Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history
Exhibiting historic photography is no easy task. To start with, it’s a conservator’s nightmare: nineteenth-century prints are physically fragile and chemically unstable and any prolonged exposure to light causes irremediable damage. Add to this the fact that they are usually quite small black and white objects that show blurred scenery and unsmiling faces and you are forced to compose with a rather dark exhibition space in which you ask visitors to squint at little images that will inevitably remind them of history textbooks. Naturally, this runs the risk of being—well—boring.
In recent years, curators have sought various solutions to these challenges. Betty Yao and Narisa Chakrabongse, the two behind China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson, currently on display at the Brunei Gallery in London until June 23rd, have gone the route of making large canvas-sized prints from scans of original glass negatives. John Thomson was a Scottish photographer who, from 1862 to 1872, travelled through Siam, Cambodia and China and is credited with some of the earliest photographic records of these countries. Seven hundred of his negatives are now housed in the Wellcome Library’s collection and were recently the subject of a major digitization project. Despite their impressive resolution, the modern inkjet reproductions featured in the exhibition are vastly different from Thomson’s original prints in scale and, in most instances, in colour (though some have been printed in a sepia that emulates the tone of albumen).
What this exhibition provides is the photograph as artwork; something perhaps more familiar to today’s gallery-goer than the travel books in which Thomson’s photographs originally appeared. We are told to look for detail, to marvel at the photographer’s sensitive portraits and his mastery of the medium. This is standard museum language and seems to justify the radical enlargement of the images. There are indeed many advantages to displaying reproductions of these dimensions: conservation concerns are drastically lessened and these big prints are far easier to exhibit and to appreciate than illustrations bound into volumes or glass negatives. But at this size, a format which would have been simply impossible for Thomson to achieve, it becomes difficult for the viewer to assess the photographs as anything other than aesthetic objects, making a critical eye harder to muster. For that, you need to look beyond the gorgeously framed piece to the material context in which the original prints were imbricated. “Photographs are always embedded,” visual geographer Gillian Rose has said about the use or misuse of historic photographs, and it is this embedded-ness to which we must turn for the underlying intent of an image. 
No doubt sensing this need for contextualization, the curators chose to display copies of both Thomson’s The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China and a volume of his Illustrations of China and its People. However, they appear to have missed an opportunity to inform their viewers of the content of these publications and how Thomson’s photographs were mobilized as proof of the imperialist views expressed within their pages. James R. Ryan has remarked that Thomson’s work in China in particular was motivated by a desire to showcase the country’s commercial potential as a British colony.  Like many of his contemporaries, he perceived China as a rather primitive nation which was in dire need of the civilizing influence of Europe and this, he believed, could be achieved through trade, urban development and the adoption of Western lifestyle. Thomson’s opinions, then, expressed as much through his writing as his photography, is not exactly what we would call PC nowadays. Further, Illustrations of China and Its People, in which many of the Chinese photographs included in the exhibition first appeared, made use of the ethnographic convention of classifying people into racial and occupational categories—a practice which reaffirmed harmful Orientalist stereotypes.  The exhibition text, however, prefers to frame these images as “vivid tableaux of street scenes [that] bring to life activities now vanished forever,”  painting Thomson as a conscientious and curious documenter rather than an advocate of Empire. This is not to say that either of these descriptions of Thomson’s character is more accurate than the other, but a more nuanced and perhaps less celebratory presentation of the photographer might have been more appropriate.
All this being said, Yao and Chakrabongse’s show is remarkable in that it has overcome the practical challenges many exhibitions of historical photography face. It is definitely far from dull and the state-of-the-art technology employed to digitize Thomson’s negatives has yielded truly impressive results. Moreover, despite the modernity of the prints, a discussion of early photographic processes is dutifully taken up in the display of an old wooden camera, a short video explaining the wet collodion process and by a photograph of one of Thomson’s actual negatives. The selection of images, a mix of pleasant scenery and moving portraits, provides an interesting overview of the photographer’s work in Asia. But above all, the curators must be congratulated for bringing these archival objects, which might otherwise have remained unnoticed, to the attention of the public, even if this meant transforming them in significant ways. Though this strategy certainly has its drawbacks, there’s no arguing with the exhibition’s excellent track record: the show has been running in various iterations since 2009. And the Brunei Gallery is far from its last port of call. Following London, you can find China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson at the Russell-Cotes Museum in Bournemouth from November to March and at the New Walk Museum in Leicester from February to March.
 Gillian Rose, “Practising Photography: An Archive, a Study, Some Photographs and a Researcher,” Journal of Historical Geography 26. 4 (2000): 556.
 James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 62-64.
 Ibid., 163.
 Exhibition label from China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson, Brunei Gallery, 13 April - 23 June 2018.
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