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The hidden history of China in photos

By Laura Allsop for CNN
  • 19th-century Chinese photography increasingly studied and displayed
  • Photographs show a changing country through eyes of citizens
  • Traditional aesthetics informed much early Chinese photography
  • Peasants were afraid of cameras when they were first introduced into China

(CNN) -- Photography is flourishing as an art form in China but a collection of rare early photographs reveal the country's long history with the medium.

Daguerreotypes and photographs from the period between 1840 and 1911, which up till recently have not been widely collected or displayed, show a country undergoing vast change, caught between its ancient traditions and modernization.

But they are not only historical documents of a changing land: the delicate, sepia-toned images that exist are now being assessed for their art historical value as well and show Chinese photographers of the time interpreting the medium according to centuries-old artistic traditions.

Frances Terpak is the curator of photographs at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. She looks after the organization's growing collection of 19th-century Chinese photography.

According to Terpak, photography was brought to China in the 1840s by Western diplomats, missionaries and travelers but was soon adopted by the Chinese in their own specific way.

Photo portraiture especially, she said, drew from traditional Chinese painting techniques, with photographers painting calligraphic text over their images in the style of the "Literati" painters, a school of amateur painters and poets.

They adapted (photography), they grafted it onto Chinese artistic expression.
--Curator Frances Terpak
  • Los Angeles
  • Photography
  • China

Instead of poetry, the texts that edged these photographs often served as advertising for the burgeoning photography studios in Chinese cities.

"China was at this time undergoing cataclysmic change, in its culture and its daily life and its government and many western technologies were taken over by the Chinese," Terpak said.

"But if you study how this happened, you'll find that they're not often taken over completely or wholly, they're taken over in a very reasoned way. They adapted (photography), they grafted it onto Chinese artistic expression," she continued.

Chia-Ling Yang is a lecturer in Chinese art history at Edinburgh University, whose academic interests include 19th-century Chinese photography.

She explained that the popularity of photography among metropolitan Chinese was so widespread that its fans included courtesans, who used photos as advertising, and even the Empress Dowager Cixi.

For courtesans as for the Literati, she explained, photographs were distributed "As a personal gift for social networking," while others would be mounted as paintings and displayed in the imperial court and people's homes.

But though popular among city dwellers at the time, those living in the country's rural areas eyed the camera with fear.

"They were afraid that the machine would suck their soul, just like they were afraid of the railway and later, cars," Yang explained.

Extracts from 19th-century British traveler and photographer John Thomson's diary, she said, record children and peasants trying to grab his camera, so afraid were they of his strange machine.

Terpak even suggests that one of the reasons 19th-century Chinese photography was overlooked in China in the 20th century was that "It was brought by the quote unquote barbarians."

Now researchers, collectors and art historians are increasingly looking into this period of photographic history. Photographs of China and the Far East taken by 19th-century traveler Felice Beato are on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, while exhibition "Brush and Shutter: Early Chinese Photography," co-curated by Terpak and taken from the Getty collection, is opening there in February.

And according to Terpak, there is a strong link between 19th-century Chinese photography and some of the photographic work being produced in China now, a survey of which is also on display at the Getty.

Terpak cites contemporary artist and photographer Wang Qingsong, whose images present tableaux of figures that recall traditional Chinese paintings of court life, as the latest photographer to revisit in the Literati style.

"He's bouncing off earlier Chinese painting in the same way, and very cleverly, that (Chinese photographers in the 19th century) were," she said.