, multiple images from a single sitting come to light. The subject stands in one photo, then reclines. In one image, the subject is posed alone; in its counterpart, she sits with a family member. We see her first in one costume, then another.

These circumstances allow us to "visit" the set, to see behind the scenes of the studio 150 years after the fact. From the visible support stand and the seams of the painted backdrop, we learn about working methods and are reminded of the particular challenges of portraiture in the early years of photography. A series of takes records the photographer sketching, adjusting his sitter for favorable light, or for a more evocative position. When we see the sitter with others, we can begin to construct a rudimentary family tree, making connections between the faces captured more than a century ago.

These photographs describe history--in the act of making the photograph, as well as in what the image depicts. And whether we substantiate an attribution, further our knowledge of a photographer's tools and technique or recognize a familiar face, each portrait has the capacity to resonate with this concealed information. So just what information do we derive from the image?

evaluating the image...

By what means do we judge an early photograph? These images share a rarity intrinsic to all antiquities; as delicate ephemera, each has survived more than 100 years of heat, humidity and human handling. When studying a 19th century image, appreciation can have various aspects: in the best photographs, aesthetics, technical achievement and historical information can exist simultaneously--which of these valuations takes precedence is a matter debated heatedly. And because a photograph is man-made, scholars now see as many indications of the man taking the photograph as they see reality depicted within the image. A photographer's beliefs and politics can affect the manner and subject of his work, with many scholars insisting that an early photographer could not escape his class, race and era. Yet, using every traveling photographer as a surrogate for his country's policies seems an obvious oversimplification.

Because these photos span artistic and historical disciplines, we must be open to both. As with all art, viewing the images, we enter into a dialogue and allow the work to speak to us. We ask ourselves: what organizes the photograph, what drives the aesthetic? And as with any historical document, it is imperative to question the interpretation: why the selection of one view over another, why that particular individual?

Whether these choices were biased by the politics of colonialism, or were colored by the demands of commerce, as images of artistic merit, they were also driven by a personal vision and that is where the photograph's success finally rests. The images exhibited here not only tell their visual story of the past, but verify their creators' achievement, advancing the boundaries of the medium and exceeding their patron's expectations-whether government or individual.

By producing images of uncommon beauty and depicting what was foreign with pathos, these photographers elevated what could have been a mundane record to an enduring artistic accomplishment. In their photographs, the incidental becomes consequential; and the commonplace, significant. And where we might have seen caricature, instead an individual meets our eye. These exceptional artists traveled to the other side of the globe in search of the unique. The grace with which they photographed allows us to appreciate the universal as well: the connections between people, between cultures and across time.


all text & images © Museum of Asian Art

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