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Exhibition review: John Thomson at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery

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. [1]

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. [2] 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. [3] The exhibition text, however, prefers to frame these images as “vivid tableaux of street scenes [that] bring to life activities now vanished forever,[4] 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.

[1] Gillian Rose, “Practising Photography: An Archive, a Study, Some Photographs and a Researcher,” Journal of Historical Geography 26. 4 (2000): 556.

[2] James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 62-64.

[3] Ibid., 163.

[4] Exhibition label from China and Siam Through the Lens of John Thomson, Brunei Gallery, 13 April - 23 June 2018.

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Comment by michaelg on June 26, 2018 at 10:19

A more considered and closer reading of Thomson's writing indicates to me that he was a more complex individual. He was not as Stephanie indicated and wrote ' like many of his contemporaries etc.,'. Being of an enquiring mind his views, opinions and outlook changed considerably over the time that he was in the Far East. In several respects he was quite different from all his European photographers (Rossier, Miller, Bürger, Floyd and Boyarski…). Thomson was a driven individual, driven by the hidden (internal) whip motivated by his upbringing which in turn informed his ethics; he was, understandably, censorious of  the lazy and feckless. Thomson's views with regard to other practising photographers in HongKong was quite free of racial bias "It may not be generally known that the Chinese in Hong-Kong and other parts of China have “taken kindly” to photography. In Queen’s-road, the principal street of Victoria, there are a score of Chinese photographers, who do better work than is produced by the herd of obscure dabblers who cast discredit on the art in this country. There is something about the mystery of photographic chemistry and the nicety of manipulation implied in its various processes which suits the Chinese mind."

On Cantonese Boatwomen his views were similarly independent and complementary: "Wending our way back to the river through narrow tortuous streets… we at length embark in one of the many small boats which ply for hire at the jetties.

The crew of the little craft consists of three young girls, and these boatwomen are the prettiest and most attractive-looking of their sex to be met with out of doors in this part of China. They never paint [ie wear make-up], and are therefore set down by their countrywomen as of doubtful respectability. This is really true of some of them, although in the presence of Europeans who may hire their boats they behave with uniform modesty and decorum. Their boats are the perfection of neatness, and their dress is as simple as it is picturesque. There is a hue of health, too, about their olive cheeks, and sparkling in their lustrous eyes, while the darkness of their raven tresses is charmingly heightened by a crimson flower in the hair. They scull or row with great dexterity, skimming in and out among the crowd of shipping…"

On the other hand the views he  conveyed on the harshness and distain expressed by the upper echelons of Chinese Society towards the poor and dispossessed affected him deeply and could have motivated him to publish 'Street Life in London' upon his return.

In the preface to:'The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China or Ten Years’ Travels, Adventures and Residence Abroad' he wrote: 'Certain it seems that China cannot much longer lie undisturbed in statuquo. Her deeply reverenced policy of inactivity and stagnation has brought floods, famine, pestilence and civil wars in its train; it cannot sink the toiling masses to yet lower depths of misery, or stay the clamours of multitudes wailing for sustenance while the rivers run riot over the fertile plains, and the roads have been converted to watercourses. The rulers meantime, with a blind pride, are arming a beggarly soldiery to fight for nothing that is worth defending…'

Not, I would suggest, issuing from the mindset of a racist, but the view of a child of the Scottish Enlightenment: and a great piece of writing.

See Thomson's The Straits of Malacca, Indo-China and China or Ten Years’ Travels, Adventures and Residence Abroad, (London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1875).

The above quotations, of which I can pinpoint more, are one of several I can recall. There are several other aspects of his photography and publications which for some time have puzzled me and to which I now think I have some answers. Given his prodigious energy and output why are the so few surviving albumen prints? Because, I have concluded, that Thomson directed all his effort and attention towards print and book production so that his words and images could be more widely distributed in association within the context and time in which both were created and originated. In this respect he was also a pioneer replicating his images in variety of media: wood & steel engraving, carbon, collotype, woodburytype and photogravure achieving a degree of distribution to which none of his contemporaries even came close.

I also think that the (possible) contact that Thomson had with WHF Talbot (or his son Charles) when engaged by his publisher to translate and edit Tissandier's History of Photography  probably reminded him of the difficulties that Talbot had with the organisation and publishing of his Pencil of Nature, in particular the fading of the tipped-in photographic prints.

Throughout both of their lives, Talbot and Thomson there has been some contiguity of contact, a subject accorded little attention: who had met whom?

Michael Gray Independent Curator 

Comment by sarah kennel on June 20, 2018 at 11:30

Please note that Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA will be exhibiting two copies (one bound, one that has been previously disbound) of Thomson's album Foochow and the River Min in the summer of 2019. These extraordinary carbon prints offer a useful guide to Thomson's artistic decisions that John Turner has noted in his comments below. Once the dates of the exhibition are confirmed we will alert readers of this journal!. 

Comment by John B Turner on June 19, 2018 at 6:40

Thank you for this thoughtful review. Please see below my post concerning how I suspected the "Thomson" photographs to be presented to the detriment of his intentions, to add to this conversation. Kind Regards,

John B Turner

About seven years ago I saw the Wellcome Library’s ‘China: Through the Lens of John Thomson’ traveling exhibition when it toured New Zealand and was disgusted by the low quality of prints produced from the original negatives in their collection. They ignored how Thomson cropped his pictures (it was standard practice to trim off the rough edges of contact prints made from wet-plate negatives, and aesthetic decisions were made as to the exact cropping and print proportions of a finished print). To further undermine the technical and aesthetic standards Thomson achieved, the new prints were not spotted to remove the distracting white spots and other signs of wear and tear on the original negatives, 

Have problems with the exhibition of John Thomson's work from the Wellcome Library exhibition been fixed?which when left on the new print acts as a kind of visual static and takes away the intended illusion of unmediated vision which is central to documentary photography. Regardless of the photographer’s intentions, the new prints were noticeably substandard, and nothing like Thomson’s own prints, or the beautiful reproductions in his original books. 

It concerns me, from seeing the publicity images for the remade  ‘Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson 1865-66 (Including Angkor ...exhibition that these falts may not have been corrected. If so, once again, the "Thomson" exhibition would not responsibly and fairly treat the outstanding photographs of this great Scottish photographer?

Just think for a moment – would any self-respecting photographer of his stature wish to have their work presented in this manner, which is so much below the quality now attainable from digital copies made from his original prints? I think not.

I do hope that the miserable distortion of Thomson’s legacy shown in the earlier exhibition from the Wellcome Library has been noticed and rectified in this new exhibition. And I hope there has been some attempt to present at least one unadulterated Thomson print, or a decent digital facsimile, to show more accurately how his own prints and contemporary photographic prints actually looked, and explain why.

John B Turner, Co-Editor, Photoforum, New Zealand. 

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