China Seminar | 9 June 2016

Exhibition: 'China through the Lens of John Thomson 1869-1872' [at East-West Center Gallery]

Betty Yao Betty Yao

Scottish photographer and travel writer John Thomson (1837-1921) set off to China in 1868 and became a pioneer in East Asian photography. For several years he undertook major journeys photographing different regions of China and East Asia to document his fascination with the landscapes, architecture, people and customs. His subjects ranged from street beggars and peasants to occupants of imperial palaces. The range, depth and aesthetic quality of Thomson’s photographic vision make him stand out as one of the most important travel photographers.

At the time of Thomson’s travels, photography required an exposure on a glass plate, in complete darkness, on location, and in a portable darkroom tent. Thomson therefore had to travel with a large number of necessary supplies, some dangerous, through difficult terrains to regions oftentimes unfamiliar with outsiders. Given his circumstances, it is remarkable that he was able to extract such beauty and sensitivity in his documentation. Thomson captured a wide coverage of the land and the people in their daily lives, achieving what we call today a ‘photo-journalistic’ style. With his open mind and sensitivity to the lives and surroundings of his subjects, John Thomson’s photographs encompass unique archival presentation of 19th Century East Asia.

Additional historic photos of the Hawaii Chinese community will be exhibited in the dining room adjacent to the gallery. The photos are courtesy of Douglas D.L. Chong and the Hawaii Chinese History Center.

Visiting Curator Betty Yao is the organizer of the Wellcome Library exhibition China Through the Lens of John Thomson, which is touring to 16 cities in China, Europe and the U.S. and has been seen by over 900,000 visitors. Ms. Yao is Director of Credential International Arts Management, a consultancy providing project management expertise to organizations in the UK and China.