Monday, July 1, 2019

PHOTOGRAPHIC JOURNEY TO CHINA:19th Century: Review By Polly Guerin

Photographers and their creative oeuvre have documented and preserved the ancient world allowing us not to forget our ancestors. Such is the legacy of Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1871) one of the first photographers to document East and South Asia, starting in the 1860s. Image: John Thomson, The Island Pagoda,1873. Carbon print, Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. (c) Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Ken Sawyer.             Thomson gathered the resulting photographs in a rare album titled FOOCHOW and the RIVER MIN, which presents more than 40 striking landscapes, city views and portrait studies by Thomson as he traveled the Fujian province in South East China from 1870 to 1871.  Fewer that 10 of the original 46 copies of this album survive. THE PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM (PEM) counts itself privileged to hold two examples of the Album and presents one of them in the exhibition titled, A LASTING MEMENTO: JOHN THOMSON'S PHOTOGRAPHS ALONG THE RIVER MIN. This photographic journeys past and present show China in a new light at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA through May 17, 2020. 
       "Many people have a conception of China as very industrialized and modern, even sterile, but the photographs on the exhibition walls complicate that notion, and reveal the country's incredible beauty and geographic diversity," says Sarah Kennel, PEM's Byrne Family Curator of Photography."This exhibition affirms how photography can bring us back
in time and can change the way we see the world."
        Among the many remote and dramatic landscapes, the Yuen-Fu Monastery fascinated Thomson where he set up his camera at various points along the steep, rocky terrain.  No doubt the journey was even more challenging for his Chinese porters, who had to carry not only his equipment, but also Thomson, his dog, and a large coterie of traveling companions up the stairs in sedan.
Thomson's Altar of Heaven, Lone figure in the Foreground
Thomson's dramatic landscapes of mountains, rivers and streams frequently place a lone figure in the foreground to convey scale and to intensify  the sense of the individuals communion with the mysterious and atmospheric quality of nature. Then, too, the exhibit viewer, like the solo figure in the photograph, might vicariously view the sheer majesty of the sweeping vista. Image: John Thomson, The Altar of Heaven, 1870-71. Carbon print. Gift of  the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. (c) Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Ken Sawyer.

      This exhibition is complemented by a section of photographs by contemporary artist LUO DAN who was inspired by Thomson to undertake his own journey in southwestern China where he lived with and photographed the Lisu and Nu Christian ethnic minority communities for nearly two years.  Image: John Thomson, Coolies 1870-71.Carbon print, gift of the Estate of Mrs. Anthony Rives. (c) Peabody Essex Museum. Photograph by Ken Sawyer.
Nearly 150 years after Thomson photographed in China, Chinese photographer Luo Dan's (b. 1968) SIMPLE SONG series  features 10 works by Luo that reflect and reverberate with the spirit of Thomson's 19th century
John Thomson Coolies 1870-71
 project. In making his body of work LUO referred to Thomson's photographs and used the same wet collodion process that Thomson had employed.  LUO traveled to the remote Nu River Valley in southwestern China where he lived with and patiently photographed the Lisu and Nu Christian ethnic minority communities for close to two years. LUO's photographs are infused with his own sense of nostalgia for a place seemingly  untouched by industrialization.
  .       Ta Ta Darlings!!!  You may not be going to China soon, but the Peabody Essex Museum takes you there vicariously visiting such remote places that even modern Chinese have probably never seen before. Fan mail: Visit Polly's Blogs at and click in the left hand column on links to visionary men, women determined to succeed, fashion historian,and poetry.

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