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John Thomson & early photography in Taiwan

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum is holding a special exhibition of 247 precious pictures taken by 114 famed photographers dating from from 1871 to 2011. The exhibition, titled “Eye of the Times: Centennial Images of Taiwan,” spans 140 years and is divided into three periods: the Qing Dynasty (1871-1895), the Japanese rule (1895-1949), and the R.O.C. in Taiwan (1949-2011).

It opens with a photo of Fort Zeelandia, Formosa in 1871 – now known as Anping Fortress, Tainan, Taiwan taken by Scottish travel photographer John Thomson on his first visit to Taiwan in 1871. It is believed to be the earliest well-kept image in the history of Taiwanese photography. After visiting southern Fujian in China, Thomson went to Taiwan by ship with James Laidlaw Maxwell, the first Presbyterian missionary to the island in 1865. They arrived in Dagou (now Kaohsiung) in early April 1871 and from Liouguei in Kaohsiung, headed north to Muzha in Taipei. Thomson took many photos of landscapes, rivers, valleys, harbors and indigenous tribes, especially the Pingpu, on the west of the island.

But before Thomson’s trip to the island, St. Julien Edwards active in Xiamen in the late 19th century was likely to be the first photographer to visit Maxwell’s mission in southern Taiwan, but unfortunately his pictures were not handed down.

Another Presbyterian missionary George Leslie Mackay came to southern Taiwan from Canada in 1871. The following year he arrived in Danshui, northern Taiwan, with Rev. Hugh Richie and Dr. Matthew Dickson to start their missionary work because of Maxwell’s suggestion. Well-known and remembered in Taiwan for his outstanding contributions to the religious, educational and medical fields, Mackay married a local woman in 1878 and settled in Taiwan – his home for the rest of his life.

He established a number of important institutions that exist today. They include the Mackay Hospital; the Danshui Girl’s School, the first school for girls in Taiwan; and the Oxford College, now part of Aletheia University, Danshui. Practicing medicine in northern Taiwan, Mackay used a pair of pliers to help local people pull out their decayed teeth. In the exhibition, one picture collected by Aletheia University shows the missionary pulling a patient’s tooth in Danshui on an unknown day.

Chuang Ling, a veteran photographer and one of the exhibition’s curators, believes that through those photographers’ lenses, viewers can get a better understanding of early and modern Taiwan at the museum.

You can read the rest of the article here, and details of the exhibition here.

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Comment by Michael Wong on May 13, 2011 at 18:52

Additional information for those interested in this topic:

In the earliest batch of images, Scottish photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) recorded what he saw in today’s Tainan and Kaohsiung back in 1871, about three decades after the invention of photography. The 22 images, reproduced from original glass plate negatives now part of a private collection, depict people in their native environments, and are notable for their historical value.

Other pictures of Taiwan from the time when it was still under the control of the Qing dynasty include those of missionary George Leslie Mackay (1844-1901). One shows Mackay as a teacher, while another shows him as a dentist, in the process of helping the natives pull out rotten teeth.

Some pictures capture Taiwan in a state of transformation in the 1890s. “Xichang Street, Wanhua,” for example, shows some men dressed in Han Chinese costume and wearing braids, as required by the Qing court, and others sporting a short haircut and Western-style clothing, following the example of their Japanese colonizers.

Japanese anthropologist Ryuzo Torii (1872-1953) is credited for one of the most important collections from the Japanese colonial era (1895-1945). On display are a dozen photos he took of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes. They are on loan from Taipei’s Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines, which owns 248 of the more than 800 originals by Torii.

The pictures of Lin Chao (1881-1953) are also on display. A military photographer, Lin helped train the first generation of Taiwanese photographers and founded Taiwan’s longest-running photo studio. Between 1905 and 1910, he was the in-house photographer for the Lin family, a prominent clan in the Wufeng district in central Taiwan during the Japanese era. The family representative, Lin Hsien-tang, was a well-respected democracy advocate and cultural reformer, and many of the cultural and political activities he took part in were faithfully recorded by Lin Chao. The original glass-plate negatives were discovered by accident only in 1985, when historians were going through the family mansion, according to Chuan.

The rest of the article can be found here.


Photo: John Thomson’s “Fort Zeelandia” from 1871 opens the exhibition “Eye of the Times—Centennial Images of Taiwan.” (Photos courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum)

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